Biomimetic activewear: How good ‘ol Ma Nature is improving our end game

Anything you can do, she can do better – Mother Nature that is. She is one smart cookie, and we have a lot of learning to do.  Although the concept of looking to nature for inspiration is as old as civilization, whether it is studying birds for human flight,  analyzing burrs (thorns) to develop Velcro, or termite dunes for skyscrapers.  It was not until 1997, the term “biomimicry’ was coined by Janine Benyus in the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Since then a field of design research has emerged as a ‘new’ way to apply nature’s best ideas to solve human problems. The technology rich activewear sector has embraced this ‘nature as a model’ and is looking more closely at the technologies of nature to enhance our athletic experiences.

  Photos courtesy of : Left top and bottom : www.speedo.com/aqualab_technologies    Right: www.inkfish.fieldofscience.com

Photos courtesy of : Left top and bottom : www.speedo.com/aqualab_technologies

Right: www.inkfish.fieldofscience.com

 Combined with compression, the biomimetic design of the Speedo Fastskin swimsuit created quite the debate when it was first introduced into the market. Controversy, this garment was one of the most popularized examples of Biomimicry used in apparel.  Its biomimetic knit structure if the fabric emulates the hydrodynamic efficiency of the dermal denticles of a shark's skin. The knit was engineered mirror the 2D and 3D shape of shark scales, which are hydrodynamic. However, Static knitted fabric, cannot yet mimic the dynamic movement and propulsion of actual shark skin. It is argued by apparel scientists (http://www.earthtimes.org/nature/shark-skin-boosts-swim-speed-cuts-drag/1818/) that the ‘look of the scales’ alone is enough to be dubbed biomimetic because it is an abstract representation and not a literal representation of shark skin. The critics can be critics because the swimsuit that was considered a ‘performance enhancing device’ and banned from many swimming events.

  Photos courtesy of: Top: VSKIN-international.com; Bottom Left:    www.footdoc.ca   ; Bottom Cener: kai Pfaffenback/Reuters; Bottom Right; CW-X.com.

Photos courtesy of: Top: VSKIN-international.com; Bottom Left: www.footdoc.ca; Bottom Cener: kai Pfaffenback/Reuters; Bottom Right; CW-X.com.

Additionally, it’s "super-stretch" characteristics of the fabric of the Speedo suit also improve shape retention and increase muscle compression to reduce vibration and retain muscle shape to reduce fatigue and power loss.  Compression apparel has long since made the claim that reduced muscle vibration reduces fatigue.  The market segment is developing new concepts like partially integrated compression. By mimicking the musculoskeletal system of the human body, garments incorporate localized compression to create a supportive ‘exoskeleton’ integrated into garments. Think kinesio-taping integrated (via seamless knitting methods) into garments. Performance brands such as CW-X and VSKIN (www.vskin-international.com) range are also making use of bonding and taping to place web or mesh panels around the lower abdomen or back to support posture, or at the knee joint for reinforcement.  These garments may eventually reduce the need for auxiliary supportive devices (e.g. knee braces) while running, but currently this technology cannot provide as much support as braces and wraps, so please don’t

  Photos courtesy of: Top: www.pumashop.in; Bottom Left: http://fixflatfeet.com;  Bottom Right: commons.wikimedia.org.

Photos courtesy of: Top: www.pumashop.in; Bottom Left: http://fixflatfeet.com;  Bottom Right: commons.wikimedia.org.

As a playoff  both the kinesiology of both puma’s  and human’s feet, biomimetic design have informed Puma’s new (2013) Mobium Running shoe. With two tendon-like attachments running through the sole of the shoe, the shoe ‘expands and contracts with your foot.’ The video at this link : http://www.puma.com/mobium/  shows the design process and  biomimetic sources of inspiration.

Although the concept of looking to nature for inspiration is as old as time, we have started looking at Mother Nature through a new lenses that is inspiring smart solutions to human problems through design. Because the activewear sector is so technology rich, design in this field has the capability to implement biomimetic solutions to enhance our active experiences.

For more information on biomimicry, a great website: http://www.ecouterre.com has provided a slideshow of more fashion oriented parallels, where they also address the Fastskin suit and other  activewear applicable concepts.

