How luxury fashion brands are investing in technology to offer sustainable, eco-friendly clothing style magazine south china morning post

Green entrepreneur Nancy Johnston accidentally came across Khangai yaks while she was on a trip to Mongolia. She discovered that the yak fibres were “as soft as cashmere and warmer than Merino wool”. Johnston, of Chinese ancestry, was fascinated by the relationship between the people, the animals and the land.

After she returned to London, she started a social business with the Mongolian herders and set up the company Tengri in 2014. Tengri has become a luxury lifestyle brand specialising in clothing, accessories and home interiors made from Khangai Noble Yarns and Fibres. It purchases yak fibres directly from co-operatives that now represent and benefit more than 4,500 nomadic herder families.


In the world of men’s fashion, it’s not the colour, cut or silhouette that is important nowadays – it’s the materials and the fabrics. “The big thing in fashion is innovation and sustainability,” fashion designer Phillip Lim said during Pitti Uomo in Florence.

“It is a problem we all face – the way that we consume. Resources will run out one day. How will we save ourselves? In fashion, it is important to determine how we can adopt technology to save [resources], from manufacturing to retail, and to be responsible for the world in the long run. It’s not just about making clothes any more.”

Like yarns and cashmere, wool is a 100 per cent natural material, and is sustainable as long as the sheep are treated well and the supply chain is run ethically. Among different types of wool, Merino wool from Australia is regarded as the finest.

Technology has taken the traditional wool to a new level, and has partly shaped the sportswear trend in recent years. Merino wool has been increasingly used in sportswear, and was used in the spring/summer collections by luxury brands, thanks to technological advancements, one of which is OPTIM processing. The process is an innovative breakthrough that can stretch 19-micron wool fibres between 40 and 50 per cent, making the fibres 3 to 3.5 micrometres finer on average. “The touch of it is similar to cashmere, but its price is more competitive as it is still wool. It’s extremely suitable for sportswear and outdoor outfits,” Lai says.

The athleisure trend has blurred the line between luxury collections and sportswear, and luxury brands are investing in groundbreaking technology to offer top-of-the-line clothing suited to dynamic movement. “Many luxury brands are combining sports elements with traditional craftsmanship, and mills are mixing wool with different fabrics to create something new and unique,” a spokesperson of The Woolmark Company says, revealing that a “wool denim” has been developed and is commercially available.

Leading fabric maker and luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna has been actively using Techmerino – made from pure Merino wool treated with special finishing techniques that result in a higher level of water resistance, elasticity, and thermal regulation – in its collections. The brand developed and produced this material itself.

Techmerino Wash & Go summer suits, launched for spring/summer this year, allow machine washing without altering their wearability and look. The material is also used in the brand’s Icon Warmer Ski Suit with an integrated heating system. Jackets are laced with heating panels that can generate heat up to 84 degrees Fahrenheit (28.8 degree Celsius) in less than a minute.

John Harrison, creative designer at Gieves & Hawkes, says: “[There has been] massive advancement in fabrics development. Both formal and casual [wear] are changing fast with ultrafine waterproof and eco-friendly fabrics. These modern fabrics give us the opportunity to reach newer consumers, who want a mix of technology and tradition.” He adds that the brand is trying to strike a balance between quality and innovation. “Lightweight comfort is trending for us right now.” The brand has more than 200 years of experience in creating the finest bespoke garments.

Wong says Lane Crawford has collaborated with various brands for a good cause. “We did a capsule collection of outerwear jackets with Phvlo, which uses a synthetic, recycled and water-resistant fabric from Japan. We also carry brands like Ecoalf, which uses fabrics completely recycled from things such as plastic bottles and old fish nets.”

Livia Firth, founder of Eco Age, a brand consultancy on sustainability with clients including Gucci and Chopard, says: “The real luxury is [where] your products come from and which stories you are telling. It is so much about design and style any more.”

Firth, the wife of English actor Colin Firth, cites Chopard as an example. “It’s a family-run business and all of its jewellery is handmade by craftsmen. The brand realised it did not know who were mining its gold or diamonds. It wanted to have this uniformity to its supply chain to tell the beautiful story,” she says. In 2013, the brand formed a partnership with the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) in Colombia.

Lim adds: “Fashion goes beyond appearance. It’s about sustainability, which is about the past, the present, and the future. You take the inspiration from the past, you think about the effect on the future, but the results need to be perfect for the present.”

DYNE won the inaugural International Woolmark Prize Innovation Award held at Pitti Uomo, earlier this year, with its collection of water-resistant wool jackets for snowboarding. The jackets were embedded with Near-Field Communication (NFC) chips to track users in case of avalanches.

The brand has been using the NFC technology in its garments, which has become its DNA. By placing an Android device over the NFC touchpoint on a garment, the consumer can learn all about the brand, where the garment was bought, and the materials it is made of. It even gives you access to the playlist that is playing at the brand’s office.