Activewear Market Demands More Polyester
March 21, 2004 (New York Times) From baseball players at spring training to Tiger Woods on the golf course and Andy Roddick on the tennis court, more professional athletes are showing up in uniforms and activewear made from a trendy, fast-drying fabric. It is satiny smooth and sleek - but it is not a new strain of Pima cotton, or a blend of baby alpaca and cashmere.
So what is this mystery fabric? Try polyester. Yes, a lightweight, paper-thin version of the leisure-suit material may be the hottest thing in sports clothing.
Well, maybe the coolest and driest thing. "The performance clothing giants have worked with polyester to beat the old disco double-knit image," said Neil Schwartz, director of marketing at Sports Scan Info, a consumer research firm in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Polyester's acceptance and spreading influence in the $5 billion sports clothing industry are being driven largely by Under Armour Performance Apparel, started in 1995 and based in Baltimore. The company registered sales of $120 million in 2003, a total that encompasses polyester shirts, shorts and other clothing like outerwear and underwear.
Kevin Plank, Under Armour's founder and president, said: "Cotton is our target. Seven out of 10 people working out at the gym or playing on the golf course are still wearing cotton. Polyester is a tough sell to people who remember 'Saturday Night Fever,' but more and more of them are giving us a try."
Cotton still has a 70 percent market share of the fabric used in activewear, but its grip is increasingly shaky.
Global supplies of cotton have fallen recently because of droughts in China and Australia, which are major growers. "Cotton was already in a technological war with polyester in sportswear to offer the best feel and fit for people playing sports and exercising," said Blake Brown, a professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, in the heart of the American textile industry. "When you're in a war, the last thing you want is an interruption in your supply lines."
Not surprisingly, established sports clothing brands like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, influenced by competition from upstarts like Under Armour and by the high price of cotton, are introducing their own polyester apparel.
Makers of other brands - including Dockers from Levi Strauss and Tehama, which is endorsed by Clint Eastwood - are allowing higher percentages of polyester into some of their clothes, permitting faster drying and enabling the manufacturers to control costs. There is ample incentive to use the cheaper fabric and to promote its advantages: the wholesale price of cotton has risen 52 percent in the last year, and polyester is now just one-fourth its price.
"Everyone wants to hold the line on prices in this economy" and to emphasize the high-technology qualities of their fabrics, said David Hagler, director of apparel for Nike Golf, whose Dri Fit line includes $60 polo shirts that are 92 percent polyester and 8 percent spandex.
"We're adding value with manmade materials that dry faster when being worn so they feel comfortable longer," Mr. Hagler said. "And now we're moving beyond dry into garments that offer more wind protection, added stretch to improve athletic performance, and they hold their colors and shape better."
Usually, consumers do not see polyester mentioned in an advertisement. Instead, clothiers use terms like technical fabric, microfiber and moisture management system. The repackaging of polyester is essential to its new success, said Lynn Kahle, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon who does research in consumer psychology. "In fashion, quality is sometimes an ambiguous concept," he said.
THE improved image of polyester is swaying some sportswear companies to make their cotton garments resemble, of all things, polyester.
One production technique that has been promoted in high-end cotton golf shirts is called mercerizing. That means soaking the cotton in a chemical finish and then treating it with a solution of caustic soda while it is being stretched - a process that swells the fibers and makes the fabric so smooth and shiny that it resembles polyester.
Many labels are noting that the garments have been mercerized - not once, as was sometimes done in the past, but two or three times.
"Mercerization gives cotton a shine once synonymous with cheapness and manmade materials," acknowledged Rick Hendee, vice president for marketing at Cotton Inc., a trade group based in New York. He made no apologies. "Cotton had to learn to be versatile," he said. "We have to adapt and be tenacious."
That is something polyester has done. It was born in 1929 in the laboratory of the DuPont chemist W. H. Carothers, who concocted it from chemicals found mainly in petroleum. With certain variations in the formula, it is used in the making of fibers, films and plastics. The first Dacron-brand polyester suits emerged in the 1950's and were advertised as being made of a miracle fiber that could be worn for 68 days without ironing and still look presentable.
Polyester was so popular and inexpensive to make that small textile mills, many in former gas stations, emerged all over the country. But much of the fiber that was produced was of such low quality that polyester gained a reputation as cheap and uncomfortable. The fall was hastened by Johnny Carson, who noted sarcastically in his talk-show monologue that polyester was also used to make soft-drink bottles.
The marketing of polyester today as a technical fabric appeals to many people's shopping instincts. "The polyester marketers are getting a response by reaching out to mankind's intuitive desire for something new and sort of digital," said Teri Schleifer, vice president for merchandising at Fairway & Greene, a golfwear maker in Shelton, Conn.
But Ms. Schleifer is a cotton loyalist. "Our company is founded on clothes with a traditional look and feel," she said. "We'll never change. We have never made a polyester shirt and never will."
The Fairway & Greene brand is sold only in country clubs and golf resort shops, where the shirts are priced at $70 to $80. Ms. Schliefer acknowledged that she might lose some sales to clothes that are at least part polyester during the synthetic fabric's current resurrection. "But I think a lot of those customers will come back in the long run," she said. "Cotton clothing is thousands of years old. It's proven, and I don't think it's going away."
By Robert Johnson (NY Times)