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Can This Shirt Get You Through the Workday Sweat-Free?

New clothing uses nanotechnology to repel liquids, their stains, and their smells
Source: Dropel via Bloomberg

Give the scene a black-and-white filter, and I might as well be in a late-night infomercial.

“Has this ever happened to you?” Simardev Gulati, co-founder of fabric manufacturer Dropel, jokingly asks as he uses a turkey baster to spill merlot onto the sleeve of a button-up chambray shirt.

The red wine coalesces into beads that remind me of liquid mercury, or fragments of the T-1000 in Terminator 2. Gulati then rotates the fabric and most of the wine rolls right off. With a light splash of water, the few remaining drops disappear, and a few seconds later the sleeve is completely dry.

Such is the promise of so-called hydrophobic fabrics. These are textiles that, through sorcery, or, more likely, science, repel liquids along with their smells and stains.

Source: Dropel via Bloomberg
Source: Dropel via Bloomberg

If you’ve ever found yourself sprinting across town or standing on a sweltering subway platform in August, you know this is a big deal. Our sweat glands don’t just produce liquid—they produce a liquid that, when it appears prominently on our shirts, can make just about anybody seem undignified and a little bit nervous.

“We’ve seen all sorts of use cases,” Gulati says of the fabric's ability to block moisture. “There are the common red wine and coffee stains, but also business travelers who want a shirt that lets them pack lighter because they don’t need to wash as often, as well as people who want to conserve water from less washing.”

Dropel isn’t the only hydrophobic fabric out there, but it has a promising feature that others don't: It feels almost exactly like plain-Jane cotton. I wore a shirt made of Dropel fabric for several days and found it to be as comfortable as anything else in my closet. It’s somewhat surprising to see it shrug off liquid and then feel how normal and non-chemical it seems. In a lineup of fabrics, I’m not sure I could identify the Dropel swatch.

Science
Source: Dropel via Bloomberg

To achieve its magic, the fabric is infused with a protective layer of nanoparticles that give ordinary fabrics such as cotton these liquid-repelling superpowers, says Gulati. Dropel’s founders tell me this process allows their gear to fend off just about any liquid, as long as no physical pressure is applied. So if you were dead-set on smearing that wine or coffee into the shirt, you probably could successfully stain it.

The company is introducing the fabric to the public through a line of menswear called Kelby & Co. Folks looking to ward off sweat stains—or just looking for a fun party trick when they “accidentally” spill wine on themselves—can preorder shirts that the company says should ship by September.

Office-friendly button-up shirts from Kelby & Co. (there’s a classic white Oxford, as well as chambray and checked gingham versions) start at about $80, and there are also T-shirts ($55) and a zip-up jacket ($145). In the future, freedom from sweat may come at a higher price. Gulati says Dropel fabric costs 5 percent to 15 percent more to manufacture than untreated cotton, and products made with it will likely fetch a 25 percent to 40 percent price premium at retail. The company is pursuing partnerships with the eventual ambition of supplying fabric to the entire apparel industry, and perhaps beyond. It’s not hard to imagine hydrophobic fabrics making their way into everything from bed linens to upholstered furniture to baby- and dog-proof car interiors—and the moisture- and smell-free utopia that would result.