Innovation is a funny thing. On the one hand, progress is subjective: one person’s excitement about the future is another’s “Buzzword Bingo.” On the other, truly substantial developments – GORE-TEX, Flyknit, 3-D printing – need no approval to reshape the world.
While that same subjectivity may let every athleisure brand tout their black nylon leggings as humanity’s next quantum leap, beneath all the noise, 2017 was a year of bold strides in apparel innovation. By and large, the same techno-optimism that deifies Elon Musk has infected the world of fashion and design. Society now expects more of even the most basic garments: stretch, moisture control, and even temperature regulation are becoming table stakes for everything outside of heritage and homage. Supreme can sell hundreds of cotton hoodies; Uniqlo will sell thousands of HEATTECH everything.
This widespread demand (coupled with near-zero interest rates) has led to an uptick in athleisure startups, the surest sign of an industry on the rise. Small, agile fabric innovators may not have the billion-dollar R&D budgets that power Nike and adidas, but their lack of scale is often an advantage. Fewer layers of management means a greater ability to take risks. More startups only amplifies the total effect. Given the scope of challenges facing today’s fashion industry – changing weather patterns, changing expectations of wearers, and a global shift towards urbanization – an appetite for audacity may just be the best solution. That’s not to say only startups can take risks – for every Vollebak, there’s an adidas. But within companies large and small, these same gears are turning.
And engaged they are. Despite this year’s lack of a Flyknit-level paradigm shift (sorry, Flyleather), 2017 was a bellwether year for materials science in fashion. Emerging technologies came online at scale. Beloved standards got the modernizing they deserved. In the background, that same techno-optimism that started those gears turning powered an increasing pace of innovation behind the scenes. From shoes made of ocean plastic to the Google x Levi’s Project Jacquard, join us for a look back on this year’s clothing technology innovations that will shape our future.
Ask a mid-blizzard sneaker line up about outerwear choice, and The North Face is a likely winner of the popular vote. For close to 50 years, the California-based outdoors brand has produced weatherproof apparel both designed for extreme sports and stylish enough for the streets, cementing garments like the Mountain Parka and Nuptse Jacket as fixtures of the West’s winter sidewalks.
This March, the brand introduced the Apex Flex GTX, a sub-$200 zip-up billed as the world’s first softshell rain jacket. While most rain jackets are made of stiff, crinkly, laminated nylon (“hardshell,” in industry speak), the Apex Flex, by contrast, is made of smoother, stretchier polyester knit. That plush face fabric is then laminated to a waterproof GORE-TEX membrane before it’s finally treated with a Duable Water Repellant coating, providing the breathable (read: porous) knitted polyester jacket with a full new suite of ways to keep out the rain. While the Apex Flex GTX isn’t the first-ever softshell with GORE-TEX, it is the industry’s first GORE softshell designed specifically for the rain, making the Apex Flex a competitive (read: actually comfortable against bare skin) alternative to the typical GORE-TEX coat.
In 2012, Nike’s knit running shoe beat its adidas equivalent to market by a mere months, using that summer’s London Olympic Games as a springboard to put Flyknit in front of the planet. Four years later, the Three Stripes fired back with an innovation of its own: the Futurecraft 3D “Winners Shoe,” an Olympic edition of the mysterious (and theoretically perfectly customizable) 3D-printed runner first seen back in 2015. The good news? The space-age shoe grabbed eyeballs around the world. The bad news? Only Olympians could get them.
Enter 4D. Unveiled in April, this Futurecraft sneaker (sequentially dubbed “Futurecraft 4D”) was the brand’s first 3D-printed shoe made at scale. Using “Digital Light Synthesis” technology – think Han Solo in carbonite, but with a UV light baking resin into patterns – the Futurecraft 4D’s bespoke outsoles could be made at higher volume than traditional incremental “printing.” adidas, in partnership with California-based startup Carbon, produced 500 Futurecraft 4D’s for April’s drop. That’s still a low-percentage cop, sure, but compared to being one of the three best athletes in the world, the chances of owning a custom 3D-printed runner are increasing by the day.
