- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

NEW YORK — One of the hottest trends in clothes this spring isn’t apparent until the garments come out of the washer and dryer.

Stain-resistant and wrinkle-free shirts, pioneered by companies like Levi Strauss & Co.’s Dockers brand and Liz Claiborne Inc., are being marketed by a growing number of retailers ranging from mass-market chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to upscale merchants such as Paul Stuart. More consumers are demanding clothing that’s hassle-free, and a wide variety of retailers and manufacturers are responding.

“You are going to see the lowest of the low to the highest of the high,” said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y.

Mr. Cohen estimates that about 25 percent of apparel is now made up of easy-care fabrics, and he expects that figure to grow to 50 percent in the next few years — even though these garments tend to be more expensive than similar merchandise without care-free features.

“If it is not wrinkle-free, I just don’t buy it,” said Rebecca O’Meara of New Orleans, who is willing to pay an extra $20 per item.

She has purchased wrinkle-free shirts and stain-resistant pants from retailers including Lands’ End, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Target’s namesake discount division.

Several big-name newcomers launched hassle-free clothing lines this spring:

• Wal-Mart has T-shirts, tanks and shorts for men under the Hanes brand that release stains when washed, its first foray into care-free clothing. It also now offers wrinkle-resistant, short-sleeve shirts under its own store brand, Puritan.

• Gap Inc. launched a stain- and wrinkle-resistant collection of shirts and pants for men. “Male customers are responding incredibly well,” said spokeswoman Erica Archambault.

• Shirt maker Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. began selling stain-repellent dress shirts under its Geoffrey Beene, Van Heusen and Arrow brands, accounting for 20 percent of its styles. Ellen Constantinides, president of the shirt division, expects that figure to climb to 40 percent this fall.

• Paul Stuart, whose suits average $1,200, now has stain-repellent tailored suits as well as jackets and pants that are sold separately. It is now looking into stain-repellent clothing for women, spokeswoman Selma Nasser said.

The trend was made possible by new fabric technology from companies such as Greensboro, N.C.-based Nano-Tex LLC, whose customers include Eddie Bauer, Gap, Old Navy and Perry Ellis.

Nano-Tex uses different chemical processes to give fabric its care-free qualities. With garments that repel liquid stains, for example, the process includes heating the fabric to bond polymers, or molecules, to each fiber. That forms a barrier around the fibers without compromising the feel of the garment, allowing for wine and other liquid stains to roll off.

Fritz Winans, group president of Liz Claiborne brands, estimated the treatments add $6 to $10 on average to the price of a garment, but he said consumers are willing to spend the extra money.

Others like Phillips-Van Heusen say they have been able to absorb the extra cost and haven’t passed it on to shoppers.

With the increasing competition, pioneers of the trend acknowledge they have to work even harder to stay ahead. One way is bundling all the technologies together when producing a shirt or pair of pants.

This year, Levi’s Dockers — which came out with what it calls Stain Defender khakis for men at the end of 2001 — introduced the Dockers ProStyle brand in shirts, ties and pants, which offers a combination of treatments. Dockers ProStyle shirts not only whisks moisture away from the body, it is also odor- and stain-resistant.

“We are constantly coming up with new things that consumers don’t know that they need,” said Andrea Corso, a Dockers spokeswoman.

Miss Corso declined to offer current sales figures, but said the company sold more than five times the original forecast of its Stain Defender khakis in the first season.

At Liz Claiborne, Mr. Winans said the company’s care-free products should do at least $500 million in business during the next five years. The company had sales of $4.2 billion last year.

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