While confirming reports that their company is up for sale, officials of Polartec feel confident that it has the right products for the market, following a series of strategic moves taken in the past few years, as shown in part by the awards that it has recently won. The new product introductions are expected to improve the brand's image, moving it away from that of a commodity fleece producer.
In particular, the recent launch by The North Face of its Futurelight technology (see our previous issue), which is being supported by a major marketing campaign, could make the focus on breathability that Polartec has been giving to its Polartec Neoshell and Polartec Powershield fabrics more credible.
First presented to the trade at the Ispo Munich show in 2011, Polartec's Neoshell stretch fabric is based on the same electro-spinning technology that has been adopted by TNF for Futurelight. While it is also relatively waterproof, Polartec's polyurethane fabric concentrates on breathability in order to give customers more comfort when they practice aerobic outdoor activities.
A survey showed that customers were giving similar values to Polarec Neoshell as to Gore-Tex for this kind of activity, indicating that waterproof/breathable membranes like Gore-Tex were preferable only in extreme bad weather. As a result, customers were able to use the garment all day while also being engaged in activities like mountain athletics and cycling.
Polartec went one step further with the electro-spinning process, doubling the permeability of the fabric with a product called Polartec Powershield, which is also waterproof. Offered at the same price, it represents a smaller part of the company's business and is used mainly by brands of cycling clothing like Castelli and Rapha.
In addition to Rapha, Cannondale and Sugai have adopted Polartec Neoshell as have some brands of snowboarding apparel and outdoor apparel brands like Mammut, Marmont Mountain and Rab. Polartec hopes that the list will grow longer as other outdoor brands may want to position themselves as alternatives to TNF's Futurelight system.
Michael Cattanach, Polartec's product manager, points out that his company and TNF are both using an electro-spinning technology that has been available for many years for other applications, including air filtration. It is currently offered by suppliers in the Czech Republic, South Korea and Spain.
While TNF is using a contract factory in Vietnam to produce its membrane, Polartec is relying on a partly owned factory in Shanghai. Cattanach, who joined Polartec eight years ago, more or less coinciding with the launch of Neoshell, says the partners in the Chinese joint venture spent $4 million on its lamination facility.
The joint venture business model for manufacturing is one that the company has followed since it was acquisition in 2007 by Versa Capital, which is now planning to cash out of its initial investment. After taking over the then struggling firm in bankrupcty proceedings, Versa changed its name from Malden Mills to Polartec and closed down its factory in Massachusetts, outsourcing most of its production abroad. Polartec's two remaining U.S. plants in Tennessee and New Hampshire are now mainly used for special U.S. military projects.
Malden's fleece manufacturing machinery, which uses patented processes, was moved to a joint venture operation in Guatemala. In addition to the Chinese joint venture factory, which was established in 2001, Polartec also relies on a joint venture facility in Italy.
Renamed as Polartec, the former Malden is now smaller than it was before but more profitable, according to company officials, who have declined to provide any figures. Under the management of a new chief executive appointed by Versa, Gary Smith, the company has been launching a variety of new performance fabrics, some of which are now also used by fashion brands. Smith had run Timberland's outdoor business unit for many years until the brand was sold to VF Corp.
The change of strategy in terms of manufacturing and product development had become necessary after many competitors came up with cheaper alternatives to Malden's former Polarfleece, which was first developed for Patagonia in the early 'eighties. Polartec now offers 400 different fabrics, and about half of them are not fleece-based.
The company's most recent product introduction, Power Air, is a mid-layer fabric that reduces shedding in fleece by a factor of five, while retaining advanced thermic properties, by encapsulating air within a multi-layer, continuous yarn construction to shelter the lofted fibers. Underlining its commitment to sustainability, Adidas was allowed to incorporate the fabric on an exclusive basis for one season into its latest autumn/winter collection. Houdini came next, introducing Power Air into its clothing from the end of January.
Power Air was recognized as the best innovation in sustainable fabrics by the World Textile Information Network in Amsterdam earlier this year. It subsequently was given an Ecosport Award by the French government at the recent Sport Achat trade show in Lyon. It also got the Backpacker Green Award as one of Backpacker magazine's Editor's Choice Awards.
Polartec has also developed Polartec Alpha, a breathable synthetic fabric that retains body heat while releasing excess moisture. It has been adopted by Reusch for a ski glove used by a famous free-ride skier, Jeremie Heitz.