Functional Fabric Fair - Insights

Insights from the 2023 Functional Fabric Fair, focused on new trends - Part 2 of 2
Eric Goodwin

In Part 1 of this article we focused on some of the exciting sustainability developments in the sport and outdoor industry we saw at Functional Fabric Fair, here in Part 2 we’ll explore some other insights from the show.

The massive gap between industry and consumer materials

This one is definitely not new, and we’ve discussed it before, but it really struck me how wide the material gap between consumer and industry has become. The fabrics available to companies that can order a “mill run” of fabric (on average 1000-3000 yards) is so incredible. Some of these fabrics are so cutting edge - fabrics with incredible performance, a wide variety of beautiful colours and textures, and remarkable sustainability (see Part 1) - they really are incredible. And of course you’re ordering a mill run right from the fabric mill so the cost for these incredible fabrics? I would say the average is between $3 to $9/yard. For example, a mill run of a custom Bluesign certified recycled polyester waterproof breathable 3 layer shell fabric could cost about $5/yard. Of course that’s not to say there aren’t expensive fabrics out there at the industry level, it’s more to show that companies that can order a mill run are at a huge advantage.

And trims! Zippers, buckles, snaps, closures, velcro, boxes, hang tags, labels, etc. are equally incredible. Waterproof zippers have been improved with easier sliders and a more finished appearance. Buckles have been improved to be slimmer and stronger - even the sound of the click the buckle makes when closed is tuned to specific markets - runners like a light soft *click* while military likes a big burly *click!* (even if the buckle strength is the same). And of course it’s all colour dyed to your preference.

As a home sewer or startup designer can you get these amazing fabrics and trims? No, not really. There are of course great fabric shops out there, but going to a show like this really puts into perspective the gap between industry and consumer.

That gap is something we’ve been discussing a lot recently here at Lathley. Could we be the ones to get these incredible materials into the hands of aspiring designers and home sewers? Could Lathley be the one to democratize design? We’ll have to see…

How hard it is to make soft goods in North America

At the fair, I was chatting with fabric mills and suppliers and I mentioned that we plan to manufacture in Canada (future plans 😉) -  they were borderline shocked. “Do we even ship to Canada?” one supplier asked a colleague. “You know it’ll be so much easier and cheaper to manufacture in Asia.” another said.

It’s not just that nearly every product is made in Asia, it’s that the materials are made in Asia and designed to be shipped within Asia. Shipping and importing fabric (which is big and heavy) to Canada or the US from Taiwan is very different (and way more expensive) than shipping fabric from Taiwan to China.

Great materials and products can be made in Asia and can be made ethically and sustainably, but it can make it very difficult to compete if you want to manufacture in North America. The system is set up to manufacture in Asia, so if you plan to manufacture elsewhere you’re going to run into some headwinds.

How many people are in the industry

New fabrics and trim are amazing to see, but one of the main reasons it’s always fun to go to events like this is the people. Catching up with friends and colleagues across the industry and meeting new ones is always a blast! One thing struck me at this show as well, just how many people are in the industry.

This is exciting because I think a lot of times careers and design roles in the outdoor industry can seem coveted and mythic, but they really are out there! Everywhere you turn there are designers and raw material sourcing teams from companies like Nike, Arc’teryx, The North Face, etc. and tons of smaller and upstart brands (like ours!). Even some students set up a booth to display their design work and pass out resumes - and they were featuring some fantastic work!

There were thousands of people at this event, which is only a small fraction of the industry. A brand like Arc’teryx might only send a few people to a show like this and they employ over 1,000 people. So if you’re a new designer, or a start up brand, or someone thinking of a career change - know that there are opportunities out there!

Performance doesn’t mean synthetic

“Stay away from cotton” is a common saying in anything sport and outdoor, but that saying seems to be fading as new technologies and materials are being developed. Performance fabric no longer means just polyester or nylon, natural fibers are making big gains.

With synthetic fabrics being petroleum derived, natural fibers like cotton, bamboo, wool, linen, etc. are becoming more popular in the outdoor industry - especially in base and mid layers (any hiker will swear by merino wool socks).

Animal derived materials like leather, suede, and sheepskin, along with insulations like duck and goose down are also becoming more popular in the outdoor industry (although down has always been a popular insulator). These materials are durable and biodegradable, and as byproducts of the meat industry (livestock like cows, pigs, sheep, geese and ducks - are not killed exclusively for leather or feathers) and these materials would otherwise have to be incinerated.

Synthetic fabrics will still outperform natural fibers in a lot of ways so synthetics aren’t going anywhere, but if you’re looking to make technical gear you don’t necessarily have to reach for poly or nylon anymore.

Colours and Trends of 2024/25

Finally we attended a presentation on the colour trends for the 2024/25 season which was definitely a valuable presentation. I’m not sure if we’re allowed to show the actual colour palettes they presented but unless you can custom order fabric it’s not very relevant anyway.

I wasn’t too shocked by any of the colour schemes, it seems to be your more neutral earth tones with the occasional pop of saturated colour which has been the trend in the outdoor industry for a few years already now.

One note is that black and dark colours like navy will of course remain in style. A few quotes from the presenter:

“Black and navy is the backbone, you can always have black”

“You can always add black to any of these colours”

One interesting note is that they mentioned shimmering, shiny and silky a lot for the trends in 2024/25 - which is pretty counter to the current matte trend in the outdoor industry. We’ll have to see how that goes but that could be interesting.

Finally they had a few notes on upcoming trends and specifically trends for Gen-Z which is becoming a larger portion of the outdoor industry: “Perfection is boring”

“The next generation isn't into perfect, it’s into second hand, repurposing, seeing the new in the old”

I agree with these trends and it’s something I have seen more and more recently, especially with younger consumers and with savvy brands and designers. I think younger consumers know there are finite resources on earth and are getting into repurposing, repairing, and patchwork as a result.

Whatever the reason for the trend, I'm happy to see it. I think it’s a great direction and I hope it persists. I think it will be hitting the sport and outdoor industry in a big way in the coming years so keep an eye out.

I hope all this was valuable and helps you in your design journey!