Aglow at Uniqlo: "HeatTech Japan Technology"

Watch out! It's Christmastime. Oxford Circus is saturated with silver, shiny, metallic, illuminated, glittering objects these days, but none are as hard to avoid as the ones around Regent Street were on November 20th. Outside of Uniqlo's flagship store, silver-clad messengers from a more technologically advanced land invited Londoners into their pod stations for a little analysis. The thermal scanning experience coincided with the European launch of Uniqlo's HeatTech line. According to Uniqlo's website, "HeatTech innerwear is woven out of a specially designed hollow fibre thread" to provide you with "a secret weapon against the winter chill."

Judging by the data-rich graphics and reflective materials surrouding the HeatTech garments, one gets the impression that this stuff is coming either straight from the most advanced materials science lab on this planet or from another planet all together. It's so new looking. We appear to be in the midst of the biggest development in thermal retention since Joseph Beuys happened upon the ancient Tartar secret recipe of felt and animal fat. One burning question: is Uniqlo unique? What distinguishes it from comparable winter undergarments?

HeatTech labels itself as "heat generating". This is amazing, because technically, it is a step beyond the "heat retaining" clothing items available from Patagonia or The North Face. HeatTech has apparently been engineered with the ability to convert water vapor into heat - an innovation of alchemical proportions.
This made me skeptical about the Uniqlo claim. Had this value-driven urban lifestyle retailer really outwitted companies whose brand identity depends on knowledge of performance material? Or is the HeatTech conversion process no different from "wicking" (the active removal of water from the skin's surface by fibers such as wool and silk has been known for hundreds of years)? It was a tough distinction to make, and required a little armchair research on the science behind staying warm.

There is a complex interaction going on between metabolism, thermal generation, heat exchange, material conductivity, insulation, and convection. On a more amusing note, reptiles and amphibians, whose core temperature approaches thermal equilibrium their environment, will experience a slowing of biological processes in a cold environment...slow thinking, slow moving, slow reacting. We mammals use materials, such as hair and feathers, to prevent us from donating our heat to the world.

One way that hair works to retain heat is by trapping a layer of air around our skin. Our skin will initially lose heat to the layer of colder air, but once the air is warmed up, we want to keep it there. HeatTech garments are made with hollow-core fibers that do a great job of trapping air, but so are garments made with Polartec and Viloft. While it's easy to find comparable products on the market, Uniqlo's line of thermal retention garments comes with a fun take on future fabrics, reinforcing the notion that there is a market for innovation in performance materials beyond sportswear and specialist shops.

Japan's Toray Industries , a leader in textile research, is the brain behind HeatTech. They also provided Uniqlo with the fibers for their "non see-though white" trousers. The partnership between Toray and Uniqlo is expected to result in 200 bn business by 2010, so prepare to see more fabric innovation shining on the shelves of Oxford Circus.

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