Outside of the occasional KITH collab, it’s difficult to call Columbia a consistent part of the street fashion lexicon. Yet, while The North Face and Arc’teryx put out high-dollar collabs, Portland’s own bonafide outdoors brand consistently produces some of the best values in technical wear. Columbia’s reputation is staked on building the “Model Ts” of the gear world: durable, reliable, no-BS jackets that leave enough in the budget for the flight to where you’re actually hiking.
Just as with Ford’s Model T, the inherent business sustainability that comes from selling a higher quantity of less expensive products also leaves a lot of cash left over for R&D. Case in point: the OutDry Ex Eco Shell, the world’s most eco-friendly waterproof jacket, which hit stores globally this spring. The Eco Shell is the first waterproof jacket to be made without the intentional release of PFC’s (ozone-depleting chemicals commonly used in water-repellant textiles). The fabric for each jacket is made from approximately 21 recycled plastic bottles and is only made in white to eliminate dyes, saving 13 gallons of water every time an Eco Shell rolls off the line instead of a traditional jacket. The best part: since it’s Columbia, the whole package costs less than $200. Model T, meet Model 3.
For World Oceans Day 2016, adidas and Parley unveiled an eco-innovation worth celebrating: the world’s first sneaker made from recycled ocean plastic. While the original launch would include just 50 pairs, just two other adidas x Parley shoes (an Ultra Boost and an Ultra Boost Uncaged) would drop before the New Year’s Ball. Unfortunately, the largest drop of all three would include just 7,000 pairs worldwide – a distant leap from the numbers needed to hit adidas CEO Eric Leitdke’s goal of producing 1,000,000 recycled plastic pairs before the end of 2017. If adidas and Parley were to meet their goal, they’d need a tidal wave of releases before this time next year.
Then in came the tide. With nearly two months left in the year, adidas x Parley fabrics have hit nearly every part of the Three Stripes lineup, sending the duo’s recycling efforts to a global scale. As of November 2017, Parley plastics have adorned the Ultra Boost 3.0, Ultra Boost Uncaged, Ultra Boost X, EQT Support, and even the Prime series of high-performance running shoes, racing spikes included. For the ultimate co-sign: Parley fabrics were a focal point of March’s adidas x Stella McCartney collab, the British fashion designer’s latest with the brand.
While some may have scoffed with original run of 50, Parley’s ride is rising. Cool shoes and recycling efforts funded at scale with sneakers as the end result? Wavy, indeed.
Started by brothers Nick and Steve Tidball, UK-based technical brand Vollebak, has, over just 18 months of life, produced garments so flat-out mad that their mere existence seems like a pub brag jolted to life. For example: the 100-Year Hoodie.
First unveiled in late June just six days after John Elliot’s first Paris show, Vollebak’s sweatshirt was a hoodie of a different breed. Instead of a sumptuous cotton fleece, the “100-Year Hoodie” is made of 100 percent Kevlar. That’s right – that Kevlar. DuPont’s miracle fabric, made famous for its use in body armor, is here fashioned into the shape of an archetypal hoodie, creating a pullover garment that can survive pretty much anything. Just watch this video of its creators trying to kill one. Not saying a standard cotton sweatshirt can’t survive blowtorches and rock drags, but when your “unique take on a wardrobe staple” starts to pill after a few weeks of wear, it’s worth remembering what else is out there.
Christopher Bevans’ luxury sportswear label DYNE has won acclaim for its use of NFC technology in garments, but for its SS18 collection (shown this July in New York), DYNE debuted fabric tech of a whole different kind. From sweatpants to anoraks, the entire collection of luxe performance wear was constructed without a single stitch.
