Retail and the material world
The Material Show NW is when the designers from the apparel industry flock to Portland to see what's hot in fabrics, plastics, and coatings. The two-day show is a riot of fluorescent shoelaces and snake skin patterned reflective embossed cloths, as well as the more usual molded soles and foamy arches. Digital technology has made it seem like anything is possible, but there remain the twin issues: are the suppliers reliable, and will the customer wear it?
For Ryan Elsemore of Prime Asia Leather, the Material Show NW was a home game.
The company is Taiwanese, but Elsemore is based in Portland. He manages the athletic lifestyle unit. He is in and out of the big footwear brands in Portland two or three times a week, meeting with designers and material specialists about shoe designs. He has a counterpart in New Hampshire, who covers the New England, which was the shoe manufacturing center of the U.S. until most of the work went overseas.
They buy cow hides, a by-product of the beef industry, from all over the world, including the U.S. and South America. A typical hide right now is about $65. It is shipped to Taiwan where Prime Asia Leather treats it, giving it anything from a natural look to pigment in such colors as silver and gold. His job is to persuade the brands in athleisure and performance footwear that his supply is consistent and reliable, that the leather meets all the specs (for impact, water resistance, suppleness) and comes in all the hip colors for two year's time. From slaughter to stitching, it typically takes four months.
They want to work closer to market, they want to bring the seasonal cycle in, to make it more of an on-demand thing," he told the Business Tribune. "Consumer trends are changing, people are buying more online, they may go to a store then go home and shop online. They need to hit that consumer by making sure they have that popular color online."
They're not yet making them on demand, although they would like to.
"They are trying to predict the trends and they want to be able to replenish within the cycle, like making a second batch. The biggest driver on our side is speed, how can we take a traditional process like leather and make it fit in."
Three stripes and in
The show attracts top designers from the sportswear trade.
Harold Arandia is a senior designer for baseball footwear at Adidas. "For us we look for new technical requirements that we need, and from a lifestyle sense, that flash and innovation in materials."
Wearing his jeans cuffed (to show off his Adidas sneakers) and a Crombie coat over a Levi jacket, Arandia was with two colleagues looking at shiny-patterned fabrics that could be made into sneaker uppers.
Arandia designs footwear for playing baseball and turf trainers for training, which can also be worn casually. "Our brand has been doing a great combination of lifestyle and sport performance," he said.
"(The turf trainers) look like normal trainers there are different materials and concepts. We'll have a little leeway, we have special moments where we try out different materials, color executions and different stories that are a little more fun. That's where we get to explore different materials and finishes outside doing just a team-specific colorway. It's a way of storytelling."
Adapting other people's ideas
Bruce Rao from Hongpeng Weaving Technology Company in Dongguan, China, was showing off some woven sneakers. "Our products are produced by machines, and all the machines are imported from Japan and Germany, sophisticated machines that can guarantee our products are made in high quality."
They produce fabrics used in dress shoes and sneakers by Michael Kors, Skechers, Brooks and Missoni. He says they are hoping to work with Puma. "It's becoming amazingly more popular for the customers. I'm trying to become the leading supplier."
Rao calls it "flyknitting" without irony, knowing it is based on Nike's Flyknit technology, which was designed to automate the work of making a shoe upper.
Part of the show's excitement is how a small booth can introduce a new material that is tangibly different. Outlast Technology is a temperature-regulating material that is eerily cool to the touch. It can be sprayed or screen printed onto a fabric, or woven in from a treated thread. It was developed in 1999 by NASA.
It was tested as a Coors beer bottle wrapper, but in the end, they went with one that changed color. The patent and the company of 20 people is owned by Coors Tech.
"It regulates your skin temperature when you move from one environment to another," said sales assistant Taylor Litzen. "It feels cool, then it starts to come to skin temperature. Then if you go outside on a 30-degree day, it starts to transfer that heat back to your skin."
The biggest market is bedding. "If one person sleeps hot they are not going to feel that heat."
Litzen explained that it had recently made a quantum leap in that it can be applied to nylon, which makes it suitable for all sorts of stretch sportswear garments. "It works for temperature control, such as when you go into a warm environment, or even for a woman in menopause having hot flashes.
Green is still a force
Mayeong hee Song, sales manager for ATKO Planning Inc. of South Korea, was demonstrating recycled leather with 100 percent cow leather scraps. "We grind, make it into fibers, then make leather sheets, then cover it with a PU coating, so it can be applied to any shoes, handbags, upholstery and automobiles," Song said.
