The Latest Trend in Your Work Wardrobe Stinks
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The Latest Trend in Your Work Wardrobe Stinks

Performance fabrics move from workout gear to business attire—with some odorous downsides

Thu, Oct 5, 2023 10:16amGrey Clock 4 min

Performance fabrics are moving out of the gym and into everyday clothes. Some men say that stinks.

The fabrics, usually a blend of polyester, spandex and other man-made fibres, have been a mainstay in workout gear for their sweat-wicking properties. Now apparel makers are using them for polo shirts, button-ups and suits. But a work day or wedding lasts a lot longer than a workout, giving the materials time to trap odours, cause breakouts and make you sweatier.

Tim Connon, a life insurance agent in Palmer, Tenn., got tired of adding a cup of baking soda to the wash to remove the mildew smell from his polyester-blend polo shirts, and eventually tossed them out. “It was ridiculous to have to take that extra step when the shirts shouldn’t smell in the first place,” he said.

Connon now wears only 100% cotton shirts, but said they are hard to find and more expensive. They also have to be ironed. “The performance shirts don’t wrinkle, but I couldn’t stand the smell and the itchiness of those fabrics,” the 31-year-old said.

Synthetic fibers repel water, which helps sweat evaporate but allows oil secretions from our bodies to build up on the fabric and trap odours, according to Renae Fossum, a senior director and research fellow at Procter & Gamble.

P&G has upgraded its detergents and introduced new products like Downy Rinse & Refresh, a fabric enhancer that works in the rinse cycle to strip away odours and residue that builds up on synthetic clothes. “We are trying to help consumers understand these issues are not in their head,” said Sammy Wang, a P&G senior scientist who specialises in fabric care.

Polyester is no stranger to friction. The fibre got its start in the 1930s lab of DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers. After Carothers got sidetracked by the discovery of nylon, British scientists picked up the thread and developed the first polyester fibre during World War II. DuPont bought the U.S. rights in 1946.

In the following decades, the fabric elbowed aside natural fibres like cotton, silk, linen and wool, thanks to its lower costs and easy care—you could throw it in the washing machine and let it drip-dry.

It was also suffocating, at least in its earlier forms. Wearing a 1970s polyester leisure suit was like “walking around in a Hefty bag,” said Alan Spielvogel, director of technical services at the National Cleaners Association, a dry cleaners trade group.

Clothing makers eventually added breathability, stretch, waterproofing and stain resistance. As athleisure took hold, polyester took off. Polyester surpassed cotton in 2002 and now outsells all other fibres, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Covid further fuelled polyester’s growth as people got used to wearing more comfortable clothes while stuck at home.

Although women have adopted performance fabrics for dressier attire, men have been the primary driver of demand because they tend to put a higher value on features like stain and wrinkle resistance, said Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel analyst at market research firm Circana.

Dermatologists say that with the popularity of these fabrics, they are seeing a jump in “sweat acne,” which is caused by a yeast that lives on our skin that invades our pores when we perspire.

Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist in King of Prussia, Pa., said sweat acne is more prevalent with performance fabrics in casual or work attire than workout clothes. “When you work out, you usually rinse off afterward,” she said. “If you are wearing a shirt for 8 to 12 hours, you are stuck in that fabric for longer stretches of time.”

She tells patients to try using Head & Shoulders shampoo as a body wash to degrease the skin.

Tyler Cenname, the co-founder of a furniture company, purposely chose a dress shirt made of performance fabric to wear to a Las Vegas wedding in August because he thought it would keep him cooler.

“I actually sweated more than if I was wearing a cotton shirt,” the 24-year-old said. “And I broke out in a rash.”

Zach Klempf, the founder of an automotive software company, bought a moisture-wicking suit to keep him dry when presenting to clients and working trade show booths. He hadn’t counted on the suit absorbing cigar smoke during industry cocktail hours.

“I can’t wear it anymore, because the smell is so off-putting,” said the 32-year-old San Francisco resident. He’s gone back to wool suits.

Some performance-fabric fans say the odours are a small price to pay for the added comfort and absence of armpit stains. To combat the stink factor, some brands treat the fabrics with antimicrobial finishes.

That coating can wear off, according to Tony Anzovino, chief sourcing and merchandising officer at Haggar Clothing, which uses performance fabrics in 70% of its products. Instead, Haggar uses a type of polyester fibre that is spun into a longer yarn called a filament that makes it harder for microbes to attach.

Jonathan Poston, a 48-year-old consultant, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., wonders if we’re asking too much of our clothes. “In the tech world we call it feature creep,” he said. “The same thing is happening with clothes. They have to tick all these boxes.” He only wears 100% cotton shirts.

“As someone who has to wear a shirt for 14 hours a day, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask my clothes to do a lot,” said Ben Perkins, the co-founder of &Collar, a men’s clothing brand that uses performance fabrics. Nevertheless, Perkins plans to introduce a cotton-blend shirt after customers said they wanted one.

“You need to serve the synthetic majority and the cotton minority,” he said.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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