At the intersection of sports and fashion, innovative materials have been crucial to developing high-performance products, transforming aesthetics and exploring new design territory.
As brands research and develop cutting-edge materials that offer enhanced performance, sustainability and style, they’re shaping the future of clothing. They’re also identifying, anticipating and solving problems and they’re pushing the boundaries of function and aesthetics.
At the crossroads of useful and desirable design, innovative materials connect us to the future. A future in which clothes serve a greater purpose – elevating style, of course, but also increasingly enhancing human performance.
“Over the next 50 years, we’re entering a new era of clothing, where clothes will essentially become tools,” says Steve Tidball, co-founder of Vollebak, an active fashion brand that includes NASA-developed materials in their apparel.
“We’ve used clothing to communicate for several thousand years, but moving forward, I think clothing will mediate the relationship between your body and the environment around you – and you cannot mediate that relationship with cotton and polyester. It’ll result in embedded electronics and things that enhance our strength and speed – it’ll act as a plug-in.”
From athlete to high street
Clothing that enhances the physical attributes and abilities of the wearer is likely to conjure images of a sci-fi future. In reality, it’s a natural extension of the recent drive towards ever more sophisticated performance wear.
While exploring new materials, brands have discovered that pairing a world-class athlete with cutting-edge technology is the sweet spot in performance. Here, the magic, such as Kelvin Kiptum’s world-record-breaking Chicago Marathon wearing the Nike Alphafly 3 or Speedo’s controversial LZR Racer, which was “responsible” for a significant percentage of the swimming medals at the 2008 Olympics, happens.
In assessing the advances made in sport throughout the past two decades, it becomes clear that material innovation and human achievement go hand-in-hand. This doesn’t mean that innovative materials’ usefulness in clothing is exclusive to professional sport but the elite arena is ideal for showcasing a product’s potential. After all, you’re far more likely to buy into an innovative running shoe if it’s helped a world-class athlete break records.
It’s also often in the translation from a record-breaking concept or elite performance tool to a consumer-ready product where materials are fine-tuned to solve everyday problems.
This couldn’t be more true of sneakers, with the technology developed for athletes being the centrepiece of many of the most beloved silhouettes in sneaker culture. Legendary designer Tinker Hatfield’s conceptualisation of the Air Max in 1987 is perhaps one of the best examples. The sneakers’ use of visible, flexible urethane pouches filled with pressurised gas was radical for the time but is now a brand staple that has undergone countless revisions and evolutions, all the while retaining its status as a style culture icon.
Just as Air Max changed how Nike uses air, Bill Bowerman’s innovative use of rubber in the development of the Waffle Trainer in 1971 to solve traction issues for runners would serve as a precursor to further innovations, such as the ReactX foam, which strikes a balance between, as Nike says, “the needs of performance and the planet.”
When the original React foam launched in 2018, the sneakers on which it featured received great praise, both for their performance capabilities and era-defining aesthetics. Through five years of research and development, the ReactX foam (which features in the Infinity RN 4), like its predecessor, was fine-tuned for performance and, more specifically, energy return. The triumph? How Nike achieved their performance goals with a reduced environmental impact.
Thanks to adjustments made throughout the manufacturing process, ReactX is engineered to cut down the carbon footprint of a pair of midsoles by at least 43%.
Through its ‘Move to Zero’ commitments, Nike has set itself a mission to produce zero carbon and waste. With about 70% of Nike’s overall carbon footprint created by materials, innovative solutions are essential.
Train and sustain
For Vollebak, sustainability is, according to Tidball, “a fascinating, multi-dimensional problem. “We look at sustainability from several angles,” he says. “We attacked it first from three angles: making clothes from waste streams like garbage, clothes that will outlive you, and clothes from nature. By tackling it in several different ways, we’re likely to come up with ideas that will ultimately come together one day.”
This approach has given Tidball and the Vollebak team a valuable insight into where and when sustainability and innovative materials can work in tandem, such as within its 100-Year range, while maintaining an understanding of where future-forward problem-solving takes priority, stripping away many of the restrictions a sustainable focus brings, resulting in otherworldly products such as the Martian Aerogel Jacket.
On a parallel mission to minimise waste and impact is Nike’s ISPA – Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, Adapt – sub-division. They resolve problems through reductive techniques, requiring innovative materials at lesser volumes, prompting Nike’s first fully circular shoe in the zero-glue ISPA Link Axis. Unlike traditional trainers, which have to be shredded before they can be re-purposed, the Link Axis’s glue-less design means it can be taken apart, which is a significantly less energy-intensive process.
Similarly, adidas’ commitment to “combining ideas and innovations to create real impact for the athlete in their game, life, and world” through Futurecraft utilises data and technology to create highly specialised, zero-waste products like the Ultra 4D, future-proofing beloved styles.
Other innovations involve conceptual leaps forward in the race to create a new kind of footwear that captures the public’s imagination. The adidas Futurecraft lab recently dreamed up a new way of creating bespoke uppers, which has come to life in the form of STRUNG. Ac cording to the team behind the project, it’s “the first textile technology that transforms athlete data into dynamic performance material. Every thread in STRUNG is individually selected and data-mapped for a seamless, lightweight fit.” In other words, you get an upper purpose built for your foot by a rather smart robot.
While some brands are looking into the future for sustainability solutions, others focus on what’s currently available. Allbirds have made it their mission to combine natural fabrics, such as merino wool, with modern treatments, such as in their Wool Dasher Mizzles running shoe. They also go a step further than most when it comes to minimising impact; their SweetFoam midsole is made from sugarcane and is the world’s first carbon negative green EVA.
Footwear tends to get most of the cash and attention but we’re also seeing innovative materials being used to solve long-standing active-wear issues. Puma’s period underwear, made in partnership with absorbent apparel brand Modibodi, allows women to move in comfort while they bleed.
That’s what innovation offers; a solution to an existing challenge and the prospect of opening a design portal to new performance possibilities.
The best new innovative active wear products
Use our selection of innovation-inspired products to enhance your performance, upgrade your style and save the planet
Vollebak Graphene Jacket
Made with graphene, a material that is only one atom thick, this jacket takes lightweight to new levels.
adidas Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1
At just 138g, this is the lightest racing shoe adidas has ever made.
PUMA x Modibodi period underwear
Exercise with confidence and comfort while on your period with this PUMA x Modibodi collaboration.
Under Armour HOVR™ Mega Warm Running Shoes
Designed to retain heat and keep you light on your feet so you don’t slow down when the temperature drops.
Allbirds Men’s Wool Dasher Mizzles
An ingenious water-repellant coating on the merino wool upper keeps water out while maximising comfort.