This Spray-On Fabric Is a Wardrobe In a Can | Innovation | Smithsonian

This Spray-On Fabric Is a Wardrobe In a Can

Inspired by silly string, British designer Manel Torres' spray-on clothing is re-wearable and recyclable

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Credit: Fabrican Ltd.

With the inherent low-brow hokiness of instant spray-on hair and tans, the notion of clothing that you can simply spray on seems destined to occupy a spot at the bottom rung of gimmicky products typically found in the “As Seen On TV” aisle.

But it’s actually premier designer labels like Calvin Klein and specialty boutique shops that inventor Manel Torres had envisioned when he conceived and later developed his patented “couture-in-a-can” technology. At these upscale fashion outlets, shoppers would drop in, undress and have a custom-sprayed scarf draped around them in minutes. In this best-case scenario, prices will likely vary depending on whether the shopper wanted to be coated with $50 pair of Levi’s or $100 Ralph Lauren snug denim. Whatever outfit these style-conscious visitors choose, they’ll walk out feeling assured that they won’t run into anyone else who’s accidentally replicated their truly unique look.

Now, ten years after initially hitting upon the possibility, the British fashion designer is mostly busy fielding phone calls from representatives of fashion houses and other potential investors from a wide spectrum of industries. From the earliest failed prototypes to a current version that Torres has deemed “ready for production,” the revolutionary liquid fabric has since been showcased at a catwalk runway in London, during the Imperial College London Fashion show, where it received plenty of attention from the press. Still, the thoroughly refined technology has yet to go from showroom novelty to anyone’s actual wardrobe.

“I am always getting tons of emails asking when I will bring a product to the market,” says Torres, who founded Fabrican Ltd to market the concept. “Right now, we need global companies to fund this effort.”

The idea for spray-able garments came to him during a wedding, where he watched attendees playing with silly string. The sight left him wondering if something similar could be done with thread. Torres enrolled in a Chemical Engineering PhD program at Imperial College London, where he experimented with numerous formulations that would allow common fabrics like cotton, wool and nylon to be compressed and layered using an ejection system such as a spray gun or an aerosol can.

The fashion pioneer eventually settled on a solution comprised of short, cross-linked fibers held together by special polymers—all of which are soaked in a safe solvent so that the fabric can be delivered in liquid form. As the mixture is sprayed, the solvent evaporates before it comes in contact with the skin, which prevents the then-solid material from completely affixing to the body; it forms a layer of a sturdy, unwoven material with a texture Torres likens to the felt-like chamois leather used to make polishing cloths and towels for drying cars.

The method of spraying, he says, gives designers and consumers immense flexibility to hand-craft a wide range of apparel, such as shirts, coats and undergarments, on the fly. Spraying on multiple layers, for instance, hardens and strengthens the material, and designers can add their aesthetic touch by playing with a diverse range of source fabrics, colors, even scents. Clothing made from the spray-on technology can be washed, re-worn and easily recycled back since the same solvent used to deliver the material can be used to break it down too.

“The wearer can recycle the clothes themselves or perhaps they can take the used clothing into a shop and exchange it for a refill,” Torres explains. “There are many possibilities, but that’s really thinking further ahead.”

Besides being a fashion statement, Torres points out that the material is exceptionally versatile. In fact, Fabrican is currently developing a variation that can be sprayed to cover and protect car seats. It could also have medical value on the battlefield. What if you could, without ever touching a wound, spray on a 100 percent sterile bandage? The company has partnered with military personnel in Britain to test a prototype that functions as a plaster cast for soldiers who become injured while in combat.

“Fashion was our starting point, but we’re now also realizing the technology has so many applications that can benefit other industries,” says Torres. “Fashion owes a lot to science for innovations that make it into clothes you see today, and it’s nice to think this can be our way of giving back.”

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About Tuan C. Nguyen
Tuan C. Nguyen

Tuan C. Nguyen is a Silicon Valley-based journalist specializing in technology, health, design and innovation. His work has appeared in ABCNews.com, NBCNews.com, FoxNews.com, CBS' SmartPlanet and LiveScience.

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