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This past year changed the way we shop in many ways. One of most notable things was that brands became more transparent about money and manufacturing; any direct-to-consumer brands worth its salt has a detailed “about” section on its site explaining the ins and outs of production.
The focus on transparency has led to a highly detailed discussion of fabric: how brands are choosing fabrics, where they’re sourced, and why they’re superior. As a result, smaller labels have begun to build entire identities around materials.
The stories of fabrics — why they’re chosen and how they are sourced — are a “very hard story to tell in brick and mortar,” explains Chaya Cooper, a retail analyst and principal consultant at Cooper Consulting. (The only store she feels has really come close to doing so is Uniqlo, which is known for its affordable cashmere and innerwear with heat-retaining capabilities).
But there’s ample space online for new brands to tell their stories. The Hong Kong-based brand Grana has an entire page dedicated to the different fabrics it uses on its website, which include Peruvian pima cotton, Chinese silk, Japanese denim, and French poplin. Athleisure brand Aday is incorporating the technical fabrics it uses in its leggings into a line of work-appropriate clothing. And Allbirds is pushing an agenda of wool sneakers.
The question, of course, is whether or not shoppers care. Mona Bijoor, the founder and CEO of the online wholesale marketplace Joor, says yes. “Younger audiences are shopping for clothes that can last and be worn for more than one season. There’s a push toward ‘style’ instead of ‘trend,’ which in turn has moved the focus from fashion to the fabric,” she tells Racked.
Carolyn Yim, the designer behind PlyKnits, agrees. “There are a lot more small, niche designers curious about materials, and customers [are] asking questions about how their clothing is made.” PlyKnit’s website also has a list of commonly-used materials, which include Thai silk, Alashan cashmere, Swiss cotton, and Tasmanian merino.
From breathable knits that work in all seasons to washable silk, the focus is back on fabric in unprecedented ways. Here, a list of brands that are putting their materials front and center:
Kit and Ace makes work-appropriate basics for the early-morning Equinox crowd (or, in their own words, clothing for people whose day starts with a “hike at dawn and ends with a red-eye.”) The brand was founded in Vancouver in 2014 by Shannon Wilson, the former head designer at Lululemon (and wife of Chip Wilson, the controversial founder of the brand), with her stepson, JJ.
Almost everything the brand puts out — from boxy sweaters to cigarette trousers —gets the athleisure treatment, fabric-wise. Kit and Ace’s hallmark fabric is “technical cashmere,” which translates to a semi-diluted cashmere that’s machine-washable and more apt to keep its shape. The catch: A technical cashmere sweater is pricey — most of Kit and Ace’s are upwards of $300 — but at least they don’t need to be dry-cleaned.
Founded by Ashley Merrill, Lunya was created out of the desire to own sleepwear that was comfortable but looked and felt better than old T-shirts and sweatpants.
“We always put ourselves in the problem-solving mindset and ask how we can best service our girl,” says Merrill. “Is she getting twisted in her current tank? Do her old sweatpants flatter her figure? Is she always lugging her cell phone with her around the house? Once we have the problems thoroughly outlined, we attempt to solve them through design and fabric.”
Merrill cites The Washable Cashmere Merino Robe (a definite splurge at $398) as an example. After crowdsourcing feedback about the typical house robe from friends and customers, the Lunya team created a robe designed to combat every possible issue. The end result: The tie is attached (no pesky loops to contend with), the sleeves are narrow (so you can push them up when you wash your face), and there’s a hook at the top for a more modest look when answering the door.
Grana emphasizes its heavy focus on fabric by making it a category customers can shop by right at the top of the site via a drop-down menu. Right now, the company is focused on its new Mongolian Cashmere, but back at launch in October 2014, it was all about the Peruvian Pima Cotton — specifically the T-shirt, around which Grana (the person) built his business plan.
“I was in the markets in Peru in 2012 visiting my brother when I first felt Peruvian Pima cotton,” founder Luka Grana says. “It was extremely soft, durable, and inexpensive, and it made me wonder why buying a basic T-shirt cost an arm and a leg.” Now, three years later, Grana’s Pima offerings are extensive. A basic V-Neck tee is $15, and a more trendy silhouette, like the Pima Modal Trapeze Tank, is slightly more at $19.
Miel is working to improve the intimates category with simply designed seamless underwear and bras in three cuts (a boyshort culotte, a classic bikini brief, and a thong) and solid colors (think cornflower blue, olive green, white, beige, gray; a magenta and a hunter green are as bold as they come).
The underwear itself is made with a breathable blend of microfiber and spandex with cotton gussets that wick away moisture and dry quickly, making these suitable for both work and your workout. “Fabric is, and has always been, our main priority,” co-founder Camila Valendi notes.
In addition to that, all of Miel’s products include an all-natural antimicrobial fabric finish called Guardin. Made from food-safe essential oils like thyme and mint, its purpose is to “inhibit the growth of bacteria and their associated stains and odors,” explains co-founder (and sister to Camila) Valeria Valendia.
AllBirds isn’t the only brand on this list to harness the temperature-regulating powers of merino wool, but it is the only one to do so for footwear.
Co-founder and CEO Tim Brown was a professional soccer player in his native New Zealand before venturing into the footwear business. The country provided ample inspiration for his future business; Brown saw firsthand the some 30 million sheep who produced “the best, most versatile natural fiber in the world,” he says. “Wool is warm in the winter, cool in the summer, moisture-wicking, durable, and soft.”
Despite being a super fiber, it’s mainly used for sweaters, hats, and socks — not shoes. “I set out to understand whether people actually cared about a shoe made of wool, and after hundreds of prototypes and years of testing, the answer was a resounding yes,” he says. The resulting Wool Runners, made with proprietary merino, are totally unbranded, simple, and comfortable enough to feel like you’ve gotten away with wearing your slippers outside.
PlyKnits is the brainchild of designer Carolyn Yim, whose family has owned and operated a knitting factory for three generations. The line, still quite small, is made up of clever takes on knitwear —sweaters, of course, but also knitwear editions of leggings and reversible jackets.
Yim’s collection is growing, but her merino pants, made of a patent-pending fabric, are a good place to start. “They’re so densely knit that they keep you warm and repel water, all without the use of chemical finishing like Gortex,” says Yim. “When you develop your own fabrics, you offer something valuable to customers that they can’t find elsewhere.”
Aday started as a fitness and athleisure brand, but the label has recently shifted its focus to versatile separates that are day-to-night friendly, with an emphasis on luxurious-feeling fabrics. “We wanted to wear silk pieces all day long, but when it came to caring for and moving in them, we felt restricted, so we created a fabric that feels and looks like silk but has properties that allow it not to be so precious,” co-founder Nina Faulhaber explains.
The result is a machine-washable, breathable nylon-elastane blend, which is used in the Dream Harder Tank and Made It T-shirt. A just-launched capsule collection offers the brand’s take on more tailored classics, like a crisp button-down shirt that somehow doesn’t wrinkle the moment you move.
What do you do when you don’t want to get all your underwear at Victoria’s Secret, but you can’t quite afford what’s at Journelle? White Rabbit is designer Mariana Hernandez’s answer to that very question. Briefs and thongs are made with lace bands that won’t disintegrate when washed like their mass counterparts, and the newer silhouettes (like The Jane bikini and The Leroy boyshort) feature a chic semi-sheer elastic waistband.
This collection of simple intimates is made with bamboo rayon, the brand’s signature fabric. “The breathability is a result of the micro-structure of the bamboo fiber,” Hernandez explains. “The cross-section of the bamboo fiber contains a lot of micro-gaps that allow for better ventilation,” which is never a bad thing for your underwear to have.