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?
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”