The scraps are ground up in a proprietary crushing machine until they look like grey dust bunnies, then twisted into strands.
She said they are working with Hyundai automobiles and the retailer Marks & Spencer in England. ATKO's process does not use any water or chemicals, in a bid to maintain its ISO 14001 certification for environmental management.
Hisham Muhareb is the president and chief organizer of the show. "We bring people together — suppliers of fabrics, leathers, synthetics, components — who supply the athletic and outdoor industry in the U.S. We are about 18 months out. Nike, Adidas Keen, Columbia, Danner, Skechers, Red Wing, Icebreaker, Lulu Lemon...those are the big ones. They send their designers, color forecasters, material managers and production people."
Muhareb has 286 suppliers showing, and was expecting 1,800 to 2,000 people over the two days of the show.
He showed off the new creative area with local apparel suppliers the U of O Sports Management Program. In the Trend Area there was a competition for most innovative materials. This included silent zippers, waterproof fabrics, 3D prints that looked like rusty metal, and sparkly fabric. One sample was kept out of reach under a bell jar, with an aluminum can and a plastic bottle. It was a piece of fabric that was made of recycled plastic and aluminum.
Sculpture goes high tech
At Form, a local sculpting company, Troy Konigwilcox showed off an acrylic skull bound with super glue. It could then be infused with paraffin wax, to make a mold for a metal casting, or it could be infused with epoxy to make it hard. "We made a dragon for a casino in Las Vegas. We sculpted it in the computer, did all the fixing, then did a gold leaf coating."
They use PMMA 3D printers, which print bigger and harder than traditional printers that use melted plastic. It is used to make molds for engineering castings.
Nearby, Ashley Innis of Kinstitch said they had started using a sticky belt printer. Instead of needing a four-yard lead of fabric to start printing, which gets wasted, a sticky belt can grip the first six inches of the cloth and start printing right away.
Bill Pickett was there representing Sunnylite, a reflective thread and fabric. He showed off a Nike shoe that had mother of pearl color shifting look, until it was under a bright light. Then it shone like a block of silver. A young man from Tempest Academy, a parkour gym in Los Angeles, came by to talk about having reflective apparel made for his team. Pickett has been coming to the Material Show for 25 years. One thing he has noticed lately is how the time to market is shrinking. Traditionally, it is 18 months from design to store shelves for a sneaker or a jacket. Fast fashion companies such as Skechers have become adept at copying trends quickly and bringing product to market in as little as six months.
Jennifer Karuletwa, a senior trend and business consultant with the trend and innovation agency PeclersParis, flew up for Material Show NW from her home base in Los Angeles for the day.
"My role is taking the trend information that is created in our headquarters in Paris and translating it for clients, needs and brands. So, I am a liaison between creative teams and clients."
She said a client might use their color book and see what's relevant to their field.
PeclerParis produces large books filled with inspirational photos to help designers survey possible trends two years ahead. There is one called Environments & Design, Fall Winter '19-'20, for architects, interior designers and consumer electronics companies. It has swatches of cloth and tile glued into it. "The books are very tactile," she says. They produced around 1,000 copies at a time.
The whole industry is a juggling act of who goes first and who copies.
"It's like the Nike-New Balance effect. Nike is known to be really far ahead where maybe New Balance or Reebok are not. Their customer is waiting for other people to wear a trend first, then they'll wear it."
"The active market is turning to neutrals and softer colors (pinks, browns, neutrals, ochres). I think the industry was believing that would never happen, but with a strong nature influence, those neutral colors are coming into the market."
"I don't think black will ever go away. There's a shift toward darkness. It's like the 180 of the Farrell Williams 'Happy' effect, we're now recognizing there's creativity that comes out of darkness, and people are craving more authenticity, and that means embracing the dark side too. We have a trend based on the future and it's dark, even though there are a lot of space references."
The great tectonic shift is retail moving away from malls to online. "Brands are going direct to consumer, where they can give them a better product at a better price point. Not everyone can act like a (Spanish fast fashion retailer) Zara on a six-week lead time. When you're doing activewear you need longer lead times because you're doing a lot of development of materials and innovation."
Karuletwa added, "People don't want to just shop any more, they want a different kind of experience with the brand. There needs to be some kind of activity, like a pop up. People are spending their money on an experience, like going on a yoga retreat or going to Coachella, rather than buying a new pair of jeans."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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