Innovative brands are incorporating technical fabrics into athleisure and workleisure attire as consumers increasingly seek comfortable-yet-attractive clothing for everything from workouts to the home office. This review explores where to buy the best athleisure and workleisure clothing and the rise of the performance fabric craze (and whether you need to buy into it).
What are performance fabrics (aka technical fabrics)?
Performance fabrics, also known as technical fabrics, are thread blends that are engineered for specific properties. For example, performance fabrics may be engineered to be anti-microbial, moisture-wicking, and/or waterproof or water-resistant. These fabrics are then incorporated into clothing for added comfort, durability and performance.
Utilizing technical fibers for clothing is nothing new. Inventors have been innovating with new fabrics for centuries.
The original Macintosh coat was a performance garment way back in the early 19th Century, incorporating a new innovation, rubberized cotton, to protect against the elements. And materials like Gore-Tex and elastane (aka Lycra or Spandex) have been incorporated into clothing for decades.
Examples of performance fabrics
- Micro Modal (micromodal) – a specialized type of synthetic rayon fabric that is highly breathable and wicks moisture. It’s used in underwear and undershirts produced by companies including Tommy John, Mack Weldon and Atelier Traditionnel.
- Elastane, Spandex and Lycra – Elastane, also known as spandex, is a synthetic fiber produced by treating a polyurethane polymer. The elastane (spandex) fabric gives clothing added stretch and is found in everything from waistbands to chinos to leggings. Elastane, which is used more often in Europe, and spandex, used more often in America, refer to the same fabric. Lycra is the trademarked brand name of the spandex fiber produced by the Lycra Company.
- Lyocell is a performance fiber made by by spinning dissolved bleached wood pulp. Lyocell can be found in clothing like undershirts and accessories including washable face masks.
Proprietary technical fabrics and performance clothing blends
In addition to the synthetic fabrics above, a number of clothing companies have developed their own proprietary performance fabrics for athleisure and technical clothing. For example:
- ComfortStrength – Tommy John makes stretch performance dress shirts from their proprietary ComfortStrength™ thread fabric comprised of 72% Cotton, 23% Nylon, and 5% Spandex.
- CoolNylon – RibbedTee’s signature, silk-like stretch fabric wicks and absorbs moisture. See my review of RibbedTee’s CoolNylon boxer-briefs. (Sadly, RibbedTee is winding down operations.)
- SilverTech – Rhone carriers a line of SilverTech products, whose fabrics are woven with silver thread, which have permanent odor control properties.
- Tencel is a brand name version of Lyocell, first commercialized in the 1970s. Tencel is made by Austrian textile firm Lenzing AG.
- ThermoLite is a synthetic material used in insulation and fibers made by Invista, which is used in activewear, denim, outerwear and shoes among other segments.
- X-static® nylon is a specialty nylon fiber coated with silver that has antibacterial and anti-odor properties. Lululemon puts X-static nylon in some of their socks.
- Toray Industries makes a wide range of synthetic fibers that are incorporated into athleisure and workleisure clothing including Primeflex (metallic-laced, wool-like fiber incorporated into Ministry of Supply’s Kinetic line), Sillook (silk-like fabric), FieldSensor (quick-drying, moisture-absorbing), ultrasuade, and semiramis (specialty fabric made in Japan used in formal clothing).
The rise of athleisure and comfort-driven business casual and office attire (workleisure)
Here’s what’s new: Fashion and lifestyle brands have popularized the idea of athleisure and now workleisure, promoting the notion that you can wear something as comfortable as sweatpants in everyday life from workouts to the grocery store to work.
This athleisure trend began with brands like lululemon and Athleta, and was initially focused on utilizing technical fabrics for yoga pants and exercise wear for women.
Today, there are a variety of athleisure brands that have sprung up as alternatives to lululemon. Moreover, an entire industry has emerged to incorporate stretchy performance fabrics into everything from yoga pants to washable face masks in response to COVID-19 to professional and business casual attire, including dresses, blouses and skirts for women and button down shirts, chino pants, overcoats and suits for men.
Investor Chris Burch, who participated in an investment round in athleisure brand Swet Tailor, observed when making that investment that, “The move towards greater and greater comfort is one of the most important trends in the fashion industry today and it is not going away anytime soon.”
Robert Ordway of Capitol Hill Clothiers echoed that sentiment, telling me in an interview that “tech fabric with stretch is being implemented in everything.”
Even traditional retailers like Bonobos are getting in on the technical fabric trend. Bonobos has completely embraced stretch fabrics across their chinos and other product lines, to the point that I couldn’t find any 100% cotton chinos options available to purchase on their website.
The trend has become so popular that I felt compelled to add an entire section of performance fabric button downs to my rundown of the best places to buy men’s dress shirts online.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic sparking new demand for comfortable work-from-home attire, the world seeing even more of a trend towards technical fabrics, which are being incorporated into athleisure and business casual and professional workleisure wear.
