Is Los Angeles poised to turn into Tencel-town?
If so, the rest of the fashion world won't be far behind, if you believe the makers of Tencel, the first natural man-made fiber--it's spun from wood pulp--since spandex was invented in 1959. It feels like silk and is stronger than polyester. (Imagine pulling on a pair of smooth denim jeans that have been washed about a thousand times.) Manufacturers are demanding the luxurious, easy-care fabric at such a clip that production of the core fiber has doubled to more than 100 million pounds annually in the four years since its commercial introduction.
So how come the average Jane has never heard of it?
"There is a growing awareness for the product," said Ellen Flynn, vice president of marketing for Courtaulds, the British chemical company that spent $100 million over 10 years to bring Tencel to market. "We wouldn't expect it to be other than that."
Clothing buyers may hunt for a designer name, but not for a particular fabric, unless it's something completely natural like cotton.
Three years ago, Michael Glasser of Los Angeles became one of the first links in a growing chain of designers who have incorporated Tencel into their creations. He is such a devotee of the fiber that he based an entire line of contemporary casual clothes around it. Yet, he concedes, "some people think Tencel is a car."
A fabric manufacturer's sales rep first brought Tencel to Glasser. "[I] just fell in love with the touch of it, the way it drapes," he said. "I thought if I designed with cotton and everything else, it would lose its power in my selling. We decided to just use Tencel. People thought we were crazy," he said.
Courtaulds had courted fabric mills by sending out samples of materials the fiber could be spun into. Manufacturers and designers were invited to the company's fabric library in New York to see and feel for themselves the stuff that Glasser predicts will replace rayon in the next 10 years.
Once the industry was clued in to Tencel, Courtaulds went to work on the public. Over the last couple of years it has orchestrated joint advertising campaigns with designers from around the world. A campaign just shot in Europe features the Tencel creations of Christian Lacroix, Gianni Versace and Nino Cerruti. At home, the labels DKNY and Calvin Klein signed on to help the fabric earn name recognition.
Julie Mora, manager of the Individualist department at the Topanga Plaza Nordstrom, confirms that customers don't ask by name for Tencel, which L.A. designer Karen Kane introduced to its racks about a year ago. But once they have purchased an outfit with its smooth feel, "they come back and buy more," she said.
To increase consumer awareness, and possibly up the products' hipness quotient--the fabric is better known among Neiman Marcus shoppers than among the Banana Republic crowd--Courtaulds is running ads this fall in such magazines as Harper's Bazaar and Elle touting Tencel as "the fabric of the future." The ads picture such young artists as Nilas Martins, the 29-year-old principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, in a corduroy suit by Gaspar Saldanha, and pensive-looking recording artist David Leinhardt, 26, in a shirt and jeans by Guess.
"We selected people who are artists, who are making their way in the world," said June Lauck, director of marketing communications for Courtaulds. "It's refreshing not to have just another model in the same thing, to make it clear that all people wear this."
Unlike stretchy spandex, which got a PR boost from the demand for workout clothes beginning in the 1970s, the makers of Tencel have had to rely on marketing and word of mouth to spread the news of its versatility.
"We want the consumer to have the awareness that Tencel is a fiber that can fit into her home or work wardrobe," said Lauck, be it jeans for a teen or a work suit for her mom.
Initially, the fiber, known generically as lyocell, got some attention from designers and the press after Courtaulds played up its low environmental impact. Tencel (a hybrid of "tensile" to reflect its strength, and "cellulose) is made in an Alabama factory using a nonchemical, low-polluting process. The cellulose comes primarily from oak and gum trees harvested from plantations in Mississippi; it takes seven years "to grow" a pair of jeans.
But the consumer's urge to buy green doesn't necessarily translate into selling ecofriendly threads to retailers. "As much as we talk about environment, the stores don't care one bit," said Glasser. "They only care about one thing--'give it to me cheap, and make sure if it doesn't sell, you back me up.' "
The designer says he talked Neiman Marcus into carrying his jeans two years ago after challenging the buyer to feel the material. Any resistance to the product stems not from the unknown nature of the fiber, but because of its higher price, he claims.