Luxury fashion brands bet on anti-virus fabrics to revive fortunes amid COVID-19

a man wearing a suit and tie: Luxury fashion brands bet on anti-virus fabrics to revive fortunes amid COVID-19

© Arun Sreenivasan
Luxury fashion brands bet on anti-virus fabrics to revive fortunes amid COVID-19

Can your clothes protect you from something as serious as COVID-19 at the very extreme, or at least from other germs and viruses at the very least?

The luxury industry has been abuzz with the news that a leading Italian fabric manufacturer, Albini Group, has developed an anti-viral fabric that was being snapped up by fashion industry behemoths.

How big? Think Kering (Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent, et al), Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna and Prada, to name a few. Named ViroFormula Fabric, it is the result of an innovative collaboration between Albini and Swiss textile innovation firm, HeiQ.

The process involves applying chemicals to textiles during the production process. The efficacy tests, Albini tells us in a statement, was conducted with a virus called 229E, said to be similar to SAR-COV-2 (WHO has strictly banned the use of the SAR-COV-2 virus, which causes COVID). They proved that the anti-virus textile can destroy the virus with a few minutes of contact.

Speaking about the technology, Carlo Centonze, CEO, HeiQ, says, “HeiQ Viroblock is a special combination of our advanced silver and vesicle technology that has proven effective against coronavirus 229E, with a 99% reduction in virus load in 30 minutes.”

The recent news that the coronavirus can stay alive on a garment for as many as two days has hastened experimentation with such technologies, particularly in the luxury segment. Albini’s CEO, Fabio Tamburini, says that the fabrics and textiles have the same feel as any luxury fabric. “We have received several orders from the big brands,” he adds, without naming them.

The technology used works at targeting the fatty chromosomes that surround viruses when they touch the fabric, destroying them within a matter of minutes. However, this innovative technology works for the first 30 washes, after which it stops being as effective. Quite a hefty price to pay for a garment that can cost at least a few lakhs.

Among another global fashion textile manufacturer laying claim to innovative anti-virus textile is Austrian brand, Lenzing Group, which produces wood-based viscose fibres. It is targeting couture brands and runway shows with its eco-friendly, anti-viral luxury fabric options. “Most anti-viral finishes have limitations—they can only be used on certain fabrics and often hamper comfort and hand-feel. Ecologically-responsible and circular fashion have always been mainstays for Lenzing and the H+ Technology was developed along with Ruby Mills, with this in mind,” says Avinash Mane, Commerical Head – South Asia, Lenzing.

Albini and Lenzing were among the first major luxury fashion players to enter this sphere. However, others are working on similar technology. Like GRADO in India, which, has launched Neo-Tech fabrics, said to be anti-viral and anti-microbial.

Rajendra Agarwal, Mentor, GRADO has said, “Using the NEO TECH® techniques, GRADO has designed anti-viral and anti-bacterial fabrics that inhibit growth and retention of micro-organisms, fulfilling the criteria of being safe and hygienic. We have been investing in R&D for a very long time. We have been pioneers in introducing a lot of innovative products in the market in the past as well with products such as STREEZA (4-way stretch fabric), ICE-touch (making you 5 degrees cooler) and Uncrushable (for wrinkle resistance) amongst others, which are continuing to fare extremely well. NEO TECH® is the latest addition to that long list.”

Brands, of course, have lapped the new fashion technology with some sort of relief, hit as they are by COVID-induced economic slowdowns. Internationally, Diesel has claimed its new ‘virus-fighting’ denim, made using Swedish firm Polygiene’s fabric treatment, has the capacity to disable over 99 percent viral activity. Diesel will implement the ViralOff technology across a selection of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2021 denim styles, which will go on sale in mid-January.

Across the world, advanced wear fashion—which protected you from the elements using in-built technology—had already been making inroads into fashion. In India, there is news that Arvind has tied up with HeiQ Materials and Taiwanese company, Jintex Corporation, to bring anti-viral ‘Virolock’ textile technology to India.

The Donear Group, which supplies suiting fabrics to premium brands such as Wills Lifestyle and Louis Philippe, was among the first to introduce an anti-viral fabric in the country, developed in collaboration with HeiQ, which seems to be the go-to tech for most fashion brands today. “Some of the most interesting bridges between biology and design are happening now,” says its managing director Rajendra Agarwal. Menswear brand, Zodiac, is the first one to launch Donear’s anti-viral shirts finished with HeiQ’s Viroblock treatment.

There is also the premium brand, Turmswear, which terms itself an “intelligent apparel brand that brings the best of fashion and technology” and focusses on “advanced wear”. Rameswar Misra, CEO and Co-Founder, BigPhi (which owns Turmswear), says, “We can use technology to power up apparel. We have been using Neo-Tech to make apparel powerful enough to fight externalities such as stain, odour, heat, cold weather. Apparel has not seen much innovation compared to other industries, but the lifestyle of millennials is very tough.

They have to travel more, work hard, so the apparel has to play a key role in helping them achieve more. We have patents in anti-stain, anti-bacterial nanotech. This secret sauce when applied on fabric, kills the microbes that can be bacterial, fungus or virus. For examples, environmentally friendly zinc is one of the ingredients we use to neutralise germs.”

Misra claims that globally, advanced wear is big in sectors such as sports and industrial wear, but in everyday wear, the penetration of tech is much lower. “We have to up to Uniqlo, a 35-year-old Japanese brand which uses tech like HeatTech in their clothing to keep us warm in winters.”

In India, the advanced wear brand has been a bit difficult to breakthrough. “To crack a market such as India and to drive the adoption of advanced clothing, we need to educate customers about their sustainability and ease-of-use factors. We need millennials who are not very brand loyal to experiment with innovative apparel that can make them look sharp, fresh, clean, and make their lives easier and comfortable.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the advanced wear fashion segment is extending various technologies, including one with a pedigree such as Neo-Tech, to create anti-viral clothing and draw in young consumers. Brands such as Armani are betting on antiviral clothing, once reserved for medical uniforms, to become the next big innovation in fashion.

Apparel and accessories inspired by personal protective equipment could be a $10 billion to $20 billion opportunity for the ailing fashion industry, found the US-based market research group, the NDP Group. As Marshal Cohen, a chief industry analyst at The NPD Group says, “Fashion is the most challenged of all industries right now, and it’s going to be put to task to create innovation to drive any kind of activity and growth. Innovation will come by catering to how we live in this new anti-viral society. What’s an acceptable face shield to wear that doesn’t make you look like a welder, workout apparel and socks that will manage germs, gloves that will breathe yet repel, cowl necks for winters.”

Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.

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