They are new, and they are expensive. They have strange names, such as Gore-Tex, Stretch Dryline and Capilene. They are lighter, warmer and more comfortable than cotton and wool. Ultimately, they are going to change the way we dress.
Rather than try to be all things to all people, says Chris Inagaki, manager of Frontrunners, a leading activewear shop in Brentwood, each of these fabrics is designed for a specific function. One fabric wicks perspiration from the body; another insulates against cold; a third provides protection from wind and rain.
Setting the Standard
Gore-Tex, for instance, has set the standard for waterproof fabrics since its inception 12 years ago by W. L. Gore and Associates Inc.
It is developed by laminating raw fabric with a chemical (PTSE) membrane, more commonly known as Teflon, and sealing the result with special seam-sealing tape.
Manufacturers, such as Marmot Mountain Works, North Face, Eddie Bauer, Sierra Designs, Nike, Hind, Asics Tiger, Frank Shorter and Performance, turn it into general outerwear, trench coats and sportswear.
While Gore-Tex and competitive fabrics, such as Thintech and H2No, keep the water out, they are not particularly breathable. This means they do not allow moisture from the body to evaporate. To compensate, manufacturers may incorporate other fabrics into the garment.
Hind-Wells, for example, uses Gore-Tex on the front and Stretch Dryline, a fast-drying, breathable fabric, on the back of their new workout jacket.
Although the jacket protects against water and permits the escape of body moisture, its $300 price tag places it out of reach for all but the affluent athlete.
Tops and tights made of Stretch Dryline are more affordably priced at about $50 each. Although not waterproof, they dry quickly and are particularly good for running, power walking, cycling and spring skiing.
Hind's Munich tight, which has a zippered ankle and fits more loosely than the traditional Lycra tight, is even more appropriate for general streetwear. It is made of ProCore, a rayon polyester that is warmer, faster drying, less bulky and more flattering than baggy cotton sweats. A compatible sport top with long sleeves and a zippered neck provides similar protection to the upper body.
Art of Layering
Because each fabric has such a narrowly defined function, many experts believe that dressing comfortably is less a question of finding one all-purpose jacket than of layering relevant fabrics in the proper sequence. Combined correctly, they will prevent sudden, potentially dangerous drops in the body's core temperature and provide considerably more warmth than a much bulkier assortment of sweaters and overcoats.
Patagonia, an industry leader known for its workmanship and use of bright colors, begins its layering system with Capilene, a chemically treated polyester that wicks perspiration off the skin. Unlike polypropylene, which was the last word in thermal underwear four years ago, it does not absorb odors or pill, and can be washed and dried in a washing machine. It's available in three weights.
This base layer keeps the skin warm and dry. Additional warmth is available with a middle layer. A polypropylene derivative or, if the weather demands, a fabric such as Synchilla, Thinsulate, Aerozip or Thermolite can be used for this middle layer. They are much better than wool for this purpose, because wool becomes damp and takes a long time to dry. They are also superior to the standard long-sleeve cotton T-shirt, which quickly becomes soaked with sweat, gets clammy and can even cause chills.
While the middle layer is often optional in California, the outermost layer, which protects against wind, fog, mist and rain, makes even slightly chilly days more pleasant. For most California conditions, wind- and water-resistant nylon shells, such as Patagonia's Featherweight jacket, pullover and pants, will do fine. For extremely wet conditions, Gore-Tex or a similar waterproof fabric is necessary.
Because new fabrics are being introduced so rapidly, Patagonia, Hind and various other manufacturers maintain toll-free customer-service numbers to help answer questions about the products or the outdoor activities themselves. In addition, specialty stores, such as Frontrunners, A-16 and Go Sport, have trained salespeople to answer fabric questions.
This makes for a sophisticated, although not particularly style-conscious, market. Although Patagonia is generally regarded to be the most fashionable company of the lot, for instance, they "would never design fabrics to be fashionable," says Karen Frishman, director of public relations at Patagonia.
"The clothes can be appealing, but that isn't even a secondary concern with us," she says. "We know that some people want to wear our clothes to the grocery store. Our interest remains, however, in designing functional clothes for outdoor activities. We already take flak for using fuchsia, but the colors are as far as the fashion goes. Function has to come first."
So no, the clothes may not seem intrinsically stylish. But when you walk down a windy street one cold winter day, smiling because your perfectly constructed, high-tech sports jacket and long johns are keeping you warm and comfy, function has a funny way of becoming beautiful.