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PARIS — When it comes to lasting contributions to fashion, the ongoing ath-leisure phenomenon has done its bit for making functional fabrics an accepted added value of everyday wardrobes. In the span of a few years, commuter-friendly, crease-free, thermo-regulating, wind- and waterproof garments have become the new normal, with technical materials borrowing from the sports or workwear domains now a regular ingredient of urban attire.

Just ask Paul Smith, who based his burgeoning PS by Paul Smith line on pop, weatherproof, commuter-friendly garb. At his recent Pitti Uomo presentation in January, the designer told WWD that he had focused on what’s most relevant today — catering to active folk, who play hard and travel perpetually. “The raincoat will go into a tiny bag, and the coat is totally waterproof, and then all the cycling-inspired things,” the designer said, pointing to specific examples of his collection.

But while functional properties are here to stay, the days of the techy, pack-away mac look sparked by the trend may be numbered. A key direction for the spring 2018 collections of Europe’s high-end mills is fusing performance with fancies with enriched fabric interest. Some are coining it the ath-luxury trend.

The new direction, experts say, is hooked on being less obvious about the performance side, with moods ranging from classical to artisanal-looking fabrics with a street-craft edge. Examples include Fukui Tateami’s spin on a mesh typically used for sports jackets only embroidered with primitive patterns; Bonotto’s plastic-y looking cotton-polyester checked wovens, and jerseys with an ultra-dry hand by polyester specialist Toray.

The linking thread is unexpected contrasts. “It’s really about using the best things about fabric technology across all industries and combining them into one. People’s perceptions of classic luxury is changing,” said Matthew Dainty, cofounder of the London-based streetwear brand Cottweiler. “To call something ath-leisure because it has a hint of sportswear or workwear in it is a passing trend, but the actual need for those details and finishes and fabrications will grow and always be there.”

Contrasting technical fabrics with tactile fabrics with natural or noble aspects has been Cottweiler’s thing since the outset. The brand’s first collection featured a glossy black satin typically associated with formal wear but that was showerproof and had a high stretch to it, while more recently the brand has experimented with a delicate paper yarn woven into a cotton knit.

“The trend is moving in that direction,” Dainty said. “A lot of the time people perceive technical fabrications as being really synthetic — nylons, ripstock fabric, and the like — but that kind of high-tech look is not so necessary. We like to look at fabrics that have more of a classical appearance and then have that technical ability as an added value.”

Dainty and his creative partner Ben Cottrell in January presented their first men’s capsule for Reebok in a collaboration centered on silhouettes in fabrics that have a therapeutic effect on the body. Fabric experiments for that line included using copper fibers with antimicrobial properties, while for next season they’re looking at ways of integrating UV protection in fabrics.

For their own line, meanwhile, the design duo is looking at fabrics with a strong tactile component, “with a lot more depth to them, mixing yarns like multicolored yarns, and Lurex threads.”

“People are looking for an immediate impact on the eye,” said Gianmarco Schiatti, creative director at Frizza, whose new collection features an inverted mesh design with the mesh lining flipped on the outside to give a 3-D aspect to prints, and 3-D latex prints resembling paint drips on fully waterproof, translucent materials. “We have strong demand for non-textile product.”

“It’s not enough to be functional, demand is for fancy fabrics that are more connected to fashion,” confirmed Ariane Bigot, Première Vision’s associate fashion director, adding that high performance fabrics like reflective materials or high-resistance, indestructible fabrics of the kind one finds in motorcycle wear “now come in jacquards or worked in prints, with stripes and checks.”

Mills are looking to create a surprise element, she added, citing “unexpected” combinations like crossovers of naturals and synthetics; natural handles with artificial colors, and rough patterns on luxurious silks. Offering respite from a world overloaded with pictures, “mills are focusing on a sensorial relationship with materials, fabrics that exist to be touched, that speak to the senses,” continued Bigot, giving as an example a solid fabric with a supple and creamy touch, “that catches the attention and seduces.”

“Humans cannot survive on virtual reality alone, there is a silent relationship based on touch and direct contact.”

Demand is also growing for natural performance fibers. Mixing classic style with technology, Tollegno 1900’s new collection, for instance, spans structured blazer cloths in luxe wool/cashmere/silk and camelhair/silk blends, and its more casual line — “The Rainmaker” — geared to technical outerwear fabrics where wool and natural fibers are bonded with polyurethane membranes and water-repellent treatments.

Woolmark is experiencing growing demand for wool products for the sportswear domain, meanwhile, marking a comeback for a fiber historically connected to activewear that was derailed by the advent of synthetics and chemical and petroleum fibers after World War II.

“The Eiger was conquered by a man wearing a tweed suit. Climbers in the old days used to wear base layers of wool, wool vests and long johns to go up the mountains,” said Peter Ackroyd, global strategy adviser for The Woolmark Co. and president of the International Wool Textile Organization. Woolmark is “making strong inroads in the ath-leisure area with some key brands,” he said, citing Adidas, which has a leisure jacket in wool in its collection.

“You have to take the concept of ath-leisure back to the basic qualities of wool. Wool is natural, sustainable, biodegradable. It is also breathable, and its thermal management qualities are the most important aspect of wool for any market — be it formalwear, leisurewear or ath-leisure. The natural qualities of wool lend themselves to active sportswear,” Ackroyd said. “It’s interesting that active sportswear’s relationship with wool, which dates back 120 years, is coming back.”

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