Fabric Innovations: A Category Evolution Perspective

 

We say that clothing is a basic need just like food and shelter; it is a habit that is characteristic of human societies all over the world. While it is difficult to point a finger at a specific period in human history when this habit started taking shape, it is clear that early man had used animal skin and vegetation to protect himself from the elements of nature. This would have evolved into the use of clothing as a means to distinguish one section of people from the other, within societies, thereby making it representative of social standing. This is pretty much the case today also, when we look at how fashion business has progressed over the last century in different societies, from something that is more functional to one that reflects a certain lifestyle. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they, really?

 

The fashion business today is a big game and fabric weaving is an integral part of it. When it comes to clothing, there are two main parameters that need to find a balance with each other- comfort and style. A lot of product development innovations are focused on getting this sweet spot of interplay between the two. When we talk of product development for fashion brands, the focus is fundamentally about two aspects- the fabrics, and the cuts- it is a right mix of the two that gives the desired user experience, and that is exactly what brands try to achieve.

 

The more a product category evolves, the more we find the clutter of product variants in that space. If we take a look at popular FMCG categories, like Washing Powder, or Chocolates, or Toothpastes, or Shampoos, and see prominent products in their respective categories in the 80s or 90s and compare them with what they are now- the point becomes clearer. As consumers get more evolved, their tastes and requirements get more refined, leading to the creation of a genuine need in the market for product variants with specific functional benefits acting as differentiators, like a Sugar Free Chewing Gum, or a Health Drink with added Calcium, or a portfolio of a beauty soap, a health soap and a freshness soap from the same company. The business of branded apparels is no different, it cannot be different! There are market forces that come into play which create this scenario.

 

The level of chemistry and engineering involved in fabric development could be a lot more that what meets the eye for a person who is not familiar with these aspects. Take for instance the good old cotton shirt- seems uncomplicated right? Is there any rocket science involved in making one? Ever wondered why different cotton shirts come in different price points even if they are from the same brand, often showing huge variations in MRPs? Of course, there is the aspect of patterns, designs and the perceived value that comes from these attributes. Still, there is a lot more to it than just that. Noticed labels on the shirts you buy that talk about the kind of cotton fabric it is made of, like 2/80s Giza Cotton, or other similar sounding words?  Cotton fabrics are generally identified using a combination of thread count and the ply. Thread count is expressed as a number, like 50s, 60s, 80s, 120s etc. and indicate the size of the yarns in terms of the number of threads per square inches of the fabric. The higher the count, the finer the fabric giving you a softer, luxurious hand feel; of course at a higher price! Ply, on the other hand, indicates the number of yarns that are twisted together to make a single thread. Normally fabrics range from single ply to three-ply and even higher than that in very rare cases. If the ply is higher, you get a tighter weave, and a heavier fabric. Talking of cotton, and other natural fabrics, their origin is seen as an indicator of how priced they are. Sea Island Cotton, Egyptian Cotton and American Pima Cotton are among the most premium of cottons in the world. Cotton fabrics have always been an integral part of our wardrobes- they are comfortable, durable, breathable and stable.

 

Another natural fabric that has become an important part of our wardrobes, especially for winter wear and formal clothing, is wool. While there are lots of stereotypes around wool that makes you feel it is an ideal winter product, there can be product variants in wool that can be created to make it more suitable as a fabric for consumption round the year with a wider scope of usage occasions.

 

In suiting fabrics, wool has clearly defined standards in quality and sophistication. However, it is expensive and has inherent properties that make it more suited for a certain kind of look. The real potential of wool as a suiting fabric can be exploited when it is blended with synthetic fibers like polyester. This adds versatility to wool and enables the development of fabrics with varied customer benefits. Such fabrics, generally called poly wool, form a large portion of the suiting market, in fact significantly more than pure wool suiting fabrics. This is because of the attractive price points as well as unique product features that are attained by blending wool with different proportions of synthetic fibers. Some of these features include stretchability, anti-bacterial effects, heat control and similar such attributes.

 

The discussion on suiting is done merely to highlight, using one product type, how synthetic blends can impact the dynamics of business in a category of clothing. The past few years have seen the arrival of quite a few synthetic fibers that have led to the development of unique functional benefits. Polyester is a fiber that is used in al kinds of clothing, by itself or by blending with natural fibers like cotton or wool. Nylon is another synthetic fiber used in variety of clothing. Spandex is a fiber that provides comfort stretch and helps making tight fitting clothes with easy movement. Lurex is a fiber that can be used to give metallic embellishments to garments, giving a shimmering look. The list of such fabrics is huge and the idea of sharing this is just to illustrate a few names as examples of game-changing synthetic fabrics.

 

New product development in the consumer goods space tends to reflect the dominant and emergent lifestyle trends of the time. If we take a look at fabrics, this will be no different. In India as well as in the major markets of the world, one mega trend we see is in the direction of health and wellness. People are increasingly getting aware of the impact of their lifestyles on their health, the calorific value of the food they take in, and the need to stay fit through an active lifestyle. Hence the heightened activity in the area of sports and workout friendly clothing comes as no surprise at all. Seamless clothing is one such example. They go well with tight fitting clothes that are ideal for a work out, yoga or a jog in the park; they do not have seams that weigh you down, enabling easy movement.

 

Perspiration management is an area where a lot of new-age synthetic fibers are getting developed. While it definitely goes well with the needs of an active generation, it certainly goes beyond just that. Sweating is something everybody goes through, in different degrees, and is often a matter of great discomfort, and yes, embarrassment too. Traditionally, natural fibers have always been better than earlier synthetic developments because of the fact that they are breathable fabrics. Linen is a light fabric that makes you feel cooler while lighter variations of wool can keep heat away from the body. Cotton is a fabric that absorbs moisture and therefore, to a certain extent, it is good at sweat management. For these reasons, these natural fabrics do better than lot of synthetic fabrics in anti-perspirant properties. Where they all fall short, however, is in the fact that they retain the moisture that does not evaporate from the skin.

 

That is precisely where new-age fabrics with water wicking features come in. They draw moisture just like a candle draws wax up the wick all the way to the flame. These fabrics are designed to wick away moisture from the human body to the exterior of the garment. This enables easy evaporation of the moisture. Many of these wicking fabrics are made from blends of polyester. The construction of these fabrics is different from that of regular polyester fabrics. They are designed in such a way that moisture is forced into and moves through the gaps in the weave to the outer shell of the garment; in many cases the fabrics are chemically treated to ensure that moisture does not soak into it.  To mention another development in this space, there are fabrics with compression technology that compresses the muscles while you work out, which enables better blood circulation. Work out fabrics with anti-bacterial properties are also gaining in popularity.

 

Development of newer products in any business is an evolutionary process and there is a right time for every idea to truly emerge. The critical success factor here lies in the synergy of these initiatives with the macro consumer trends we see around which may have their ramifications on the product category in question. There has to be a latent or an obvious need that is being fulfilled through these new products. Successful companies are those with an innovation pipeline with the right mix of ideas that can be scaled up, are differentiated, and are consumer-centric.