OR Winter Market '03 -- Fabric and insulation trends and musings

Our team walked the aisles and listened -- briefly -- to the myriad fabric and insulation companies hawking the virtues and mystical magic of their individual technologies. For the most part, the three words most often heard were wool, price-point and soft shell.
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Our team walked the aisles and listened -- briefly -- to the myriad fabric and insulation companies hawking the virtues and mystical magic of their individual technologies. For the most part, the three words most often heard were wool, price-point and soft shell. We offer up a quick summation of our visit below, complete with musings and ponderings. No, this is not a complete look because for us to do the complete market justice, we would need more time than you have to read and more space than we want to fill in one article. Consider this, then, a sample taste of the flavors we found most interesting and curious. More fabric and fiber coverage will be forthcoming both in the electronic pages of SNEWS and in our summer GearTrends magazine.

Blended Shells -- Blending has been used by wineries for centuries to improve upon the qualities of the individual grapes. When the soft shell category began to pick up steam (see our Soft Shell report in the most recent issue of GearTrends magazine), nearly all the offerings were made entirely of either a Schoeller or Malden fabric. Now that soft shells are standard in all the catalogs (including Nike ACG and RLX Polo) and Asian laminates are on the scene, manufacturers are turning to creative designs, not bound by terminology or definition, that feature proprietary fabrics and mix and match concoctions -- all of which has resulted in prices coming down and the performance improving, thankfully.

This is great, except who on earth can possibly keep track of all the fabrics and fabric variations out there these days? Even retailers are getting baffled, so don't expect consumers to have an easier time understanding what fabric will do what in what garment. Manufacturers simply must do a better job of explaining how it all works -- in simple, layman's terms.

The bottom line is, that for the average consumer, buying decisions will come down to style and price well before hang-tags filled with techno garble spouting off unintelligibly about wild performance enhancements grab a consumer's attention.

Showing a clear performance benefit that is comprehensible and/or offering superior fit is what is required to make the high-end sale (one model of Mammut pant costs $200 but comes in 40 sizes).

Rewriting soft shell history -- History is a funny thing, with the recollection of events sometimes being clouded by, well, popularity. Cloudveil has been getting the nod as the harbinger of the soft shell trend chiefly because that was the first time anyone here in the United States really paid the category any mind. Kind of like Columbus discovering America...when we all know that Native Americans were obviously here first. But history can be rewritten, and should in this case. One of our own took us to task for not acknowledging Jeff Lowe as the true innovator of the soft shell, and he's right. Remember Latok and stretch-wovens back in the '70s and '80s? Somewhere in the SNEWS equipment closet of historic items no longer worn, there rests a Latok jacket -- well loved, and unfortunately forgotten. Sorry Jeff -- you were just way too ahead of the curve to establish a trend.

Storm Shell Rethink -- There is a worry that as more customers acquire soft shells and rethink their clothing systems, they will feel that there is little need for the traditional bombproof waterproof/breathable mountaineering shells that are, frankly, much heavier, much more bulky and far more expensive. While the $400-plus hard shells still exist in many product lines, Winter Market continued to demonstrate that far greater energy is being devoted to the development of ultralight technical shells that can be worn over a soft shell in particularly wet conditions. New manufacturing technology such as laser-cutting, welded seams and narrow seam tape, as well as face fabrics as fine as 15 denier, have put the once venerable high-end shells on a diet, which ain't all bad.

Is the high-end storm shell market dead? No, but it is clear that manufacturers are slashing SKUs devoted to the category, and retailers are reducing floor space to it as well. That said, Gore-Tex XCR still rules the roost with up-and-coming players such as eVENT grabbing market share as well. The question is, has price-point rainwear combined with soft shell technology pushed high-end storm shells out of the must-have category and into the area of a niche product sought after by fewer and fewer core consumers? Time will tell.

Fabrics and Insulation Notes

Primaloft: Primaloft appears to be re-emerging as a top contender in the synthetic performance insulation category for apparel, footwear, and gloves, largely due to the insulation's excellent resistance to moisture and very soft, comfy feel. Unfortunately, many retailers and consumers we've talked to and heard from don't seem to understand the distinction between Primaloft One and Primaloft Sport (aka Primaloft 2). To make matters worse, many of the manufacturers using the stuff appear to be singing slightly different songs, so the message about what the insulation is and isn't, will do and won't, is becoming confusing to say the least. Ummm, Primaloft? Great insulation and we know it is "warm when wet" but what's the real difference between One and Sport? Let's work on communicating the message clearly please?

Thinsulate: 3M is playing the price game with Thinsulate Type G to, as the company marketing representative at the show told us, "meet a definite demand from manufacturers seeking quality insulation at an economical price." The company has also taken notice of Primaloft's success (who hasn't) and created a new insulation, dubbed "Supreme" with a coating that, again, according to the marketing flack, "offers an insulation alternative that has a silky, luxurious hand with excellent drape."

Polartec: The company unveiled a new fabric technology, Polartec Hardface, that is making its way into the Wind Pro and Thermal Pro product lines already in the system. Essentially, fabrics with a Hardface present a smooth, weather- and abrasion-resistant front combined with a soft next-to-skin back.

Wool/synthetic blends: Optimer Performance Fabrics (United Knitting) introduced a wool/polyester blend to replace the company's wool/cotton blend (makes sense to us, one insulates, one clearly doesn't). Glenoit also rolled out wool blend pile under the name, Casalana. Feels like flannel, but without the soggy drawbacks, according the company.

What do we do with this? Coville left us scratching our heads, not because we were puzzled over a new product's quality or logic, but because we were left wondering how a manufacturer could use the technology best. The fabric lamination is still being tweaked, according to the company, but essentially Coville has created a collection of Fashion Laminates that blend styling with performance features such as wind-resistance, moisture-management capabilities and odor-control properties. We're left saying, "Cool idea, but now how do we use it?"

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