A few weeks ago, I came across a TED talk by fashion designer Danit Peleg, a recent design school graduate who launched a clothing line using 3D printing. In her talk, “Forget Shopping. Soon You’ll Download Your New Clothes.” she shares how her breakthrough came when she stumbled across a flexible filament which allowed her to realize her designs in ways previous materials had not. The rise of 3D printing is just one example of the ways technology is inserting itself into the fashion and retail apparel industries. Wearable technology and smart or e-textiles which integrate digital properties within fabric and finished garments are other examples of this innovation wave. But perhaps the most widespread shift has to do with the proliferation of performance fabrics.
Chances are if you’re a runner, cross-fitter, yogini or general fitness nut, you’re familiar with high-performance apparel. Performance technology has been fairly ubiquitous within the activewear space, with industry leaders like Under Armour, Nike, and Lululemon building entire customer segments on their clothing’s ability to perform. So, what are high-performance fabrics? These are fabrics that through the construction of the actual yarn or the chemical treatment of finished materials provide an added benefit beyond the basic intent of the garment which is to cover you up. Common features include heat insulation or dissipation, moisture wicking, anti-microbial properties, resistance to wind, heat or abrasion, and stain resistance.
While mainstream clothing companies will occasionally sprinkle in these features among their many offerings, high-performance technology has largely remained confined within the activewear space until very recently. Today, there is a small but growing cadre of clothing companies that are transferring this technology to other product categories in order to provide their customers a similar advantage in other areas of life.
Leaders of the New School
While there are a number of these startups dotted across the landscape, here are a few of the standouts.
Ministry of Supply, which delivers high-performance men’s business wear was launched by former MIT grads and utilizes NASA-grade technology to develop its clothing.
Tommy John, a men’s underwear company fuses smart tech with smart design to deliver a premium experience for its wearers.
Thinx and Dear Kate are high-performance underwear lines designed for “that time of month” and incorporate wicking and stain-resistant features to provide women an added layer of protection.
My company Bodyology provides women’s bodywear which incorporates wicking and anti-microbial technology to keep wearers comfortable and fresh throughout their day.
Lululemon founders recently launched Kit and Ace a luxury line of clothes made from technical cashmere.
Brrr is a clothing and lifestyle company dedicated to cool touch fabrics.
And Betabrand is a clothing store and crowd funding platform which serves to incubate new product ideas with some sort of technical or design innovation.
None of these companies have reached what some might consider mainstream status, but they are reflective of a broader trend of consumers expecting greater comfort and performance from their clothes. This is best evidenced by the athleisure phenomenon which has taken the industry by storm. So much so that major companies are developing entire lines within their collections to cater to this discerning buyer. While the large brands are trying hard to catch up to the trend, it’s these small companies that are best positioned to capitalize on the wave. As we’ve learned from other industries, real disruption is best served by smaller firms who are able to be responsive and nimble in a changing environment.
Kelly Burton Ph.D. is an accomplished entrepreneur with over a decade’s experience launching and scaling start-up companies. She is the founder of Bodyology, a tech-based clothing line and Nexus Research Group, a social research firm. Burton is also the recently appointed columnist for UrbanGeekz.
Follow Kelly Burton on Twitter @iamkellyburton