Lighter, better, stronger, faster: workout clothing of the future

Deodourising pants, clothes made of milk and shorts made of car seats. Is this the future of workout gear?


Gym shirts made of Kevlar. Underpants featuring “anti-odor technology.” No-sweat briefs. Lycra made of corn. And exercise shorts designed with Cordura, a rugged material most often associated with things like car seats and luggage.

As outfits based on yoga pants have become increasingly popular as street wear and have even infiltrated the office in recent years, the sale of athletic apparel has exploded. Two main strategies have emerged in this competition for market share during a time of consumer caution. Some retailers employ the simplest angle, vying to offer the lowest possible price for leggings or gym socks. Others have started an arms race to offer the newest, most high-tech garments as often as possible.

“Every season now, or at least two or three times a year, they’re looking for some new story,” said Bob Kirkwood, executive vice president for technology and marketing for Invista Apparel, a company that creates and tests high-tech fabrics in partnership with many major brands. “Whether it’s the way they’ve constructed the fabric, whether it’s a new fiber, or it’s a new treatment on the fabric, that’s the expectation they’ve set.

“I have two daughters, and their closets are full of Lululemon,” he said. “But I’m not sure they could find their way to a yoga place.” Clothing sales have been strained on several fronts in recent years, buffeted by a rough economy and stiff competition for a shopper’s discretionary dollars from high-tech gadgets like mobile phones. Over the 12 months that ended in May, apparel sales rose a feeble 1 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.

Workout clothing stands apart, snapped up at a brisker pace. Sales of active wear jumped 8 percent in the same period, becoming a $33.4 billion business. But how many pairs of sweatpants does one person need? That is where Kevlar fits in. “Do you really need more toothpaste if you already have some?” asked Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. “But if I can convince you that with this toothpaste, you’re not going to get any cavities and that your teeth will last 150 years, you’ll buy it.”

Along the same lines, Cohen said, “even if you have workout wear, you’ll want this workout wear because it’s better.” Beginning in 2015, Reebok will offer tops, bottoms and footwear with Kevlar - most commonly known for its use in flak jackets, which are not usually worn while doing squats. Cordura, which you might find on the seat of a car, was released this month.

Chris Froio, vice president for training at the company, said the new garment fabrics were geared toward activities like cross-fit training. “Lighter and stronger is what we’re looking at,” said Froio, explaining that after spending real money on a shirt you plan to sweat in, you shouldn’t have to worry about wearing it out on weights or in the wash. “If everyone is using the same types of yarns and the suppliers, the one key thing you need to do is have a unique selling point, something simple to understand that provides a benefit the consumer really values.”

For several years, Lululemon has been using a technology it calls Silverescent, which executives enthusiastically describe as “anti-stink.” While it does not promise to keep you smelling like peaches while running a marathon, the company claims that materials in the thread kill odor-causing bacteria in the garment itself.

“You can wear this thing over time, and it will not smell,” said Felix del Toro, senior vice president and head for men’s design at the company. “Even if he didn’t wash it, after 24 hours, it wouldn’t smell. “Obviously, we advocate washing,” he added quickly. “I’m a big fan.” Already available in a variety of products, including collared shirts, Lululemon will start selling anti-odor socks this fall. But anti-odor is no longer particularly unique. Retailers as diverse as Under Armour, Uniqlo, Athleta and the Duluth Trading Co. offer lines of anti-odor clothing. (Duluth Trading Co. advertises its “Buck Naked” underwear, for example, with subtle descriptions like “Tired of Sweatin’ and Squirmin’? Get Buck Naked!” and “No sweat. No stink. No pinch!”)

To lure customers back for the next, latest thing, retailers are speeding up the rate at which new fabrics appear and old ones are enhanced. For example, beginning this season, Lululemon’s men’s line will introduce something new in its fabrics every season, del Toro said. And Nancy Green, the general manager of Athleta, an arm of Gap, said that the company introduced some new or updated material every season.

“We’re constantly introducing new fabrics,” she said. “Our pace is picking up.” In many cases, these fancy fabrics are protected by patents, owned by companies that develop them, like Invista, which holds a patent on a chlorine-resistant additive aimed at making swimsuits last longer.

High-tech threads are not confined to athletic wear. The Duluth Trading Co. also sells Armachillo work shirts and cargo shorts, which help keep the wearer cool by pulling moisture away from the body. (Arma-chill-o) Betabrand sells a hoodie that transmits music from headphones, through a sweatshirt’s material, without any attendant muffling.

And then there is Anke Domaske, of Hanover, Germany, who founded Qmilk, which makes thread out of sour milk, using the milk protein casein. “You dry it to a protein powder that looks sort of like flour,’’ she explained. “Then imagine a machine that looks like a big noodle machine. Add the flour, add some water again, then you have the dough,” which then gets forced through holes that are thinner than a strand of a hair.

Qmilk fibers are resistant to bacteria and fire, Domaske said, and because the process relies essentially on just milk and water, the result is compostable. She says the strands feel like silk. And you can eat it. “I’ve been eating it with strawberries,” she said. Everyone’s favorite question, often accompanied by sniffing the fabric, is less complex. No, she said, it doesn’t smell. The product has yet to reach the market, she said, adding that the business was increasing its production capacity. Of course, many highflying technologies in athletic apparel have fallen splat on the pavement in recent years after making all sorts of big promises. In 2007, The New York Times discovered through laboratory tests that a Lululemon fabric called Vitasea, which claimed to have been made from seaweed, in fact, contained no evidence of the substance. And in 2012, shoe company Skechers was ordered to pay $40 million to settle complaints that it had deceived customers by claiming that its sneakers with curved soles would tone legs and backsides.

In light of such disappointments, maybe skepticism should hold more sway. Or maybe not. Anders Jahr, a well-muscled tourist from Norway, doubted that compression technology, which is supposed to provide muscle support, worked, as he stood in an Under Armour store in Manhattan. “But I bought it anyway,” he said, smiling as he pulled it out of his bag.

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