Where to buy athleisure and workleisure clothing made from performance fabrics for women and men
With that as background, here are several top options to buy performance clothing with technical fabrics for men and women. The brands below are putting technical and performance fabrics in everything from underwear and bras to dress shirts, suits and dresses.
Ministry of Supply
Founded by MIT graduates in 2011, Ministry of Supply sells performance professional and business casual clothing suitable for the office for men and women through its website and through and handful of brick-and-mortar stores.
For women, offerings include blouses, bottoms, blazers, suits, dresses, tees and tanks, and outerwear. For men, Ministry of Supply offers shirts, pants, shorts, blazers, suits, outerwear, sweaters, polos and t-shirts.
In my interview with co-founder and CEO Aman Advani, he advises newcomers that,
“Our signature Apollo dress shirt is the place to start. Made with NASA phase change materials, the breathable, wrinkle-resistant shirt is 19 times more breathable than traditional cotton and regulates your core temperature in real-time.”
One of my best-dressed friends in DC swears by their button-down shirts and technical pants.
For those of you who live in or near Washington, DC, Ministry of Supply maintains a store in Georgetown.
prAna, which Pam and Beaver Theodosakis founded in the 1990s out of a California garage, specializes in sustainably-made athleisure and workleisure apparel for men and women.
The company makes casual basics including joggers, tops, bras, leggings and yoga pants and other basics from sustainable performance and natural fabrics, making it one of my favorite alternatives to lululemon. PrAna also sells workleisure apparel including foundation dresses made from TENCEL fabric, denim with a touch of spandex, 100% cotton button down shirts for guys, and outdoor Stretch Zion pants for women made with a woven fabric blend of nylon and spandex.
PrAna incorporates a variety of fabrics in its clothing including 100% cotton, “Luxara,” made from Recycled Nylon and Lycra Elastane, Recycled polyester-TENCEL Lyocell blend stretch fabrics, “Chakara” compression stretch jersey, and other blends of hemp, polyester, and cotton.
In 2008, after being let go from his job, Tom Patterson and partner Erin Fujimoto founded Tommy John. What began as a shoe-string venture selling undershirts out of a San Diego apartment has grown into a multimillion dollar business, premised on the idea that new underwear can change your life.
For men, the company sells everything from boxer briefs made out of a silky-soft, non-pilling blended micro modal and spandex fabric to a 360 sport collection for exercise.
For women, Tommy John boasts bralettes, demi and wireless bras, briefs, camisoles and more. Tommy John also specializes in longjohns and loungewear for both women and men.
As I outline in my guide to the best dress shirts for men, Tommy John also makes stretchy performance dress shirts made of ComfortStrength™ thread fabric of 72% Cotton, 23% Nylon, and 5% Spandex. Their tech fabric shirts also feature InvisiGrip® technology to keep you “streamlined, tailored, and always tucked in.”
Amazon has developed a number of private label brands for men and a separate lineup of Amazon Fashion brands for women. Several of Amazon’s Fashion Brands, including Outdoor Ventures, The Knitwear Lab and Peak Velocity, incorporate performance fabrics like ThermoLite, a synthetic material engineered for warmth and breathability,
Ray Li founded Sene, which aims to bring radical comfort and performance to bespoke suit tailoring for women and men. Their FlexTech Suit is custom-made with stretchy, technical athleisure performance fabric.
Sene had an amazingly successful launch on Kickstarter, raising $101,000 in just 14 days. Take their SmartFit Quiz to get fitted with a suit without a measuring tape.
Former banker Joanna Dai quit her job in finance in 2016 to found her eponymous womenswear line focused on elevated and supremely comfortable workwear. Dai Wear makes eco-friendly, luxury performance womenswear for professional woman. Dai’s fabrics, which are incorporated into their suits, dresses, pants, skirts, blouses, outerwear and more, dry quickly and are machine washable.
Mizzen and Main
Founded in 2012 by Kevin Lavelle, Mizzen and Main is perhaps the granddaddy of the technical fabric craze sweeping menswear and is best known for its dressy, stretchy button down technical performance shirts for work.
Mizzen and Main features several different proprietary technical fabrics throughout its business clothing lines that span business shirts, casualwear and performance chinos.
These fabrics include the stretchy and lightweight Leeward fabric, made of 85% Polyester and 15% Spandex, which makes for a crisp and traditional business look; the Spinnaker fabric, a very soft knit and advance performance fabric with serious stretch, comprised of 46% Polyester and Nylon 46% with 8% Lycra; and the Cunningham fabric, which features a soft, fine gauge knit.
Menswear startup Bonobos has gone all-in on technical fabrics and performance clothing for men. The company now offers everything from tech wool dress pants to tech button down shirts, Italian performance suits and blazers, and performance t-shirts henleys and polos. Each of these categories features stretchy performance fabrics that are meant to repel liquids, wick away sweat and resist wrinkling.
Rhone was founded by entrepreneurs Nate Checketts, Kyle McClure, Carras Holmstead and Casey Edgar in 2014. The brand prides itself on using super-high end technical fabrics and thoughtful details to create unique and attractive activewear for men.
