Man-made WOMEN

For years we’ve equated silk with lux­ury and polyester was our dirty lit­tle se­cret. But as de­sign­ers em­brace the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the plas­tic fan­tas­tic, is our tex­tile snob­bery jus­ti­fied?

Fashion Quarterly - - Report -

The man-made fi­bre that was once con­sid­ered tacky, sweaty and one of the most de­spised ma­te­ri­als of the fash­ion world has had an ex­treme makeover. Polyester has made its way into high­fash­ion con­scious­ness — and de­sign­ers are singing its praises. “I’m fas­ci­nated by the way ar­ti­fi­cial fi­bres have be­come en­no­bled,” cre­ative di­rec­tor of Louis Vuit­ton Ni­cholas Gh­esquière told the

Fi­nan­cial Times, his multi-tex­tured re­sort 2018 col­lec­tion hav­ing leant heav­ily on the ma­te­rial.

From Louis Vuit­ton to Bal­main and Stella McCart­ney, the lat­est lux­ury col­lec­tions may be rife with polyester, but fash­ion buyer Anna

Ron­berg of Welling­ton’s No.16 (for­merly known as Scot­ties) is un­per­turbed by the ma­te­rial’s in­dus­try ac­cep­tance. As a stock­ist of Ja­panese de­signer Issey Miyake — one of the early adopters of polyester in high-end cloth­ing — she’s been buy­ing polyester for years.

“I can un­der­stand why peo­ple have a neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of polyester, be­cause a few years ago I don’t think it was a par­tic­u­larly fan­tas­tic ma­te­rial for cloth­ing” she says. “Now the tech­nol­ogy has just come so far, and it’s in large part due to the Ja­panese.”

With an aim to cre­ate cloth­ing to suit the modern life­style, Miyake be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing in the late

’80s with a polyester knit that even­tu­ally cul­mi­nated in ‘Pleats Please’, his iconic line of perma-creased gar­ments. The pieces were light, el­e­gant, transea­sonal, travel friendly, ma­chine wash­able and didn’t cost a for­tune, rel­a­tively speak­ing. Through­out the ’90s, the man-made ma­te­rial was the norm in Ja­panese cul­ture, but it took longer for it to spread to the fash­ion cap­i­tals.

“The rea­son poly has be­come more wide­spread is that other la­bels saw how Issey and Comme [des Garçons] were do­ing it, and be­gan see­ing the tech­nolo­gies that the Ja­panese had devel­oped,” says Anna. “De­sign­ers are al­ways look­ing at other houses to see what they’re up to, and when it’s a gen­uinely new idea it’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing for other peo­ple in the fash­ion world.”

Dame Trelise Cooper built her brand on del­i­cate silk and linen gar­ments, but to­day she es­ti­mates around 70% of her vast col­lec­tions in­clude some sort of man-made fi­bre. “When I started 30 years ago, I kind of made my name on

nat­u­ral fi­bres, and ac­tu­ally the ‘P’ word [polyester] never crossed my thresh­old,” she says. “But the pro­gres­sion of polyesters and man­made fi­bres has come so far, I’m now a com­plete con­vert.”

Cre­ated from al­co­hol and acids de­rived from pe­tro­leum, polyester first ar­rived on the mar­ket in the early 1950s and was soon made into a range of prod­ucts in­clud­ing cur­tains, bed­ding and cloth­ing. “One of the pri­mary at­trac­tions was that these new syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als were of­ten much eas­ier to care for than nat­u­ral fi­bres,” says Doris de Pont, cu­ra­tor of the New Zealand Fash­ion Mu­seum. “They could be washed in the new do­mes­tic wash­ing ma­chines. This meant that our clothes no longer needed to be dark coloured or pat­terned to hide the dirt — peo­ple could wear light and bright-coloured clothes.”

The pop­u­lar­ity of polyester grew as the spacechic trends of the ’60s gath­ered mo­men­tum. And it wasn’t just rel­e­gated to chain stores. “Ev­ery­one used the new syn­thet­ics as soon as they be­came avail­able,” says Doris. “Even the pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional la­bels that were pro­duced [in

New Zealand] un­der li­cence, like Chris­tian Dior, used them.”

Af­ter a rash of lurex disco frocks and polyester taffeta, the pen­du­lum swung. A shift to­ward sleeker, more min­i­mal­ist lines cou­pled with the boom­ing econ­omy of the ’80s re­versed pub­lic opin­ion of syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als. “Back in the ’80s, linen, silk and cot­ton were plen­ti­ful — they weren’t as ex­pen­sive as they are now,” says Trelise. “Also, at that time, polyester was still a pretty ba­sic prod­uct.”

