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.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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A ‘cheeky’ seat takes out the top prize at Australia’s Next Top Designers Awards

A cash prize from Kanebridge Quarterly magazine, offered for the first time this year, drew a record number of entries for the design competition

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A versatile stool with a sense of fun took out the top prize at the Australia’s Next Top Designers awards at Design Show Australia last week.

The ‘Cheeky’ stool designed by Maryam Moghadam was the unanimous winner among the judging panel, which included Kanebridge Quarterly magazine Editor in Chief, Robyn Willis, Workshopped Creative Director Olaf Sialkowski, Design Show event organiser, Andrew Vaughan and Creative Director at Flexmirror Australia, Matt Angus.

Designed as an occasional stool or side table, the Cheeky stool comes in a range of skin tones. The judges applauded its commercial applications, its flexibility to work in a range of environments, and its sense of play.

In accepting the $10,000 prize, designer Maryam Moghadam quipped she was pleased to see ‘other people find bums as funny as I do’. A finalist at last year’s awards, Moghadam will put the prize money towards bringing her product to market.

Winner Maryam Moghadam said the $10,000 prize money would be put towards developing her product further for market.

Australia’s Next Top Designers is in its fourth year, but this is the first year a cash prize has been offered. Kanebridge Quarterly magazine has put up the prize money to support the next generation of emerging industrial design talent in Australia.

Editor in Chief Robyn Willis said the cash prize offered the winner the opportunity to put the money towards whatever aspect of their business it would most benefit.

“That might be prototyping their product further, spending on marketing, or simply paying for travel or even childcare expenses to allow the designer to focus on their work and take it to the next stage,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be supporting this design program and nurturing emerging design in a very practical way.”

The Coralescence lamps from the Tide Pool series by Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa had strong commercial applications, the judges said.
The Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit is crafted from FSC-certified oak or walnut.

Two finalists were also awarded ‘highly commended’ by the judges — Mass lamp by Dirk Du Toit and the Coralescence lights from Suzy Syme and Andrew Costa at Tide Pool Designs. The judges agreed both products were beautifully resolved from a design perspective, as well as having strong commercial applications in residential and hospitality design. 


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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