Spring is around the corner, and with it, the imminent arrival of rainy days. April showers bring May flowers, but the downpours are certainly more bearable if one is wrapped in comfortable and stylish rainwear.
The earliest attempts at waterproof clothing were made by the indigenous peoples of Brazil, who used a milky substance (rubber) extracted from rubber trees to waterproof footwear and capes. Several centuries later, Europeans began experimenting with waterproofing fabric. In 1821, G. Fox of London made the first raincoat called the Fox's Aquatic, made with Gambroon, a twill-type fabric. In 1823, Scotland's Charles Macintosh invented a way to combine rubber with fabric to produce the first in the long line of raincoats as they are known today. Macintosh's first customer was the British military.
Thomas Hancock improved on Macintosh's design by using vulcanised rubber in the waterproofing process. New styles began to appear, intended to serve military needs. Thomas Burberry, inventor of gabardine fabric, created the first all-weather trench coat for World War I. Rapid developments ensued for the next 60 years: Americans invented techniques to increase water resistance, chemically treated wool raincoats appeared, and vinyl had its moment. Innovation and experimentation continued in coat length, fabric, and chemical treatments. Today's raincoats are made of breathable, water-repellent materials like Gore-Tex, microfibre, coated nylon and other high-tech materials.
Recent developments in the world of raincoats - the most daring to date - are influenced by a number of trends. From sustainability and wearable art to architectural elements and style, there is a lot to consider when choosing a raincoat.
Take a look at Raincatch, which is both a raincoat and a water-gathering, purification and storage system. Water is collected through the collar, passes through a charcoal and chemical filter, and is stored around the hips (where it is meant to be least obtrusive). Through a tube near the collar, the wearer can take a drink whenever thirst strikes. This ambitious, weather-efficient garment was devised by Hyeona Yang and Joshua Noble, two students at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. While the garment has not hit mass production yet - it is unknown whether it ever will - it is an interesting object in and of itself. Considering rising clean water concerns and the severity of droughts in some parts of the world, the water-collecting raincoat is an intriguing concept.
wrk-shp F/W 2011.
Airi Isoda of Los Angeles-based wrk-shp is a trained architect-cum-fashion designer who also doesn't want to waste rainwater. Her first collection, called "Building Clothes," features garments made out of materials typically found in buildings: concrete, wood, metal, latex paint and Tyvek. She elaborates to Co.Design magazine: "This introduction of unique materials in wearable garments is my attempt to connect the wearer to their surrounding built environments. Similar to the way a building protects its inhabitants, these clothes protect the wearer from outside elements." The piece that started the whole collection was a bright white Tyvek raincoat with strategically placed pockets of real wheatgrass that grows with every drop of rain. Isoda says that she was inspired during a walk through LA's Silver Lake neighbourhood, where she stumbled on NaturalMind, a store whose façade is covered in Tyvek and pockets of greenery, mirrored in the wrk-shp raincoat. Tyvek is a recyclable, high-density fibre that allows vapour, but not liquid water, to pass through. It's the material wrapped around buildings under construction and in FedEx envelopes. wrk-shp is not the first to use Tyvek as a clothing material (recall American Apparel's Tyvek jacket circa 2005), but it certainly produced one of the most creative presentations.
Another designer with a passion for unexpected materials, new processes and sustainability is Britain's Jane Bowler. Her F/W 2011 collection, "Fusion," was built upon her interest in transforming everyday objects (shower curtains, rubber flooring, etc.) into sophisticated and elegant pieces for men and women, pieces that defy traditional expectations of what a raincoat should be. Using stitchless heat-forming techniques and ultra-sonic welding of recycled plastics, Bowler fused the iconic British Mackintosh with traditional Japanese straw raincoats. The result is an array of astonishing pieces that look both futuristic and organic, thanks to the colourful patches of frontal strings. All are worthy of presiding in a gallery space. All spark utilitarian concerns.
Jane Bowler F/W 2011.
On the other end of the utilitarian spectrum, there are ultra-practical options for discerning environmentalists. Spain's Equilicuá developed the waterproof Spud Raincoat that is 100% non-toxic, biodegradable and compostable. Dubbed "fantastic bioplastic," it is made out of potato starch and other natural resources. It is highly durable, requiring specific temperature, light and humidity conditions to start biodegrading. Not only does the Spud Raincoat convert into organic matter at the end of its lifecycle, it can also add life to the soil in which it biodegrades. Thanks to a small packet of herb, flower and tree seeds contained in every Spud Raincoat, the owner can plant it instead of throwing it away. Fantastic bioplastic indeed!
If dangling synthetic fibres or plants-to-be are not your cup of tea, take a look at the chic alternative embodied in Terra New York. The founders, Yurika Nakazono and Marie Saeki, say that they began with one question: "What can a fashion conscious woman wear when it's raining?" The two founders, who describe themselves as a "duo of designers, marketing professionals, and bicycle lovers," wanted to create a fashionable urban alternative to the classic Barbour jacket. And that they did. The rainwear collection includes 100% waterproof flattering silhouettes with ventilation systems, heat-sealed seams and storm flaps. Moreover, the New York-based company tips its hat to its city of origin with pieces titled "Nolita," "Lower East Side" and "Tribeca" in beautiful Nude and Smoky Grey colour options.
The raincoat has undergone dramatic transformations over the years. From chemical experimentations in waterproofing to Gore-Tex, the raincoat has lived to tell the tale. Today, young designers are experimenting and trying new techniques, much like Macintosh did almost two centuries ago. As long as rain is falling, people will continue their love affair with this highly functional item of their wardrobe.
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