Fascinating read from Works in Progress on the history of polyester in the garment industry and how, after being deemed gauche by tastemakers in the late 1970s, the fabric returned to the spotlight only a few years later when Americans dove headfirst into their first fitness era. Later on, the piece discusses the material’s environmental impact, which has become especially important to brands and their customers over the last decade.
By 1982 an innovation revolution was already underway that would change how consumers thought about polyester and how companies produced it. But neither journalists nor marketers noticed. They were still imagining synthetic fibers the old-fashioned way: as something chemists cooked up and marketers found a use for. That model wasn’t much different from the way wool or cotton had worked. The fiber existed and people figured out things to do with it. The technical challenges were equally ancient. How do you lower costs and speed up production? How do you keep fabrics colorful, clean, and in good repair? You pleased consumers by holding down prices, minimizing domestic labor, and staying abreast of fashion.
The new model turned the questions around. It started with a problem and asked textile makers to solve it. The problem wouldn’t be about the cloth but about the wearer’s body. The fabric had to be more than color-fast, clean, or cheap. It had to keep the user cool or warm or dry, undistracted by physical discomfort and the energy toll of weight. The imagined customer wasn’t a housewife tired of laundry or a fashionista looking for the next big thing. It was a skier, a jogger, or a basketball player. Polyester triumphed by becoming a performance textile. ‘It moved from being disco to sporty’, says Amanda Briggs, a designer and trend consultant who spent three decades at Nike. By answering the demands of outdoor enthusiasts and athletes, polyester developed attributes that pleased just about everyone.
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