More Activewear Brands are Creating Innovation Labs to Pursue New Technologies

In the last three years, brands from Adidas to Pangaia to Allbirds have developed new materials that push the limits of activewear performance while looking for ways to make their clothing more sustainable.

But while many of those new materials have come from outside companies, brands are increasingly establishing their own in-house labs for researching and developing new materials. Like Lululemon before it, Rhone, a men’s activewear brand based in Stamford, Connecticut, announced a lab on Tuesday called Nanoprojects, which kicked off early this year.

Nanoprojects was created by Rhone co-founder Kyle McClure with the goal of developing new materials and manufacturing techniques that will be used in a higher-end label within Rhone under the name Nanoprojects. The first collection of Nanoprojects launched on Tuesday with blazers, outerwear and chinos priced $98-$595.

The fact that the first Nanoproject collection is ready-to-wear, rather than activewear, is an intended feature of lab, McClure said. Nanoprojects is an opportunity for the brand to experiment with new categories and products. Rhone typically sells its activewear for around $80-$120. The Nanoprojects collection is highly limited: For some products, less than 100 pieces were made — far fewer than the thousands made for standard Rhone apparel.

For McClure, part of the appeal of establishing an innovation lab in-house was to hold onto the creative spirit of a startup, even as the brand grows.

“A lot of brands in the early days are trying all sorts of different things as they establish their identity,” McClure said. “Then there’s a period where you professionalize your business so you can scale up, but you can lose some of the creativity along the way. We didn’t want innovation to bleed out of the company.”

Investment in the innovation lab has mostly come from already existing resources, McClure said. The team works in Rhone’s existing office in Stamford and is staffed mostly with existing employees, although there was one major hire. Rachel Rozzi, a freelance designer who has worked for Fenty, Puma and ONS Clothing, consulted for the brand before being hired by McClure to lead the development of Nanoprojects. McClure described her as integral to Nanoprojects’ launch.

Right now, McClure said Nanoprojects’ biggest focus is working with textile companies and fabric mills to develop new materials, like a regenerated nylon that’s now being used in a Rhone raincoat. A new indigo dyeing process that was developed by one of Rhone’s Italian manufacturing partners is being featured in Rhone’s first attempt at jeans, giving the nylon and spandex pants the appearance of indigo denim.

Activewear brands have been transitioning into material development more frequently in the last year. For Allbirds’ launch into activewear last month, for example, head of sustainability Hana Kajimura said the dedicated team was split between developing products and developing new materials and technologies, like a eucalyptus-based replacement for polyester.

“At our core, we’re a material innovation company,” Kajimura told Glossy in August. “Half of my team is product, and half is innovation. They’re constantly looking for new materials and trying to bring them to market for the first time.”

And fitness and outdoor apparel company Pangaia bills itself as a “materials science brand.” In August, it debuted new sweats made from a plant- and fruit-based fiber that the company developed internally. Knix, an underwear brand, will have a dedicated innovation lab included in its new office in the U.S. that will debut next year. It will also focus on new materials and production techniques.

The secret to a successful innovation lab, according to Scott Emmons, who ran the now-defunct Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab before he left the company in 2019, is continued support.

“That ongoing support is really necessary,” Emmons told Glossy last year. “You can’t just walk up and plug one of these programs in and have instant success.”

McClure said that Nanoprojects has been in the works for three years, and he hopes to support the lab for years to come. It won’t always be ready-to-wear; instead, each Nanoprojects collection will be driven by the materials or technologies that the designers and engineers come up with next.