As the nov­elty of the new fab­ric waned, per­for­mance is­sues that had been swept aside dur­ing the hon­ey­moon pe­riod started to grate. “The early syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als were made from the same poly­mers as plas­tic and still had many of the same qual­i­ties,” ex­plains Doris, “Which is great if you’re stor­ing food, but in clothes it trans­lates to feel­ing ar­ti­fi­cial, mak­ing you sweaty and melt­ing if you get too close to a heat source.” Nat­u­ral fi­bres sud­denly seemed a more lux­u­ri­ous al­ter­na­tive and polyester be­came their dis­graced cousin.

Al­though most of the fash­ion world jumped ship, a few de­sign­ers con­tin­ued to work with polyester and, led by the Ja­panese, qui­etly worked to re­fine its prop­er­ties. To­day’s polyester’s abil­ity to take on any tex­ture means it can be ma­nip­u­lated into just about any­thing, its end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties al­low­ing de­sign­ers more cre­ative free­dom than ever.

“The way in which fab­ric is used now is amaz­ing, and it’s all down to man-made fi­bres,” says Trelise. “For ex­am­ple, Gucci does a max­i­mal­ist look that’s ev­ery­thing I adore in fash­ion. The same with those other brands that are re­ally out there — Dolce & Gab­bana, Miu Miu, Prada — all of those fab­rics are man-made.”

“Most la­bels use it nowa­days” says Anna, who stocks Lan­vin, one of the ear­lier Euro­pean brands to re­turn to polyester. “Lan­vin picked it up and ran with it when Al­ber [El­baz, cre­ative di­rec­tor] was there. His polyester [felt like] silk.”

Al­most 70% of the world’s syn­thetic fab­ric is now pro­duced in China, where a fo­cus on tex­tiles has en­abled fur­ther devel­op­ment of polyester’s po­ten­tial. Al­though it’s gen­er­ally more af­ford­able than silk, its qual­ity varies and the bet­ter the qual­ity, the higher the price. “It’s not cheap fab­ric — you can buy cheap polyester but it looks it and it prob­a­bly clings to you,” says Trelise. “The bet­ter polyesters don’t have static, and they’re just beau­ti­ful.”

Though polyester’s ori­gins are in pe­tro­leum, nat­u­ral fi­bres aren’t squeaky clean on the eco front ei­ther. Cot­ton may seem the more vir­tu­ous op­tion, but a vast amount of wa­ter goes into its pro­duc­tion. When it comes to silk, silk worms are still killed in the ma­jor­ity of man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses.

“The thing about silk, linen and cot­ton is that they’re very lim­ited re­sources now,” says Trelise. “They’re af­fected by global warm­ing and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters; even New Zealand wool and leather is af­fected. We still use silk, mainly be­cause peo­ple still de­mand it, but there are very few silk pro­duc­ers now at tex­tile fairs — I have to re­ally hunt them out.”

While de­sign­ers are shift­ing their fo­cus to­ward syn­thet­ics, some cus­tomers have been slower to come around. “When I first started us­ing polyester, there was a real re­sis­tance to it,” says Trelise. “It’s a gen­er­a­tional thing, a bit like some peo­ple are still on Face­book but not on In­sta­gram; the In­sta­gram fol­low­ers don’t care [if a gar­ment is made of polyester] — they’re the early adopters.”

Al­though many still see polyester as cheap and baulk at the prospect of fork­ing out for a de­signer frock made of it, Anna sees it dif­fer­ently. “Be­cause I’m ask­ing peo­ple to spend a lot of money, they have to get some­thing in re­turn. I want them to have a bril­liant prod­uct that isn’t go­ing to be a rip-off, has de­sign in­tegrity and will last. The way Lan­vin, Issey and Comme pro­duce polyester is in a lot of ways bet­ter value [than silk]. I ab­so­lutely know that I’m go­ing to get a prod­uct that I can rely on. It’s so durable.”

As sportswear and fash­ion con­verge and our lives be­come more com­plex, the way we wear our cloth­ing is chang­ing. “We’re wear­ing fab­rics ev­ery day that were once [kept] for best,” says Trelise. “They need to look del­i­cate, but they have to live a modern life with us. They have to move through our lives the way we ex­pect silk to, only it won’t. Silk linen will break down, and the seams slip and come apart, be­cause peo­ple ex­pect to do [in their dresses] what they ex­pect to do.”

From an all-nat­u­ral de­signer to a man-made con­vert, for Trelise the switch is com­mon sense. “I want the fash­ion look, I want my clothes to per­form and I want to wear them through the day, through that sea­son and the next.”

“The way in which fab­ric is used now is amaz­ing, and it’s all down to man-made fi­bres”

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