While “no stitches” may at first seem counter-intuitive, from a design perspective, seams are traditionally the weakest point of any garment. DYNE worked with Massachusetts-based Bemis Associates Inc. to incorporate “Sewfree” technology throughout the collection, opting to bond fabrics with glue rather than thread. The result: stronger, more comfortable garments for DYNE, and a powerful proof of concept for designers across the industry. Going stitch-free means less friction, less weight, and less risk of the elements seeping in. Now, with a Fashion Week co-sign, glue construction might just stick.
Glow in the dark is nothing new. Reflective jackets are nothing new. But a waterproof jacket that glows like an alien sun after a few hours of exposure and weighs just 230 grams? That’s where it gets cool.
Vollebak’s “Solar-charged Jacket” is a waterproof shell whose glow charges when exposed to any light source, creating a vibrant green glow for up to 12 hours. Worn for a day on the trail, the Solar-charged jacket provides a potent safety marker in even the darkest forest. For cyclists and mountaineers, Vollebak’s innovative jacket has tremendous potential as a replacement for traditional reflective vests and battery lights. For the rest of us, it’s a 3M flex pic on steroids. Light the way.
This September, NikeLab launched “Advanced Apparel Exploration,” a data-driven sportswear collection consisting of reworked staple pieces. While military-inspired vests and jackets stole the show, AAE’s most innovative garment may have also been its most humble: the “Short Sleeve Top.”
The Short Sleeve Top (actual Nike product name) is made from a single strand of a single material, guided through a single seamless “motion-led knit pattern.” The pattern, synthesized by a team of apparel designers, Flyknit engineers, and computer scientists, was distilled from the analysis of years of internal studies on how shirts cling to, move with, and channel airflow around the body. The result may be a short-sleeve crewneck, but under the hood, nothing is the same.
Is the AAE 1.0 tee unnecessary in the most puritanical sense of the word? Absolutely. But the fact that Nike dared to reinvent through data maximization is worth recognizing. This same process, applied to other “wardrobe staples” often frozen in time by conventional wisdom, could result in some truly remarkable garments fitting of our data-driven century.
ECCO Leather made headlines with multiple significant projects this year, but while translucent calfskin is primarily a leap for aesthetics, the tannery’s creation of the first leather bonded with Dyneema (a compound widely considered to be the world’s strongest fiber) has the potential for a paradigm shift within leather goods.
While no consumer products have hit shelves yet, the company reports that a prototype Dyneema leather duffel provides the same structural strength as an 11-lb weekend bag while wearing a mere 200 grams. Considering Dyneema is already used for ballistic armor, towing rope, and crash-proof motorcycle apparel, it may just be a matter of time before your double-zip moto could actually save your life if you took it on the bike.
Move over, Google Glass: apparel-based wearables are here at last. First announced in May 2016, the Google x Levi’s “Project Jacquard” jacket officially released this September. In short, the jacket – a modern successor to 2000’s Philips x Levi’s ICD+ – is a standard Levi’s denim trucker built to sync with a smartphone. Once a phone is connected, a system of smart fibers woven throughout the jacket (in tandem with a wireless “tag” remote) allow users to control smartphone functions through gesture controls, including just tapping on the jacket’s wrists to pause music or set navigation.
If a nuclear apocalypse seems too heavy a toll for your own Pip-Boy-style wrist computer, the Google x Levi’s Jacquard Commuter is now available for just $350. At the very least, you’ll never forget your jacket anywhere again.
When most think “adidas innovation,” the magic stops above the ankle. However, with the launch of the AM4 running shoe this October, the Three Stripes took a quantum leap towards the future of shoemaking itself. The AM4 – a Boost-soled training shoe – is the first major project from adidas’ Germany-based “Speedfactory,” the same factory responsible for the ultra-limited Futurecraft prototypes discussed above.
Compared to a typical adidas runner, the AM4 is unique in the breath and depth of its customization. Because of the Speedfactory’s focus on small-batch additive manufacturing, shoes made there can theoretically feature significant changes made farther along the development cycle. On the AM4, this translates to six city-specific editions tailored to the unique needs of runners in London, Tokyo, New York, and others. We, for one, welcome our new Speedfactory overlords.