 

 

REDLINE: Spectrum of Activewear Fashion

Design is where fashion and science meet. (This saying should read ‘art and science’ but I don’t feel guilty pushing my agenda of function and fashion!)  I have fondly watched over the years as activewear has shaped up to be worthy of the title of design. Where activewear designers have placed more emphasis on the look and aesthetic of these garments, it has reaped the benefits of good design.

Through a series of blogs for Redline, I am excited to share the most noteworthy advancements of design in fabrics, fashion, technology, and R&D in the world of activewear. For the inaugural Redline Fashion Blog, I wanted to outline (and acknowledge) the spectrum of activewear fashion.

There are primarily two ends of the spectrum and a heated debate between functional purists and fashionable extremists. The purists believe that activewear (clothing in general) has a purely functional purpose where it is worn to protect the body and provide comfort to the wearer. 

 Example of function over fashion: Men’s triathlon – Does the job, but not very nice to look at. Image courtesy of: http://triathlonulaval.com.

Example of function over fashion: Men’s triathlon – Does the job, but not very nice to look at. Image courtesy of: http://triathlonulaval.com.


Example of function over fashion: Men’s triathlon – Does the job, but not very nice to look at. Image courtesy of: http://triathlonulaval.com.

At the other end of the spectrum is the fashion radical who believes in fashion over function. For the radicals, there is a heavy emphasis on the look of the garment, but they are not necessarily worried about what it is supposed to do. Fashion radicals (by which I mean perplexing runway looks, bad hair/make-up, and emaciated walking hangers) play with activewear as source of inspiration for seasonal collections, but may not intend to run a half marathon in them.

 Example of fashion over function: Betsy Johnson runway show Spring 2013. Image courtesy of: style.com.

Example of fashion over function: Betsy Johnson runway show Spring 2013. Image courtesy of: style.com.

Both ends of the spectrum are equally valuable in the spectrum of activewear where they both provide innovations in clothing that drive the activewear industry. But technical activewear, by no means has to be perplexing, obnoxious, and uninspired and I posit that there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle where fashion and function can come together in a perfect harmony – an idealist camp.


Within the harmony of the optimistic idealist, the traditional notions of running gear are challenged. The purists might say ‘why’, while the radicals might say ‘why not,’ but the idealists say ‘because.’ Idealists draw inspiration from sources across the spectrum. The fun part about being a designer within the utopic area of idealism is the challenge to incorporate fashionable and functional solutions from both ends of the continuum.  In this area of idealism, each detail has a purpose and is not extraneous – or just for looks. It is this part of the spectrum where we can create products that are different, interesting, and thoughtful. This is where new fabrics, textures and techniques meet new silhouettes, colors, and stylistic elements.


Brands that hover near the middle of fashion and function include Stella McCartney for Adidas and Lululemon among others. With what can be construed as playful elements all have a functional intent. They challenge the typical silhouette of ‘traditional athlete apparel,’ while holding function as a central value to the design.

 Example of function and fashion: Stella McCartney for Adidas – smart and beautiful. Image courtesy of: http://www.adidas.com/com/stella/

Example of function and fashion: Stella McCartney for Adidas – smart and beautiful. Image courtesy of: http://www.adidas.com/com/stella/

As you travel further to the left on the spectrum, you will find familiar brands known for producing running apparel, but as you travel to the right there may be some unfamiliar names in the running world. Brands nearer to the right are heavy hitters in the fashion sphere. Unfortunately for men when you hit the middle of the spectrum, your offerings decrease significantly.


One interesting, and notable player is Nike – of course. Collections produced by this activewear megalith range from uninspired and basic, to technically complex, to visually mind boggling. On the spectrum, I placed them on the functional end because when you think Nike you may not immediately think of their more advanced developments, but they are on par with all aspects of the spectrum. New Balance is another brand well on their way to making impacts across the spectrum. Within their advanced development team, New Balance is looking to put forth more technically advanced and aesthetically minded apparel. It should be noted that this list of brands is by no means inclusive, just some major players that exemplify the point. Overall we should view the activewear fashion spectrum as a two way street. Activewear often influences fashion, as much as fashion influences activewear.


The science of function and the art of fashion is a synthesis of good design. It is when fashion and function come together; the possibilities for activewear are infinite. Even within specific brands, they can cross multiple categories of the spectrum of activewear fashion. The activewear spectrum provides a good starting point and launching pad for future blogs that will dive into more specific details and trends within activewear. 
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Blog originally featured on Redlinerunningcompany.com. Check out their COLORADO half marathon race line up!