THE FABRIC OF LIFE

FASHION Shirts that change colour according to your moods? Jeans made from wood pulp? Fashion's fastest-growing area is that of fibre technology . Annalisa Barbieri spins a futuristic yarn
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The Independent Culture
THE GIs were over-paid, over-sexed, and over here, with something that really turned girls' heads: nylon. The new man-made material promised a brave new world of easy care and modern, unnatural allure. But as we all know, nylon soon lost its appeal - and by the Seventies, it was naff. Today, nylon is back in a revamped form - and its return signals the rise of the fastest-growing area in fashion: fibre and fabric technology .

This is partly a result of technological advances. The traditional drawback of synthetic fabrics - that they're unable to "breathe" - has now been largely overcome. Today's newest man-made fibres are more refined and comfortable and, most importantly, they really do breathe. And almost as crucially, they satisfy contemporary wants: studies undertaken by the Geneva-based Research Institute of Social Change have revealed that the most important factor in fashion today is comfort; anyone who can invent a fibre which will provide more comfort and functional versatility than anything which already exists stands to make a fortune. And man-made fibres have possibilities - in terms of shape, texture and function - that are as limitless as the chemists' talents want them to be.

Take Lycra, for instance. It's a prime example of a synthetic fibre which has managed to achieve - and retain - a fashionable image. And although Lycra's success was due in part to the fitness boom of the Eighties, its unique "stretch and recover" properties have meant that customers actively seek out the label.

The manufacturers of the new synthetics are hoping for the same success. Now, there's a new willingness among the fashion-conscious to wear fabrics made from man-made fibres. Until recently, having nylon as part of your wardrobe was something to keep quiet about. David Wilkinson, director of Courtaulds, is well aware of the prejudice. "In the Fifties and early Sixties," he explains, "fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic promised a different world of easy-care. But then people started to realise that there were limits to their comfort. Nylon shirts are a prime example: easy to look after, but horrible to wear." Whereas of course, the new products are easy to look after, and a pleasure to wear.

The new consciousness in synthetics has been largely designer-led. Pioneers who have forged the trail include Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons. Now their colleagues are following their example.

In or out, synthetics are big business: world production of synthetic fibres rose from 70,000 tonnes in 1950 to 17.2m tonnes in 1992. The appeal of synthetics is growing all the time; the names to drop in the future will include Tencel, Tactel and Spidroin. Here is a guide to all that is new in the fibre and fabric industry. !

You associate Teflon (formerly known as Zepel) with Ronald Reagan and frying pans, but its properties - water repellence and resistance to stains - also make it very useful in clothing. In fact, it's everywhere: the designer Abe Hamilton uses Teflon in his collections; companies such as Mulberry (in macs and dufflecoats) and Farah (in trousers and bomber jackets) have been using Teflon as a clothing coating for 20 years. Avail- able from department stores nationwide. And, of course, fried eggs won't stick to it.

The French company Patagonia and the British company Karrimor make sweaters from plastic bottles - as many as 25 are needed per garment. Such bottles, made from polyester plastic, are cut up into chips (as shown), melted and then extruded into very fine, soft fibres (imagine the molten plastic going through a meat mincer). The process is used to make soft, comfortable zip-up sports and skiing tops. Both are sold through- out Britain in sports shops. Karrimor: 01254 385911; Patagonia 00 33 141101818.

Tencel is the newest fibre in 30 years. It's made from wood chips, the pulp of which is then made into fibre and finally woven into cloth. Courtaulds is the only company to manufacture Tencel, and has established a new classification for it: lyocell. It weaves like cotton and feels like silk - and already, M&S, Katharine Hamnett, Ted Baker and Cerruti are using it. Its properties are best displayed in jeans which look like denim, but which feel like silk twill. It's certainly weaving a miracle at Courtaulds.

Hypercolor really does signal the beginning of the next millennium. Global Inc Ltd's new fabric uses a special dye with a metamorphic colour system - in other words it changes colour with body temperature or the environment. Co-director Jonathan Sieff now predicts "fabrics that could change texture, or clothing that would change colour, according to your mood." It could give body language a whole new meaning. Look for it in T-shirts at selected BHS stores (inquiries: 0171 287 2039).

Tactel is the trade name for the glamorous new face of nylon, and could become as sought-after as Lycra did in the Eighties. Luxuriously soft, strong and easy to wear, its properties are so advanced that Tactel can be used in one form for the finest lingerie, and in another for the chunkiest outdoor wear. It's a marketing coup for its manufacturers, DuPont, and, not surprisingly, designers are queueing up to use it: look out for its distinctive swing-tag at shops like Marks & Spencer, Gap, Oasis, Jigsaw and Whistles.

Spidroin - artificial spider's silk - represents perhaps the most mind-blowing discovery of all. It originates from the University of Wyoming, where Professor Randy Lewis set out to clone the genes which enable a spider to make silk. Spider's silk, which contains two types of protein, is enormously strong, and Spidroin would therefore make a ready substitute for elastic. Although not yet in commercial production, spidroin would look very much like invisible thread; in its raw form it appears as white powder, as above.

'Twist' clothing has been pioneered by Issey Miyake, the designer who made crinkle-clothing acceptable. Twist is made by wrenching, twisting and wringing the fabric from which it is made - polyester is ideally suited to the process. Miyake has worked with the textile director Makiko Minagawa for over 20 years, and believes that his Twist clothing is the sartorial solution for the next century; it would certainly save on the ironing. Issey Miyake, 270 Brompton Road, London SW3 (telephone 0171 581 3760).

Paper is now being used as a raw material with which to make clothes by the designer Hussein Chalayan, who blazed his way on to the fashion scene with his Autumn/ Winter 1994 collection. In fact, he uses Tyvek, the paper that envelopes are made from; it's a bonded fibre and therefore washable and very strong. Tyvek is used in a selection of Chalayan's clothes this season, including shirts, jeans and raincoats, from Browns, 23/27 South Molton Street, London W1 (inquiries: telephone 0171 493 1716).

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