Synthetically Speaking

Oft-mocked polyester finally gets a little respect.

by Miles Socha


When filmmaker John Waters created his seminal 1981 send-up of the ills of suburban America, he chose a suitably unseemly title: Polyester.

“It was the dirtiest word you could say in fashion,” Waters relates over the line from his beloved hometown of Baltimore. Indeed, in one scene, a mistress character played by actress Mink Stole brags from her motel bed that her pornographer paramour showers her with clothes made “of the finest polyester.”

Yet time has a way of healing all wounds. For although it has been one of the most maligned materials in recent fashion history—derided as tacky, scratchy and even smelly—polyester has quietly undergone a sly rehabilitation, aided primarily by Japanese design mavericks Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons and Issey Miyake. And now it’s on the verge of becoming downright fashionable, thanks to Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz and Louis Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs, among others, who made polyester an important ingredient in their hit spring collections.

More than half of the Lanvin line is made from a polyester developed by a Japanese company and available in a dozen colors. “I just loved the feel of it and the volume, but had no idea initially it was polyester,” Elbaz says. “It’s amazing what new technology brought to the fabric.”

The designer says his wish was to create dresses and coats that could “fly away,” and polyester fit the bill perfectly. “It inspired me so much that I could not look at other fabrics. It felt so soft and familiar, yet so new,” he says. “Clients thought it was washed silk.”

For her part, Kawakubo is nonplussed by polyester’s sudden resurgence. “We don’t take trends into account. We have always liked polyester and have experimented with and used it for the last 25 years,” she says. “We have always believed since day one that fabric technology is vital in making creative fashion, and have designed each collection starting with the thread.”

Miyake is of a similar mind. He established his Pleats Please franchise back in 1993, basing the popular label on a crinkled, high-twist 100 percent polyester he originally developed for a William Forsythe ballet. “I always wanted to create clothing that was universal—easy to wear, to care for, and that was also beautiful,” Miyake says. “As such, I became interested in polyester, and its potential, from the beginning of my career. Polyester is easy to work with and results in clothing that is well suited to the needs of a modern lifestyle.”

Jacobs certainly had no qualms about sending polyester knits, including cardigans and skirts, down Louis Vuitton’s runway. “There’s always that strange thing in fashion when something’s so hideous, it’s great,” he muses.

Made of acids and alcohols derived from petroleum, polyester initially accrued no negative connotations when it was invented in the Forties. By the Sixties it had found its way into myriad consumer products, especially bedding, curtains and clothing. In fact, it was greeted as a godsend. “It crystallized the modern life because it was wrinkle-free and easy to care for. You could just pop it in the washing machine,” says Pamela Golbin, chief fashion curator at the Arts Decoratifs museum in Paris.

Certain couturiers were just as enthusiastic during the decade of space-age chic. Polyester makers, who trademarked their versions of the fiber under such names as Dacron (DuPont), Trevira (Trevira), Fortrel (Wellman) and the defunct StayGard, gave designers such as Andre Courreges, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin manmade fabrics to incorporate into their high-fashion collections, Golbin says. Some of these creations figure in the museum’s collection, including a fluorescent yellow Cardin gown now prominently on display in its current exhibition, curated by Christian Lacroix.

According to Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at F.I.T. in New York, the hippie counterculture later helped reverse public opinion on all things synthetic, creating an extended period in fashion history when the predominant thinking became “cotton good, polyester bad.” That was a time when unnatural colors, wild prints and cheap versions of polyester cemented the fabric’s cheesy reputation. The men’s leisure suit, usually made of stretchy double-knit polyester, became a benchmark of bad taste.

Willie Walters, a course director at top London fashion school Central Saint Martins, says it’s a generational thing. “As a school­girl in the mid-Sixties, I can remember making an outfit from a paper pattern in my sewing class, in apricot polyester. It was not easy to sew. The outfit was quite hideous, and I never actually wore it,” she recalls.

Walters’s young students, however, have no such hang-ups and are encouraged to “make up their own minds regarding the possible virtues of polyester. I would not expect them to have only negative associations.” She says they’re more likely to find humor in the fabric’s artificiality—and appreciate its structural qualities.

That wasn’t the case during the Eighties, when many designers shifted their attention to luxury natural fabrics like silk and wool, Steele explains. Yet some, led by the Japanese, continued to experiment with polyester, prized for its ability to register surface effects such as crinkling and puckering. Today, Steele detects a resurgent interest in so-called “techno textiles.”

For his part, Jacobs says there is plenty to love about polyester, starting with a “radiance to the color” not achievable with natural fibers. What’s more, there’s a “beauty in the plasticness of nylons and polyesters” and “a roundness in polyester that you can’t achieve in natural fabrics unless they’re really heavy.”

Steele allows that some of the early polyesters were stifling to wear, reinforcing the view that natural fibers were “purer, more healthy and virtuous.” That reputation is starting to wane. “Cotton may seem natural and virtuous, but the growing and processing can turn out to be more environmentally destructive,” she notes.

Waters admits that the day may never come when a customer walks into a boutique and asks, “Do you have any polyester?” But at least no one is likely to recoil in horror. “Now people just shrug and think, Well, I can roll it in my suitcase,” he says.

In fact, fabric content is pretty much a nonissue for most customers of designer fashions today, according to Sarah Rutson, the ultra-chic fashion director for Hong Kong–based department store Lane Crawford, “It’s all about the style and the design. They don’t care what it’s made of, especially if it’s Lanvin,” she says. “I’m not even concerned about it.”

Case in point: In some recent Lanvin collections, Elbaz used parachute silk, which is available widely and cheaply in Asia. Yet Rutson’s customers who buy Lanvin, one of today’s hottest labels, didn’t balk. “If he made a collection out of sackcloth, it would work,” she quips.

Golbin agrees fabric content is a non-issue, “unless it’s ultraluxurious. I’m not sure people look at the composition today, except for 100 percent cashmere.”

Jacobs says he prefers when polyester is “not pretending to be silk. There are a couple of mills that are really great. We’ve always used it. Right now, fashion is about a look, and people will buy what they like the look of.”

Elbaz notes that Lanvin’s polyester, while less expensive than other fabrics he uses, was more technically challenging because of its light and delicate nature. “We had to double and triple the fabric and use couture techniques of sewing, draping and cutting to mold the fabric,” he says.

Given that the Seventies represented Jacobs’s formative fashion years, he says he harbors “fond memories of polyester” and DuPont’s Qiana nylon, another favorite. “I don’t have any aversion to it,” he says. “I have three pairs of polyester pants from Comme des Garçons, and I love them.”

Ditto for Waters, an avowed fan of Kawakubo’s, who is famous for her intentionally crinkled and rumpled polyester suits. In fact, his only lament for the fabric is that he has to give a crash course in fashion design to his dry cleaner in Baltimore “because they try to fix it.”