If you’d asked most people a few seasons ago whether they’d want a sweatshirt made from a surfer’s wetsuit, the answer would have probably been a firm no. But now it’s a different story, such are the charms of performance fabrics, which can often be as good-looking as they are practical. Chalk it up to the rise of athleisure or a greater demand for functional pieces, but designers from the high-end to the high street are in a scramble to go high-tech. With that, of course, comes a load of new jargon to get a grip on. Don’t know your Gore-Tex from Al Gore? Here’s a rundown of the the smart textiles making waves in wardrobes.
Neoprene (also known by its non-technical name of ‘that squishy scuba material’) has been enjoying life on land in recent seasons, but it’s certainly no fish out of water in stylish men’s wardrobes. Resistant to heat and weathering, waterproof and an able insulator, the earliest version of the fabric was developed as an alternative to rubber during World War I. In its most fashion-friendly guise, raw neoprene has been foamed and as a result contains air pockets that ensure it’s an excellent insulator while remaining lightweight. Best for: Insulating sweatshirts.
Gore-Tex sprung to life as part of a happy accident in 1969 when Wilbert L. Gore and his son stretched a heated rod of polytetrafluoroethylene too quickly. Like neoprene, it’s microporous (9bn pores per square inch to be exact) and prides itself and on being waterproof, windproof and breathable. The crucial difference is that it’s much thinner. How does it work? Modern versions of Gore-Tex boast a porous membrane which is enclosed in high performance lining and outer textiles. This means in cold, wet weather you’ll be well-insulated and warm, but if you’re getting hot and sweaty, the fabric will allow moisture to pass through its membrane and away from the body. It’s this combination of water repellency and sweat-releasing technology that makes Gore-Tex so indispensable in all weather conditions. Best for: All-weather jackets that can resist wind, rain and expel sweat. Take that temperamental British weather.
Rubber and cotton don’t seem like the most harmonious couple on paper, they sound like a sticky, hairy mess. When in fact, the fabric has been bolstering men’s wardrobes for generations. The brainchild of Charles Mackintosh (yes, the father of the mac), rubberised cotton was initially used for the iconic raincoat, but brought with it a sticky touch and strong smell. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and rubberised cotton is now just as rainproof but won’t leave a residue on your fingers. Modern versions involve bonding flexible rubber to a cotton base. The result is rain-resistant fabric with a lightweight yet structured feel. Best for: No prizes for guessing: raincoats.
Now that your phone can practically make your bed remotely, it stands to reason that clothing too should come equipped with high-tech wizardry. Step forward HeatTech, high street retailer Uniqlo’s favourite newfangled fabric. No, this isn’t some marketing spin for what is essentially good old-fashioned thermals. Developed in partnership with Japanese textile specialist Toray Industries, HeatTech is made from a blend of cellulose and milk protein fibres, which can transform excess moisture from the body into heat. Sound smelly? Not so, HeatTech is able to fend off odour with anti-bacterial agents. The fabric works by trapping moisture from the body in its fibres for unbeatable, sweat-free insulation. Best for: Under layers. This stretchy fabric should be used as a helpful, but hidden, second skin.
Now that sports luxe is ‘a thing’, trainers have become prized more for the gold initials embossed on the heels than their functional assets. Despite this, the techy trainer is still riding high. Polyurethane (which is a real mouthful to say) features heavily on sneaker soles thanks to its near-perfect list of properties. First developed in 1937 in Germany, the pliable material solves thousands of years’ worth of problems encountered when trying to finding a material to put between feet and earth. Polyurethane is both hardwearing and light, waterproof and abrasion-resistant; ergo perfect for sports shoes, which need to be comfortable and robust in equal parts. Even better, the textile can be compressed many times without losing its shape or flexibility. Best for: Thanks to its durability and solid but compressible nature, polyurethane is best used on trainers.