At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—before it was even declared one by the World Health Organization; before it was taken seriously and recognized that it is, in fact, deadlier than the flu; before countries went on lockdown and travel restrictions were instated; and before face masks were strongly encouraged if not outright mandated—Naomi Campbell was already taking every precaution. On March 10, 2020, the supermodel posted on Instagram of her travel uniform: an Amazon-purchased hazmat suit, a pair of disposable gloves, a surgical mask, and goggles. It went on to become “one of the most symbolic looks of 2020.”
Her look made headlines (because, Naomi Campbell), but it sparked questions around the efficacy of a hazmat suit. For someone who’s known for her extensive airplane-disinfecting routine, was she taking unnecessary measures to the extreme? Or was this how all travelers should be dressing during a pandemic? Even though we now know that the COVID-19 disease is largely spread through airborne droplets, Campbell was very much onto something: an idea that clothing could serve as a bubble of protection that shields you from a world contaminated by germs, bacteria, viruses, diseases. Death.
So it’s not a reach, then, for brands to offer a consumer-friendly version of PPE or to take it one step further with garments treated with the same antimicrobial finish that’s long been used on scrubs. In May of 2020, Italy’s Albini Group (the dress-shirt supplier for designer brands like Prada and Tom Ford) introduced its new Viroformula fabric that “protects against virus and bacteria.” A month later, Diesel announced that it was partnering with Swedish firm Polygiene to apply an antiviral treatment to a selection of its Spring/Summer 2021 denim styles to “disable over 99 percent of viral activity within two hours of contact between pathogens and fabric” by “inhibiting the virus from attaching to textile fibers,” according to the press release. Similarly, brands DL1961 and Warp + Weft found a partner in Swiss performance textile company HeiQ to treat all future denim styles with an antiviral chemical softener with the intention to effectively sanitize and kill germs on contact.
This past October, a new start-up called BioRomper launched with a single product: an antimicrobial jumpsuit designed to eliminate cross-surface contamination during travel. “BioRomper was born out of what we were seeing when the pandemic first hit: photos of travelers going on airplanes in hazmat suits, which was unflattering, unsustainable, and polarizing,” co-founder Noah Sanborn Friedman tells L’OFFICIEL. “We wanted to reconceive an outer shell, but make it more sustainable and better looking—all the things we’d actually want to wear as avid travelers in a post-pandemic world.”
The company teamed up with a Netherlands-based manufacturer, and when treated with its silver ion-based antimicrobial finish, the jumpsuit saw a 99 percent in reduction in two common pathogens (staph and k.Pneumoniae). It took five months for BioRomper to come to fruition (made possible by being made locally in New York’s Garment District) and within eight weeks, it was sold out.
“During the pandemic, there were hazmat suits and then leggings, and we saw an opportunity— a new category of clothing—to fill that middle ground that’s missing in the market,” says Evan Boyd, another co-founder of the company. “We’ve created something that addresses these functional pain points of travel—that surface is gross; I feel uncomfortable—while providing something aesthetically appealing. Those travel pain points existed before the pandemic and they’re going to exist after the pandemic.”
Friedman wants to make it clear, though, that BioRomper isn’t a “cure-all” for diseases nor is it supposed to take the place of CDC-mandated guidelines, like wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. The big caveat here with antimicrobial finishes is that they’re not permanent: They eventually wear off with a finite number of washes (for most, it’s 30). And whether these brands touting viral-fighting clothing are making unsubstantiated public health claims that may violate EPA regulations is one more thing for consumers to be wary of.
Even so, embedding silver ion technology into fabrics isn't completely new: Athletic brands, like Patagonia and Lululemon’s Silverescent fabric technology, have been early adopters with the purpose of eliminating odor-causing bacteria that occurs from sweat. And before the pandemic struck, a sustainable “wash-less” movement was on the cusp of taking off, with brands like loungewear label Pangaia treating fabrics with peppermint oil, which has natural antibacterial properties, to keep garments fresher for longer. In doing so, the hope was to re-educate consumers to wash less and subsequently, conserve water and prevent the amount of chemicals from being released into waterways.
Of course, that mindset of washing your clothes less will be harder to sell now, especially when most of the population is still in disinfectant mode. Designer Phillip Lim is taking a different approach, with the idea that we should demand more from our clothing, that our outfits should make “people’s lives easier for the time we’re living in.” In November, he debuted Live Free, a more accessible, direct-to-consumer collection featuring Fuze Biotech, a sustainable textile-enhancing technology that not only eliminates bacteria, but also accelerates cooling and drying, in easy-to-wear, performance-inspired styles, like windbreakers, parkas, no-fuss dresses, and classic tees.
“We added Fuza for that added layer of protection—it gives you some peace of mind when you’re on the move, so you can come home and feel assured that you’re not bringing bacteria home with you,” says Lim, who believes a future that takes advantage of antibacterial/antimicrobial technology in fashion isn’t completely out of the question. “I think everyone will be eager to get back to a place where we can be together again, celebrating fashion and creativity in person, but it has to be done more responsibly. I think consumers will be looking for clothes that bring them joy and get them back out into the world safely. I want to dress people for those moments.”