Could anti-viral fabrics protect you from COVID-19? Here's our breakdown of the fashion trend and the science behind it
Fashion and science may seem like strange bedfellows. But, most designers, engineers and even scientists would say otherwise. Sure, the drapability of a fabric — if one ought to use tulle or organza or whether a silhouette is in vogue — would seem like a trivial pursuit when set against the discovery of life-saving vaccines or drugs. But beneath the glamourous facade and the extravagant finery, the fashion industry is constantly undergoing disruptive changes due to rapid advancements in technology. From mathematically crafted algorithmic bras created for women postmastectomy and garments engineered to grow with their wearer to 3D-printed clothing and accessories, the last decade has seen the design industry from across the globe use their scientific knowledge to develop clothing for the future.
As the pandemic drives innovation across multiple sectors, anti-viral fabrics that claim to ‘neutralise’ the coronavirus have captured the fashion industry’s imagination. As more and more global textile labels enter the fray and unveil their ‘ground-breaking’ technology, we explore this fabric trend and — if, in fact, your clothes can protect you from COVID-19.
“Some of the most interesting bridges between biology and design are happening now,” says Rajendra Agarwal, Managing Director of the Donear Group. Best known as the major supplier of suiting fabrics to companies including Louis Philippe, Van Heusen, Peter England, Blackberry and Wills Lifestyle, Donear was the first to introduce the novel anti-viral fabrics to the Indian market. This innovation was pioneered by the Swiss company, HeiQ. A proprietary technology developed by this European group, the patent-pending formulation, used by Donear, acts like waterproofing. Vetted by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, the treated material was tested against a virus similar to COVID-19, and claims to be resistant to and can destroy the coronavirus within minutes of contact.
Business of fashion
Now, the use of protective treatment on clothing is not new. In fact, anti-bacterial apparel was relatively widespread before the COVID-19 outbreak (Remember your odour-free and sweat-resistant gym clothes?) However, this feature was marketed as a way for consumers to reduce the frequency of doing their laundry. But, the pandemic has hastened demand for protective qualities. “People want to be prepared. Knowing that my suit does not just avoid wrinkles, but can also protect me from viruses...now that is a feature that is great to have,” shares Rajendra, explaining that HeiQ’s ViroBlock fabric is effective up to 30 washes. Donear Group has been the first major fashion player in India to enter this sphere (followed by Shiva Texyarn, Arvind Limited — who have also partnered with HeiQ), and its treated fabrics have already made inroads into the menswear pret segment through the popular ready-to-wear brand Zodiac. Launched as a capsule collection, the range of ‘COVID-resistant apparel’ is minimal and currently only offers one cotton option of the classic formal shirt in white (Rs 2,499).
Runway to rack
However, brands like Lenzing are looking at a much larger reveal — targeting the couture brands and runway shows, while extending an extensive range of eco-friendly, anti-viral, luxury fabric options. “Most anti-viral finishes have limitations — they can only be used on certain fabrics, and often hamper comfort and hand-feel. Ecologically-responsible and circular fashion have always been mainstays for Lenzing, and the H+ Technology was developed along with Ruby Mills, with this in mind,” says Avinash Mane, Commerical Head - South Asia, Lenzing.
Rolling out the new treated range of their sustainable wood fabrics, ECOVERO and TENCEL, the Austrian label currently has designers Rajesh Pratap Singh, Anita Dongre and Ritu Kumar onboard. Couture silhouettes and prêt options are only a matter of time!
Purely a science-driven start-up, Bengaluru-based I Shield is the first to launch a wholly ‘Made in India’ Covidkilling mask. The six-layered mask is made with a patent-pending tekFABRIK that is infused with an IS 212 molecule. Tested at The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram, the fabric has a 99.99% kill rate on SARSCoV-2, we learn. Crafted from cotton, the masks are available in solid colours and will launch later this month. Rs 199.
Chennai-based Defend & Protecht has introduced a range of multi-functional protective masks that use four of HeiQ’s technologies. Designed and developed in three-layer variants, the masks not only destroy viruses but are thermoregulated and odour-controlled for comfort. Patterns include checks, ikat prints and solid colours. Rs 250.
Science of the time
It is easy to be sceptical of a claim that you wouldn’t want to personally test — and so was Twitter, which soon took on the role of the judge. While the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) stepped in to verify multiple claims, the Indian scientific community is certainly rallying behind the innovation. Hear it from Dr Taslimarif Saiyed, who is the Director and COO at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), conceptualised by the Department of Biotechnology. “There have been multiple efforts toward creating anti-microbial fabrics. But most of the time these applications are largely used within a hospital setting. Over the years, this technology has also been integrated by performancewear companies like Nike and Adidas. The idea of anti-viral or anti-bacterial fabrics is that chemical molecules that neutralise pathogens and microbes have been integrated into the fabric. I would not call this an invention, I would say that it is a combination of knowledge and application.”
While Dr Prakash Vasudevan, Director at South Indian Textile Research Association (SITRA) — one of the four centres of excellence by the Ministry of Textiles — stands by the science, he calls the practicality of anti-viral ensembles into question. “Complete anti-viral clothing makes the best sense in hospitals and for front-line workers. It is highly unlikely that one would find themselves strolling through a crowd — all of whom are infected. Masks not only make practical sense, it is the most logical move.”
A similar consumer discretion of those buying into the anti-viral trend is what the founder of the fashion trend forecasting start-up F-trend, Dhruva Tripathi predicts. “Given the level of uncertainty, first and foremost, consumers are most interested in protective masks. We have already seen the fashion industry convert a medical tool into a fashion statement. In the long run, given that COVID-19 is such a transformative event, this theme will surely be taken up in some collections.”
One step ahead of the trend predictions is Rocky Star. The designer, who has worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Superstar Rajinikanth, is well into planning his next collection incorporating the fabric, “This anti-viral fabric is going to help people feel safe. I’m really excited to use it in my upcoming collection and will definitely showcase it at the London Fashion Week in the coming season. Fashion has always been about meeting people and socialising. This innovation is going to be a big help.”
But others have their reservations and prefer to wait. House of Masaba was among the first Indian labels to develop a range of non-surgical, designer masks for public consumption. However, fashion doyenne Masaba is steering clear from the new textile — at least for now. “It’s a no. We might look into it at a later date. But, not right now.”