Ralph Lauren is not being selfish when it comes to its commitment to help save the planet.
Although it is using the 2022 Australian Open Tennis Tournament as the showcase to introduce RLX Clarus, a new high-performance polo shirt created from natural fibers, the company is encouraging the rest of the industry to use the fabric as well.
“Our goal is to get a competitive advantage but also share our learnings to inspire other designers to develop products that are better for the environment,” said David Lauren, chief branding and innovation officer. “We developed it, but we have no problem sharing this.”
In August, Ralph Lauren Corp. made a minority investment in Natural Fiber Welding Inc., a sustainable material science start-up based in Peoria, Ill., that is working to reuse natural fibers, such as cotton waste, into patented, high-performance materials. Recycled cotton is often unsuitable for use in new cotton apparel because of the short fibers created during recycling. But NFW has developed a process to weld short fibers into longer ones to create high-performance cotton yarns.
“Ralph Lauren is known for timelessness — and for more than 50 years being timeless has meant both leaning into our heritage and fostering pioneering innovation,” David Lauren said. “With the introduction of the RLX Clarus Polo Shirt, we are using our most iconic product as a canvas to launch an industry-changing and scalable textile technology — a high-performance apparel product that is created with natural fibers for the first time.”
NFW’s patented technology offers high-performance attributes including quick-dry properties and moisture management, while still retaining the comfort and breathability of cotton. The material, which can be made from any natural fiber, performs similarly to plastic-based synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon that use petroleum-based fossil fuels to achieve their performance properties.
“About a year ago, we started talking about the Australian Open and how we could compete in the performance market,” Lauren said. “Everyone else is using polyester but that’s not recyclable or good for the environment. So we looked into how we could use cotton to create a product with all the properties of performance products but would be better for the environment. That was our challenge. Then along comes a company that can do that,” prompting the corporation to invest in what it saw as the future for both itself and the fashion industry in general.
“It’s exactly what our industry needs,” he said. “It’s a godsend that can help us all.”
The decision was made to celebrate the launch by giving it a “high-profile moment” at the Australian Open. The Clarus Polo Shirt will launch with men’s first and women’s will be added a month later. In addition to being worn by athletes in an exhibition match at the event, it will be sold on site at the Open before being offered to consumers globally on the Ralph Lauren website, in select stores and in wholesale accounts at the end of January. It will retail for $168.
“Through this collaboration, we are paving the way for complete circularity with resulting materials that perform similarly to plastic-based synthetic fabrics,” said Luke Haverhals, chief executive officer of NFW. “We are pioneering an entirely new system that simultaneously enables all-natural performance fabrics while reducing waste and eliminating the need for synthetic plastics.”
This is the latest move in Ralph Lauren’s commitment to sustainably source 100 percent of its key materials, including cotton, by 2025 and integrate zero-waste principles across its business. Over time, the partnership with NFW will enable the company to replace and reduce its reliance on non-biodegradable synthetics.
David Lauren said no other products are using NFW’s materials right now, but he expects that to change in the not-too-distant future. “We’re going to test and learn and see how the market responds,” he said. “In one or two years from now, I’m sure you will see it in other products.”
The Clarus shirt builds on the company’s recently launched initiatives that include Color on Demand, a dyeing platform that transforms how the fashion industry colors cotton, and The Lauren Look, a subscription apparel rental initiative that has the potential to reduce clothing waste by expanding the life cycle of apparel. Last year, the company also introduced the Earth Polo, which was created entirely from recycled plastic bottles and dyed in a way that uses zero water.
“We’re calling this the Earth Polo 2.0,” Lauren said. But instead of using materials that would otherwise wind up in a whale’s mouth, he said, the cotton in the Clarus is stronger and softer than the recycled polyester used in the Earth Polo. “It feels better and better with each wash, the fit holds better than a classic T or polo, and it holds color really well.”
To introduce the Clarus, Ralph Lauren will host an exhibition tennis clinic with former Australian tennis player Sam Groth and Josh Cavallo, a professional Australian soccer player and avid tennis fan, who will wear the shirt during the event.
“As a professional athlete who trains every day, it’s incredible to be able to wear a 100 percent cotton shirt that is stylish, has superior performance qualities and keeps me comfortable even on the hottest of days — all made with a sustainable spirit,” Cavallo said.
But while Lauren is hopeful about the reaction to the shirt, he stressed: “This is not about a shirt. We don’t traditionally go out and market a single product. But this is a prototype of how to rethink craftsmanship and create a new value system. Now that we can do this with cotton, imagine what the future can be. It’s limitless.”