We Have The Technology
Remember “The Six Million Dollar Man”? Who wouldn’t want to be Steve Austin, with his bionic powers and awesome track suits? Sure, there’s the whole surviving a terrible plane crash, followed by hours of experimental and dangerous surgery. And the government probably would want a return on its investment, which is likely why Austin spent most of his time fighting malfunctioning space robots or Sasquatch, as opposed to making a mint playing pro tennis. On second thought, maybe being the Six Million Dollar Man doesn’t sound so good after all.
Perhaps there is a compromise. Instead of replacing half your body with cybernetics, leading to a lifetime of being the government’s go-to cleanup man, why not enhance your clothing instead? After all, some athletic apparel can have performance features that rival the abilities of Steve Austin himself, with the added perk of not costing $6 million to build. Whether it’s moisture-wicking fabric, UV protection or stretch features, you may not be tackling any errant robots, but you can still be the hero of the athletic field.
Just as with building a cybernetic action hero, with performance and athletic apparel, durability is of prime concern. Incorporating this quality into performance apparel, however, can be a little trickier than making something out of hard metal. The synthetic fibers often used in high-tech apparel, while athletically desirable, also tend to catch or snag, which isn’t ideal for apparel that might have to survive a contact sport. Betty Lopez, merchandiser for Vantage Apparel, Avenel, N.J., had a few suggestions on how distributors can avoid choosing weaker garments.
She explained that adjusting the needle tension and gauges used in fabric construction can help prevent the snagging problem, and added, “Well-designed apparel will have tightly knit fabric using finer yarn, and you can usually identify this fabric by the better quality and sleeker hand.” Lopez also acknowledged that lighter-weight fabrics can improve evaporation and breathability, but cautioned distributors to look for a happy medium between weight and strength. Erring on the side of performance features will make the garment too sheer and delicate.
In the ’70s, robotics, rocketry and space travel were at the forefront of technology, which explains why Austin was a half-robot ex-astronaut. Today, scientific focus has shifted more toward genetics and chemistry, so instead of shirts made from space plastic, we have performance garments using special treatments to enhance or add features.
Lopez explained why chemical additives are used instead of merely relying on fabrics with intrinsic performance attributes, like bamboo. She said applying a chemical finish gives a more consistent performance from item to item, as opposed to natural fibers, which can vary a bit in how well their features work.
A downside of these enhancements is that checking for functioning chemistry is a little tougher than verifying fabric durability by hand, but thankfully, it’s not impossible. Just like putting Austin on the treadmill before you have him in a track suit chasing down terrorists, all it takes to check on chemical performance treatments is a little testing.
Because some treatments, like moisture wicking, can eventually wash out of apparel, Chad Trollinger, director of marketing for Augusta Sportswear, Augusta, Ga., recommended distributors look for companies that do extensive wash-testing on their garments in order to make sure chemical attributes will last the life span of the clothing.
“Another key factor for us is, ‘Does it print?’” he added. “We want to make sure our customers can imprint on it without everything melting or the properties going away, so you have to make sure that when it’s decorated it will maintain integrity.”
No one wants to look like an abomination of science. It’s all about looking the part: Slick, confident and possibly moving in slow motion because you’re doing something incredible.
For performance apparel, this is translated in several ways. Choosing clothing destined for scholastic sports or recreation leagues is best accomplished by monitoring college and professional style trends. Trollinger explained Augusta Sportswear starts by watching such trends, including subtle things like relative tightness of jerseys or bagginess of shorts. The next step, he said, is offering customers variations or improvements on these designs. “Any way they can get a new color block or a different twist on a piping is kind of what they look at,” said Trollinger.
As for apparel that isn’t as confined by team uniformity or the conventions of organized sports, there are more abstract style considerations to be had. For example, while athletic apparel favors bright colors and color-blocking like its nonathletic counterparts, it also places a heavy emphasis on grays. Lopez suggested this is because gray reinforces the high-tech look of the garment. “Grays have become very important,” she said. “You’ll see every shade, from light grays to dark grays to charcoal.”
She added that the functionality of the piece also affects how it looks. “A lot of meshes are very popular because they’re lightweight and they’re breathable, and they can be added as insets for garment appeal,” said Lopez. “But also, if they’re added to high-perspiration zones, it gives a body-mapping kind of functionality to the garment.” Body mapping is a technique where heat and moisture trapped by the garment is managed by mesh, either as blocked insets on their sides, under the arms or along the contours of the chest, hence why athletic apparel often has color-blocked patterns in those areas. Body mapping can also be engineered into the fabric as a whole, so some garments can possess the feature without the tell-tale blocks.
Strategically placed mesh panels may seem like the height of high-tech gear, but some workout wear is taking it even further, adapted to the latest in portable music players. Lopez mentioned Vantage Apparel has been adding more features, like cell phone and MP3 player pockets, as their use becomes more popular with the exercising public. Some of Vantage’s outerwear is even designed with internal pockets and bungee loops to allow headphone wires to be neatly secured inside the jacket.