Rhone utilizes proprietary Silvertech threads to sew silver, which has anti-microbial properties, into select clothing.
While Rhone may be best known for workout wear, they also make comfortable commuter dress shirts and pants from performance fabrics.
State and Liberty
Named after an intersection at the University of Michigan, where founders Lee Moffie and Steven Fisher met, State and Liberty is focused on performance clothing for athletic builds.
I love the look of State and Liberty’s performance business clothing, particularly their often-daring outerwear.
Following the trend of other digital native brands who are turning to brick-and-mortar, State and Liberty has opened several stores throughout the United States, including a pop-up-turned-permanent-store in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood.
North and Mark
Chicagoan Steve Cho launched North & Mark in 2018. He founded the brand after years of suffering through Chicago’s long, hard winters and wishing for professional-looking coats that insulated against the cold as well as sportswear.
North and Mark produces “outerwear for everyday life.”
Unlike many of the other brands on the list, whose products feature synthetic fabrics throughout, many of North and Mark’s coats feature a natural fabric outer layer consisting of wool or cashmere, with the performance fabrics built into the jacket. I absolutely adore the look of their Bordin wool plaid overcoat with Primaloft Gold insulation.
Founded by entrepreneurs Brian Berger and Michael Isaacman, Mack Weldon has a great range of performance-enhanced men’s basics, including undershirts, briefs and trunks, flannel shirts, pants, jackets and socks. In Modern Fellows’ comprehensive guide to the best places to buy socks online, I wrote that Mack Weldon’s socks are:
manufactured in WRAP-certified facilities in China and Thailand…[and] come in a series of clean-looking solids, stripes and dots. They feature a cushioned footbed, extended crew length and a blend of cotton/spandex that is engineered to recover and hold its shape throughout the day.
In addition, Mack Weldon’s WARMKNIT Flannel Shirt features lightweight flannel material made of 75% Polyester, 21% Thermolite and 4% Merino Wool is meant to keep heat in while wicking moisture away.
RibbedTee makes my absolute favorite 100% Supima Cotton, made-in-the-USA ribbed undershirts, but founder and CEO Mike Schwarz also makes a separate range of underwear and undershirts that utilize performance fabrics.
RibbedTee’s Evo Tencel undershirts and CoolNylon boxer briefs are both are made from performance fabrics meant to wick moisture and deter odor.
In my review of their G3 CoolNylon Men’s Boxer Brief, I noted that the boxers have:
proven to be a great option for the gym as well as for everyday wear. I like the silky stretch fabric in the boxers more than I do in the undershirt, and its moisture wicking and absorbing characteristics make it a good choice for exercising or for wearing all day long. They’re also tag-free, which makes a big difference.
Adam Bolden and David Kranz founded Swet Tailor to create comfortable and attractive casual clothing for everyday wear.
Bolden described the ethos of Swet Tailor to Front Office Sports as “elevating what ‘casual look’ is today. Our brand can be worn to your kids’ soccer game, lounging on the couch, running errands, and everything in between.”
Swet Tailor makes everything from performance suits to button down shirts to joggers with tech fabric, and has gained a following within NFL locker rooms.
Do you need tech fabrics in your professional and business casual clothing?
The real question is whether anyone needs elastane or proprietary, moisture-wicking, liquid-repelling or odor-absorbing fabrics in their everyday wear. The answer is: It depends on your preference.
On one hand, the appetite for technical fabrics is evidence that these brands are onto something:
- Brands are proving that business casual and professional wear can be comfortable, wrinkle-free and easy to maintain. I love the look of some of the product coming out of Ministry of Supply in particular, and a friend of mine is a complete convert to their tech-fabric laced professional attire.
- I also like the way brands like North and Mark are incorporating technical fabrics on the inside while still offering traditional, natural fabrics like wool and cashmere on the outside.
On the other hand, I’ll admit to being a little skeptical about the ability of performance fabrics to replace natural fibers in my entire professional wardrobe.
- I’ve tried suits enhanced with elastane before and wasn’t impressed with the way it affected the drape and feel of the suit.
- I also spend a lot of time focusing on getting the fit of my shirts, pants and suits as perfect as possible, including by relying on custom tailoring when I can. I’ve noticed that at least some of the performance menswear brands do not offer close-to-custom sizes (with the notable exception of Sene, which delivers made-to-measure technical suits for women and men.) I’m not ready to exchange my custom-tailored button down shirts for a closet-full of Mizzen and Main’s “size small” button-downs anytime soon.
- Finally, I wonder about the feel and breath-ability of synthetic-laced fabrics. I find my skin gets irritated from Tencel and poly-cotton blends, and can’t imagine I’m the only one who prefers a 100% Supima cotton tee or a regular-old cotton button down.
What do you think?
Have you incorporated any of the brands above into your professional or business casual wardrobe? Are there other brands that belong on this list?
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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