A common sentiment about the rise of athleisure is that we need clothes that work harder for us. Leggings and sportswear move with our bodies, wick sweat, block UV rays, and generally “keep up” with our busy lifestyles, whether we’re working out or just running errands. For most of us, that’s the beginning and end of hard-working, high-tech fashion. As Vogue’s archive editor Laird Borrelli-Persson pointed out earlier this year, designers are developing advanced ways to sell and market their clothes online, but few have considered working technology into the garments themselves. “That integration of functionality and style is the new frontier, and the future,” she wrote.
A glimpse of that future may be arriving sooner than we thought. The coronavirus pandemic has upended the fashion industry and brought runway shows (mostly) to a grinding halt, but it’s also forced us to reconsider the role clothing plays in our lives. Most of us have come to the realization that we own too much of it, and not enough of the stuff that actually makes sense for this moment. We’ve also become hyper-aware of everything we touch, from door handles to grocery carts to, yes, the clothes on our bodies. After a trip to the market, should we immediately change and wash our laundry at the highest temperature? What’s the risk of hugging someone in the clothes we wore on the subway? And if we shop in a store, is it safe to try anything on?
All of those concerns have accelerated fabric developments that may actually support our health. Swiss textile firm HeiQ unveiled its new Viroblock technology back in March, a process that adds an invisible film to fabrics that kills 99.9% of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on contact. Hoi Kwan Lam, the company’s CMO, cited research that shows the virus can live on fabrics at room temperature for up to two days; Viroblock kills it within 30 minutes, and the technology remains intact for up to 30 laundry cycles.
HeiQ actually began developing Viroblock in 2013, but it hadn’t been a top priority until the pandemic was detected in China in early 2020. Anticipating a potential spread, the team revisited Viroblock’s formation, made some tweaks, and went to market by March, just as COVID-19 began impacting nearly every corner of the globe. Naturally, Viroblock was first used on medical masks in hospitals, but a few fashion brands have explored the possibilities of antiviral clothing, too.
Artistic Denim Mills, the Pakistan-based leader in denim production, has partnered with HeiQ to create the first-ever antiviral jeans for its labels DL1961 and Warp + Weft. Starting in October, every pair of both brands’ jeans will be treated with the Viroblock technology, which is added at the last stage of production. After the jeans have been washed and laser-distressed, HeiQ’s Viroblock compound is added to the softener, and a chemical reaction forms the invisible antimicrobial, antiviral coating on the jeans.
Sarah Ahmed, the designer behind DL1961 and Warp + Weft, and her father Faisal Ahmed, the CEO of ADM, spoke of boosting consumer confidence and helping their retail partners quell anxieties over fitting rooms and e-commerce safety. But the larger takeaway is that fashion and function can no longer be mutually exclusive: “If we’re introducing this concept of functional fashion to the consumer, it sets the bar higher,” Sarah explains. “It sets a new standard for how clothes should be made and how they should function. If your clothes aren’t going to be your armor and your uniform, or your barrier against the world, then what’s the point? It’s one thing to make a style statement, but it’s another to wear something that actually protects you.”
Jeans are a democratic place to start, as they’re an item we wear every day, often without washing them in between. That means the Viroblock technology will last even longer, though Lam says HeiQ is working on extending the lifespan of the treatment, and there may be ways to “re-treat” garments after it’s worn off. “Denim has always been about function, but because our lives have become less [physically] demanding, we started treating it more as a statement,” she adds. “The pandemic has placed more importance on functionality, and we’re realizing how important it is to have less clothing, but also clothing that’s more functional and higher quality. If you have a garment that’s cooling, water-repellent, and antiviral all at the same time, maybe you can buy one jacket instead of five. At HeiQ, we want to make every piece of fabric more functional and more comfortable, and a year from now, I think [the market] will look very different. In five years, functionality will be something brands refuse to compromise on.”
We’ll likely have a vaccine for COVID-19 well before then, but our heightened awareness around health and hygiene isn’t going to disappear. Skeptics might point out that the odds of transmitting a virus (be it COVID-19 or something else) through your clothes or touching a surface are much lower than, say, inhaling airborne droplets after an infected person has coughed or sneezed. But there’s no downside to adding another layer of protection to our lives; if you can reduce your chances of transmitting or spreading a disease, why wouldn’t you? Beyond clothing, designer Chris Gelinas has been working with KleenWraps, a line of antimicrobial handle covers (think: bicycles, exercise equipment, grocery carts), to develop new antiviral accessories and face masks. “The antimicrobial technology isn’t necessarily new, but the applications are more refined and are now extending far beyond medical equipment and high performance sportswear into everyday life,” he says. “I see it as a burgeoning category.”
If antiviral clothing and accessories become the norm in the years to come, what other functionality can we expect from fashion? HeiQ’s roster of textile treatments offers a few clues: There’s HeiQ Pure, a silver-based antimicrobial technology to fight odors; HeiQ Smart Temp, a thermoregulation technology that cools the fabric as your body temperature rises; HeiQ Sun Block, which absorbs and reflects UVA and UVB rays; and HeiQ Eco Dry, a sustainable water repellant, among many others.
New Yorkers spending most of their free time outside in this 90-degree heat may be newly interested in cooling materials, and those of us taking two-hour walks along the Hudson would surely benefit from HeiQ’s odor-fighting technology. There are humbler examples, too: Back in 2017, Gabriela Hearst introduced aloe-treated linen, which is ultra-soft and happens to moisturize your skin as you wear it. “This linen excites me from every angle—it’s sustainable, luxurious, and utilitarian,” she said at the time. “Women are getting so busy, and I get excited when something helps us [streamline] our lives.”
That’s the real takeaway, of course. If our clothes could fight bacteria and viruses, block sun damage, regulate our body temperature, resist wrinkling, and even nourish our skin, we’d have a lot more time and energy to deal with more pressing matters, from the pandemic to the climate crisis to the chaos of our daily lives. Fashion is already turning its attention to values of longevity, quality, and timelessness—the “buy less, buy better” mentality—and a garment’s hidden technology could be the new determining factor in our buying decisions. Years from now, it won’t be enough for our clothes to just be beautiful and comfortable; we’ll expect them to be sustainably and ethically made too, and to benefit our wellbeing. In some ways, our clothing should behave more like our skincare, packed with hidden “ingredients” that work hard throughout the day, virtually unseen.