WHEN THE FEDERAL government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, people were looking to venture into the most remote locations imaginable. The thirst for discovery was demanding and required vast sums of capital to invest in new technologies, inventions and enhancements. NASA contracted many businesses and manufacturing plants to create tools that would meet the needs of space travel. Once the new technology was in place, these companies had the building blocks to manufacture space-age products on a large scale and reduce prices, making them accessible to average consumers. NASA can be thanked for home smoke detectors, cordless drills and a plethora of other items used almost daily.
Similarly, many fabric technologies once used on explorations into the Arctic, Antarctic, and various mountain summit expeditions have descended from the high altitudes and extreme sub-zero temperatures and joined the ranks of the common consumer. From there, it is an easy step into the world of promotions.
“Basically, any trend that starts in the regular clothing market will ultimately filter downward,” said Bill Gardiner, vice president of Zorrel International, Grandview, Mo. He pointed out more valuable trends enter the promotional market more quickly, implying the saturation of performance and athletic garments in the market indicates a wide variety of possible uses. Like space, there are expanses of the performance promotional landscape that distributors have not explored.
Gardiner and his colleague, Sean Mahoney, a manager at Zorrel International, were quick to differentiate performance and athletic apparel. While athletic apparel does generally incorporate performance features, there are performance garments not necessarily designed for athletic activity. Mahoney shared the clever phrase circulating his company to describe the need for performance fabrics in non-athletic applications: “You don’t have to work out to sweat, you just have to work.”
“Why shouldn’t moisture transport work for somebody working in a kitchen or a hot outdoor environment,” Gardiner asked rhetorically. He said people in such conditions have the same “reason to want to stay cool and dry as any athlete who is working out in a gym.” Following this line of thought, Zorrel International now has performance garments designed not for athletes but for the regular workforce.
As performance garments become more popular and more end-users request them, distributors need to become educated on the nuances of the fabric. Mahoney said often “the end-user will just say, ‘I want a Nike type of product,’ [or] ‘I want an Under Armor type of product.’” The problem with this, Mahoney said, is “they don’t really even understand what they’re asking.”
Lea Robinson, vice president of marketing at Staton Corporate & Casual, Dallas, had the following advice for distributors: “You have to know your customer. You can guide them into the right product, but only after you’ve asked the right questions.” In what environments will the garment be used? Is it for a special event or giveaway? Is it for employees in the office or in the gym? But beyond this, Robinson stressed knowledge of the product features. “You must know the product you are trying to sell,” she said.
“The world half understands most of these technologies,” said Gardiner, citing one issue facing distributors. A key point of confusion tends to be between wicking and absorption. “Absorption means that the drop of sweat is picked up from the skin and absorbed into the [fabric] but not moved anywhere,” explained Gardiner. In this case, the moisture is no longer on the skin but is on the fabric next to the skin. “Moisture transport means that the moisture is picked up on your skin and literally moved through the fabric to the surface where it’s dispersed, and that’s quite different from absorption,” he said.
The nature of the fabrics is also frequently misunderstood. Moisture transport is not necessarily a property of the microfiber polyester from which technical fabrics tend to be made. Moisture transport is a property of the construction of the fabric, not the inherent composition of microfiber. Since moisture transport is not a property of the thread but is an engineered construction, it can be incorporated into blended materials to meet a specific function. For example, Gardiner said, a moisture wicking poly-microfiber garment may seem like a good idea for a chef or line cook as he or she will need to stay cool but polyester wouldn’t be a good choice for such an application because it is not as flame resistant as other fabrics and tends to retain odors.
Mahoney said in this market, there is “a lot of responsibility on the distributor.” Since most clients and end-users will not have any contact with the supplier, distributors “are looked at as the professionals,” said Mahoney. “It’s their job to know ... the hottest trend in apparel.” As far as suggestions to keep in touch with the garments they sell and ways to make sure the clothing performs to the level a supplier says it will, Mahoney said, “the best way to understand it, the best way for [a distributor] to sell it to the corporate customer is to wear it.” He further added, by wearing a garment, a distributor will “be able to relate to it and share a personal experience with that garment and [explain] how it affected you and how you utilized it.”
Robinson offered this sales tip: “Rising healthcare costs in our country are of grave concern to any size business that offers healthcare benefits. In a recent study, corporate wellness programs are a healthy choice for businesses. ... Offering athletic/performance products to these businesses will only enhance the corporate employee wellness programs.”
Gardiner feels the market could expand greatly. “This industry has found performance equals athletic and that performance and athletic are saleable,” he said. “What they haven’t found yet is performance is going to go much beyond athletic. ... The people that think that performance equals athletic are short-changing the scope of the market.”
Looking ahead, Gardiner said there are big changes on the horizon. “One of the major trends that we’ve noticed that has not hit the corporate market as yet, but will, is the trend to more natural fibers that are technical,” he said. “Where you see this is in the outdoor retail market, and the outdoor retail market is the bellwether of the rest of the market.” Gardiner said, at a recent outdoor retail trade show, he and Mahoney saw a “major shift” to alternative fabrications, such as marina wool, coconut husk-based fibers and the corn husk-based Serona. Polyester has “reached it’s ultimate zenith,” said Gardiner. “We are at the maximum usage today that we will ever see.”
Certainly this statement, dire as it may first appear, doesn’t have any negative implications for the performance and athletic sectors. More choices give more options and allow for specialized function, keeping end-users and customers happy, a result sure to keep distributors from