Decoding Design

Columbia Sportswear designs sweat-recycling material to help skin stay cool

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In the past, most high-performance athletic wear was characterized as sweat-wicking and sleek. Columbia Sportswear is betting on a sweat gathering, slightly bumpy material as the next big thing.

One product announcement in the last week that struck me was Columbia Sportswear's unveiling of its forthcoming Omni-Freeze Zero line of clothing. It utilizes a material that harnesses an athlete's sweat to help cool her down. The approach is counter-intuitive, in a way.

“Historically, outdoor and athletic brands have looked at sweating as a problem…something to be wicked away with so-called ‘technical,’ decades-old polyester fabrics,” Mick McCormick, Columbia's executive vice president, said in a statement. “We see sweat as a renewable resource that will allow athletes, outdoor enthusiasts or anyone that spends time in hot, humid conditions to sweat smarter, staying more comfortable.”

The result of four years of research, the Omni-Freeze Zero fabric designed by Columbia features distinctive, small blue rings embedded in the material. They contain a polymer known for its cooling properties. When an athlete sweats, the rings are engineered to expand. The rings spread across her skin to a degree and help to drop the temperature of the fabric (and the wearer) for a prolonged period.

Rather than hide the technology, Columbia's designers made them subtly visible on the garments--which is an aesthetic and branding choice that seems to follow a budding trend. Bumpiness in athletic wear is starting to signify "high performance" visually. Notice that the new U.S. Olympic Track & Field team's uniforms, unveiled on June 14, feature Nike's TurboSpeed technology (see SmartPlanet's early coverage of the tech by Sarah Korones), which is characterized by its golf-ball inspired dimples. The dimples in the visibly bumpy suit reduce aerodynamic drag and can improve a runner's time. The small, circular dimples are now a signature symbol of innovation for Nike, which developed the technology--just as Columbia's tiny circles visible in its forthcoming Omni-Freeze Zero line will be for that company, too. In the past, sports gear was designed to help a body appear as smooth and sleek as possible. But suddenly the addition of dents and dots seem to be an evolutionary, or at least trendy, approach in the athletic clothing field.

Columbia's Omni-Freeze Zero technology will be featured in 40 styles of clothing, including men’s and women’s shirts, performance layers, as well as in hats and accessories. The company's Powerdrain footwear will also feature Omni-Freeze Zero technology in the spring 2013 line, too.

Here's a video from Columbia showing athletes testing the Omni-Freeze Zero material, below. Keep in mind that it's promotional, but it can offer an early illustration of how early testers have found it successfully cooling.

Image: YouTube screenshot, Columbia Sportswear Channel

[Via PSFK, Coolhunting, Engadget, Columbia Sportswear, and others]

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure