The word “neoprene” probably brings to mind the sea rather than the street: a back-zippered wetsuit, say, in decidedly unfashionable shades of violet or turquoise. But that may be about to change. Neoprene has made the leap from protective layer to fashion’s favourite fabric – and not just as part of this season’s taste for the life aquatic.
For designers, neoprene offers a multitude of anti-gravitational possibilities. It’s the fabric behind the shapes that have defined fashion for the past five or so years, most of which can be traced back, in some way, to Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga and his firm, foamy skirt-suits sculpted around the body and splashed with florals of 2008.
Alber Elbaz used neoprene in Lanvin’s men’s and women’s collections for autumn/winter 2012, slicing it into primary-coloured peplum dresses and almost-conventional men’s tailoring. He called it “techno meets tradition”, which neatly encapsulates its ability to allow the creation of the grand, arching shapes of mid-century haute couture masters such as Cristóbal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy without the need to resort to heavy-duty canvas tailoring, or tricky fabrics such as silk zibeline or gazar. The latter, Balenciaga’s favourite, has a troublesome tendency to split over time, and its high-maintenance, crease-prone nature isn’t conducive to the fast-paced daily life of a modern woman.
“Neoprene is durable and hard-wearing. It creates the type of tailoring that can be thrown in a suitcase,” says designer Richard Nicoll, who used neoprene for athletic zip-front jackets and shift dresses in his 1960s-inspired spring collection. “It’s high performance and mass market … it feels modern.” Indeed, in Peter Pilotto’s spring show, neoprene was not only used for sporty zip-front trouser-suits but also for a range of bathing suits in Pilotto’s trademark pop-colour prints created in collaboration with swimwear designer Lisa Marie Fernandez and worn under printed georgette skirts as alternatives to evening blouses. “They are functional yet high-fashion items,” say Pilotto and design partner Christopher de Vos.
Ruth Chapman, director and co-founder of London’s Matches, exclusive stockists of the 16-piece collection, says: “The collaboration works so well because it combines the über-sleek scuba/swim feel of Lisa Marie Fernandez, with the very modern, print aesthetic of Peter Pilotto, which feels light and summery.
“Neoprene is a unique fabrication; it is functional but also sexy.” Especially when designers begin to remove the stiffness and weight of neoprene to make it wearable for everyday, as opposed to under water.
“Comfort is always an important factor,” says Donatella Versace, who cut a softer, sleeker and more luxurious neoprene into bubbly shorts and cropped jackets printed with sea-life for her mermaid-inspired spring Versace collection. “If I would never wear it, then I do not design it or put it on the runway.”
Helena Lavin, a commercial litigator at Freeth Cartwright, says: “The idea of neoprene could scare you off. No one wants to walk around wearing a wetsuit, but when you actually wear a neoprene coat or T-shirt, it feels weightless. It’s stylish, but incredibly practical.”