TUCSON, Arizona (VN) — Polartec is out for “world domination” in the fabric sector, but you don’t usually see its logo prominently displayed on jerseys or jackets.
The U.S.-headquartered fabric producer and supplier is working to bring the material science of fabric to cycling kits. It wants to solidify itself as the leading fabric company in the sector.
“We’ve had a very robust business in the core outdoor market for a long time with the usual brands that you know and love in the outdoor space,” Polartec CEO Gary Smith told VeloNews. “It’s relatively stagnant from an innovation standpoint and so for us, we simply need to find new avenues to take our capabilities and our capabilities are fairly simple. We solve problems through textiles.”
Smith believes his company’s experience will lead to better cycling apparel. Of course, Polartec has a history with traditional outdoor activities like hiking and skiing, but it also has produced fabric for military and workwear sectors.
Though Polartec is still relatively new to the cycling market, its portfolio is expansive. However, it’s important to note that at its core, Polartec is not an apparel company — it’s a fabric company. Hence, why it is generally away from the limelight.
There are over 700 different styles of fabrics across the company’s entire selection, with about a third of those confined to a specific customer, Smith says.
Polartec has four main categories of fabric — base, insulation, protection, and flame-resistance. There are then 27 main fabric platforms within the four categories. Innovations of a certain fabric platform can include different weights, fiber content, aesthetics, or all of the above.
Polartec’s relationship with cycling clothing companies centers on these innovations. Polartec works with companies to give each a product that it feels is its own. Prominent cycling apparel brands such as Rapha, Castelli, and Sportful all use its fabrics. For instance, a brand may request a specific weight of fabric, or greater breathability, or more warmth.
In cycling circles, Alpha insulation is a prime example of Polartec’s innovations. Alpha was originally created for the U.S. military’s Special Operations because soldiers needed breathable insulation. A puffy garment would act as a vapor barrier, which didn’t work because it led to overheating and sweating. Alpha is a highly stable insulation, so it essentially works as a fabric. As with most insulation products, it pairs well with other fabrics, but can also stand alone and be comfortable for the consumer with direct skin contact. This fabric is used in both of Rapha’s Brevet insulated vest and Pro Team insulated vest.
In 2018, Polartec is stepping closer to cycling by becoming — in a way — an apparel company. Polartec is providing the team kit for Alberto Contador’s development teams, which run under his foundation. Despite having contracts with multiple cycling apparel companies, Polartec doesn’t see this as a conflict of interest, but as a way of showing off its capabilities to clients. Though it will not sell replica kits to the public.
Polartec’s venture with Contador is one of its first forays into full garment manufacturing. By providing the apparel for the Contador Foundation teams, Polartec is able to build a kit without constraints.
Some companies will frequently outsource different garment parts to multiple fabric companies, all in the name of saving costs to increase the bottom line. For instance, it will use Polartec fabric for a jersey, but will then go elsewhere for the jersey’s pockets. Polartec hopes it’s Contador Foundation kits can show that this patchwork approach isn’t necessary.
“What we have found is through stepping up and making the entire kit, it has given us the ability to do everything and use everything uncompromised by any commercial considerations or preexisting relationships that a brand may have with another fabric supplier,” Smith said. “The reality of what happens with a garment is that corners get cut or said another way, compromises get made. I don’t really need to use that special fabric there and for Polartec everything we do is special.”
Smith is driving Polartec’s recent push into the cycling sector. He joined the company as CEO in 2012, coming from Timberland where he was responsible for its outdoor category. Smith is an avid cyclist himself and saw a need for the company to diversify and find new sources for growth.
To him, Polartec’s innovation in cycling fabrics is equivalent to what carbon fiber has done for bikes. The company’s extensive collection of fabrics in the outdoor market how allowed it to make its mark in cycling fairly quickly.
It’s a bold comparison, so perhaps it makes sense that Polartec chose Contador, one of cycling’s boldest riders, to get a foothold in the bike industry