Tennis clothing is at the forefront of fabric technology, but it appears fashion is still the big attraction for consumers.
By Kent Oswald
Is there a “killer app” in the future of tennis couture? Or will the amazing science and technology in which today’s tennis togs are steeped continue to produce nothing more than shrugs of indifference from tennis players?
Those are the questions manufacturers and retailers ponder while textile technology moves into the realm of science fiction, even as customers appear unmoved from the primary concern of “how do I look?”
Tennis clothes are at the forefront of a high-tech clothing revolution. Claire Ortiz, Wilson’s global business director of footwear and apparel, describes Wilson’s “smart design” approach as employing nanotechnology for performance benefits as well as, “[utilizing] some of the most advanced laser cutting, heat/seam sealing and dye cut lamination techniques in critical movement areas of the body.”
“All of our apparel is designed with ‘made to move’ features specific to the needs of a tennis player,” she adds. “Some of the special features included in all of our designs are: ball pocket solutions, abrasion-free seams, zoned cooling — focused on areas of the body where tennis players sweat most.”
Cotton is no longer king in tennis clothing. Also long gone is the choice between a John Travolta/Saturday Night Fever white polyester that didn’t breathe and a comfortable, “natural” cotton that absorbed sweat and, as the match went on, grew heavier and more uncomfortable.
As exemplified by Bolle’s High Performance line of tennis clothes that are 92 percent polyester with an 8 percent spandex blend and feature a four-in-one fabric treatment, most of today’s high-end skirts, shorts and tops are created from specially engineered performance fabrics or with polyester fibers that knitting mills have applied nanotechnology to in order to produce one or more additional layers and new characteristics.
One standard tennis-clothing layer improves the “hand-feel” of the fabric, making it comfortable through at least 50 washings, while another offers a barrier against the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. A third provides the ability to “wick” away body-produced moisture, spreading it along the garment’s surface for ready evaporation into the air. Most of the better tennis shirts and dresses also include a layer of anti-microbial polymers that bond with the fabric to fight staining and odors as well as anti-static attributes that make them less likely to cling. (Buyers, though, do need to check care labels — some features may be negated if, for instance, the clothing is put into a dryer with a dryer sheet, such as Bounce.)
Fashion Still Rules
But while almost every one of these technological advances has its own “wow” factor, no individual advance seems able to move the needle in a category where fashion rules.
Explains Bruce Levine, general manager of the Courtside Racquet Club in Lebanon, N.J., “There’s a small percentage of consumers who are concerned with the technical features of the fabric, maybe 15 percent, and the majority of those are probably the better and more frequent players. The other 85 percent are more concerned with the style and fashion. Most say something like, ‘I saw this on TV,’ or ‘This is a cool-looking shirt.’”
Clothing sales and marketing is very different from the racquet and footwear categories where the technological benefits are front and center when selling to the consumer. With better sportswear, as Tail CEO Jerry Edwards says, high-tech is often ho-hum. He describes his own company’s tennis line as cutting edge in offering the advantages of working with today’s better mills, but devoted to the woman who plays frequently and wants attractive, functional apparel to complement her game. Someone used to shopping at better department stores and boutiques for her everyday clothes is going to expect the same quality and fashion-forward thinking in her sportswear.
“Nobody ignores [the technological advances],” says Edwards, but “performance is a cost to entry.” In the end, the buying decision will rest on how well the customer believes the clothes make them look.
If focusing on looks feels like one is only getting half the story, consider the future as seen through the researching eye of Ingrid Johnson, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and the co-author of industry standard “Fabric Science” (soon to appear in its 10th edition). She talks up the improvements in the production of filaments and microfibers, the leaps that have been made beginning in the 1980s by fabric engineers who reverse-engineer solutions from problems. Soon enough, she believes, “The only thing that [won’t] be solved is what will improve your tennis game… at the end of the day you are still working with a human.”
The Wonders of Today’s Fabric
With textile solutions being applied to everything from repairs within the body to the exploration of space, it isn’t surprising that fabrics can be infused with details such as fragrance or moisture-management and expected to hold up to the demands of consumers who aren’t always particularly careful about reading their washing instructions. As for the game benefits, a bit of compression, strategically adding spandex or putting it in the right sequence, can support muscles and keep them from tightening up under severe conditions. “We can make things that change our life tremendously,” says Johnson about the current and future wonders of fabric science.
Unlike many in the industry, Ortiz believes players do notice and value the wonders. “I don’t think there is little appreciation from players and retailers when buying and using our apparel,” she notes. “I believe products should be easy to understand, easy to wear, look and feel great. A player will notice the difference between good product and bad product once they put it on and play in it.”
But others stick to the line that in tennis apparel, science alone doesn’t sell — it supports.
“For us, a well-designed, active product combines functionality, comfort, ease of care and high style,” explains Fila USA’s director of apparel design, Freya Tamayo, when talking about the bold and colorful Pier Luigi collection. “It is a balance. … A high importance is placed on the ability for the wearer to perform at the best of his/her ability and look fantastic doing so.”
The final words in a sales pitch are always about fashion. As Dave Malinowski, group category manager for tennis specialty at Adidas, explains after ticking off some of the company’s innovations that bring a maximum amount of comfort to the court whether the day is roasting, soggy or chilly: “No matter what the trend, in the end, [our] best product is one that not only functions on an extremely high level, but also offers durability and comfort to the athlete and, of course, looks great on court.”
Putting Function Above Fashion?
Despite technology taking a back seat in the sale, the search for the killer app goes on. In 2008, for example, Adidas purchased Textronics. The company focuses on clothing that integrate sensing fibers into fabrics so athletes can measure heart rate and respiration, vital statistics or even how they are moving. Recently, that company’s NuMetrex division began selling a strapless heart-monitoring system built into a shirt, tank or sports bra.
Could clothes that monitor the heart presage the coming of the killer app that puts function above fashion in the mind of the consumer? Unlikely, although the melding of player and clothing is certainly something that excites people in the industry.
According to Michaela Nusser, tomorrow’s excitement will be found with wearable electronics and smart materials. “I think the challenge,” says Nusser, a professor in the Department of Sports Equipment and Materials at the Technische Universität München, “is to produce textiles that work like a ‘second skin,’ in the [sense] of cooling [me] when I sweat, warming [me] when I am freezing.”
Maybe no advance, even one that somehow fixes the errant ball toss or keeps the racquet head above the wrist on a snap volley at the net, will mean more than fabrics that shape and drape to make the player look Verdasco-esque or Ivanovic-like. Despite the continuing advances in textile technology, the key to sales and marketing may always reside in appearance, the overriding maxim to tennis clothing sales being that if you look good, you will feel good — and play well enough.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.