When hi-tech meets high-end

If James Bond, Batman, and Inspector Gadget are anything to go by, men enjoy clothes with a little extra horsepower and a touch of novelty.

Designers may be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to making jackets with built-in helicopters, but they are definitely breaking new ground when it comes to the construction and treatment of their fabrics.

Take a quick look at the inside labels of any current high-end brands. Most of them read more like something out of a science fiction novel than a simplr set of care instructions.

Fabrics used in contemporary menswear can include a range of finishes that are enable them to withstand even the most hardwearing of gentlemen – resistant to heat, cold, dirt, stain and water.

Australian brand Sax Altman recently came up with a plastic cotton hybrid made from recycled PET bottles, that not only minimises your carbon footprint, but also offsets the continuing rising costs of cotton.

But some of the most interesting innovations are saved for that most basic staple of the male wardrobe, the humble suit.

Despite having changed very little in the past century or more, the men's suit still crosses the sartorial boundaries of corporate, formal and leisurewear. It has stuck doggedly to the basics of either single- or double-breasted, and two- or three-piece ensembles.

Over the years lapels have gained and lost weight in quick succession, and the height and width of shoulders have also been subject to seasonal trends. But the basic features of the suit have remained relatively the same and for good reason – you don't mess with a classic.

However, this has left very little room for creativity and innovation in a market in which clientele are increasingly more discerning about what they get for their dollar. In an industry in which even the slightest difference can give you a commercial edge, designers and fashion houses soon began to team up with scientists to cash in on ways that technology could give deliver that edge.


In 2008 a team of researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland released a new kind of treatment that succeeded in making the first truly waterproof fabric, by using a layer of silicone nanofilaments that trap a layer of air between them and the cloth. This layer of air prevented water and even dirt from ever coming in to contact with the fabric, potentially making the first self-cleaning clothing. This breakthrough in fabric treatment was quickly been taken up by one of the leading fashion houses, the Italian group Ermenegildo Zegna.

Ermenegildo Zegna, and its younger offshoot ZZegna, have built a reputation as one of the most innovative design groups, readily tapping in to advances in computer technology and incorporating cutting-edge fabric techniques to create suits that are heat- and cold-resistant, impervious to stains and creasing. Some are also light-responsive and actively work to cool the body down as it becomes hot.

Take, for example, their trademark High Performance Micronsphere fabric, which guarantees absolute resistance to stains. Design teams at Zegna utilised nano-technology to create a surface on the fabric that mimicked the features of the lotus leaf, which doesn't absorb any extraneous particles. That makes it not just stain resistant, but anti-stain. You can literally wipe off the wasabi that fell from your California roll that you had at lunch.

Then there is their revolutionary Elements range – a collection of 'intelligent' garments that automatically adapts to regulate body temperature in all weather conditions. The Elements collection uses a series of pores within the fabric that independently open or close according to climate. These pores, when open, allow water vapours to pass through and keep the body cool; and when closed, provide perfect insulation against the cold.

Local designers are also taking advantage of the nanotechnology craze. Melbourne-based company Giotto New-Gen has also taken climate and weather into account with its latest range of suits. With the damaging effects of the Australian sun in mind, the company released ColdBlack – a fabric that both reduces the absorption of heat rays and protects the body from harmful UV rays to the equivalent of wearing SPF30. The result is a suit that doesn't lose its colour with age and helps keep its wearer cooler for much longer, even if he is standing in direct sunlight.

So what is next for the ubiquitous business suit?

Back in 2000, Belgium-based science group Starlab came up with the idea to directly combine computer technology with everyday clothing that would provide information on body movement and energy in order to maximise performance.

They created a jogging suit that configured data on your heartbeat and played a certain type of music and adapted the rhythm of the music to push you harder or slow you down. There was even a mobile phone function in the clothing that sent data by email to your local sports club, recording time, pace and heart rate for the duration of the run. The prototype for this design was, understandably, quickly snatched up by sporting labels in order to maximise their own products.

In the last year, denim giant Levis began the process of marketing a jacket that has an inbuilt computer and keyboard, allowing the wearer to randomly punch out a few bars of their favourite song as they walk along the street.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, a group of researchers are working on what they call the 'power-shirt' – a shirt able to generate electricity that can power small electronic devices for soldiers or hikers.

All this may still be a few stitches and an engine short of your own helicopter-coat, but given the speed of these advancements, it may not be too far off. Personally, I'm waiting for the day that my pants pocket can double as a microwave.