Imagine this: you worm out of your winter sleeping bag, brush off frozen condensation, and pull on a thin baselayer—which instantly warms your skin by 18 degrees. For sticky summer days, you’ve got a different solution: a shirt that leaves your body four degrees cooler than even the lightest wicking tee.
Sound like wishful thinking? It’s not. It’s real tech, and it’s here.
Behind these wonder fabrics is the lab of Dr. Yi Cui, the Harvard-educated, Stanford-employed materials science and engineering researcher who first conceived of the idea. Not for outdoor use, mind you, but for a much more noble cause: to forestall the climate crisis.
The idea came to him in 2014. That year, the U.S. Department of Energy released an EPA study reporting that most people spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors—and subsequently realized that the American electrical grid could crash under that kind of dependence, especially as global temperatures continue to rise. The DOE started offering grants to anyone who could find a solution.
Cui read the report, and immediately had an idea: instead of making the electrical grid or HVAC systems more efficient, why not address the problem at a more fundamental level?
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we make our textiles better?’” he says. “If your clothes keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, you can turn down your [thermostat] and save a lot of energy.” Clothing, he figured, could be a grassroots solution to saving the world.
Cui applied for a grant, won it, and went on to patent his new fabric technology. After the three-year grant was up, he brought the project to Meng Sui, a chemist and nanotechnology expert who’s now the CEO of technology incubator EEnotech.
“She helped build the initial team of scientists and engineers who turned the technology into a commercial prototype,” Cui explains. Ultimately, the lab ended up with 11 patents.
So how exactly can fabric get that techy? Buckle in.
When you’re standing still, up to 60 percent of your body heat is emitted in the form of infrared radiation (IR). Most fabrics absorb a good deal of that IR, which is one of the reasons it’s hard to stay cool on hot days even with the thinnest of T-shirts on.
LifeLabs’ cooling fabric, called “CoolLife,” is woven from polyethylene (PE), the same stuff plastic grocery bags are made of. LifeLabs claims it’s the only known textile that’s “thermally transparent,” thanks to a unique chemical bonding structure that doesn’t absorb IR. This means that way more body heat can pass straight through the fabric without getting trapped close to your skin. In contrast, most other activewear fabrics rely on large pores or a mesh-like weave, which only let a fraction of infrared radiation escape.
Incidentally, if you’ve used a filmy plastic produce bag, you know PE is not only thermally transparent but visually transparent. This was Cui’s first hurdle, seeing as he wasn’t trying to get into the lingerie business. So, he invented “nanoporous PE,” a yarn whose plasticky threads are filled with little bubbles, like privacy glass.
The brand’s other fabric, called “WarmLife,” is a little different. The threads are made of recycled polyester rather than PE, and coated with a thin layer of aluminum nanoparticles. Plenty of other companies have used aluminum reflective technology before—like Rab, with its Mythic Ultra 360 sleeping bag, or Columbia, with its line of Omni-Heat jackets. But these technologies use dots or laminated patterns, which aren’t breathable and can only cover a small surface area without feeling clammy Thus, they only trap a small amount of IR radiation. (In lab testing, wearers reported very little difference in warmth when they wore plain cotton shirts versus shirts with traditional reflective coatings.)
But with LifeLabs’ patented take, aerosolizing nozzles spray aluminum nanoparticles directly onto the garment, achieving nearly 100-percent coverage while maintaining breathability. The coating, which is permanently embedded in the textile, reflects 90 percent of the body’s infrared output back toward the wearer. It’s supposedly very effective: a WarmLife shirt retains just as much heat as a comparable layer three times as thick. The upshot? In theory, a baselayer with the same warmth as a sweater.
Clothing, he figured, could be a grassroots solution to saving the world.
Think about it. In the winter, 10 to 15 percent of extra metabolic energy expenditure comes from moving around in thick clothing. With WarmLife fabric, your snowshoeing or ski-touring tights might be as warm as thick fleece leggings. Your midlayer, once a synthetic-filled puffy, could just be a long-sleeved tee. With way less bulk and weight, you could go further, faster. Without cumbersome layers to fuss with, it could be possible for dabblers and first-timers to stay more comfortable in colder temps.
CoolLife, on the other hand, offers slightly more modest benefits, which makes sense given that it’s a lot easier to keep a heat-producing body warm than it is to cool it down. But four degrees of cooling could mean the difference between going for that trail run when you might have otherwise picked the treadmill. Or pushing yourself harder on that hike without worrying so much about overheating. And, of course, there’s the thermostat thing—setting your thermostat at 66 degrees Fahrenheit versus 70 degrees Fahrenheit makes a big difference in energy savings.
All of this was promising enough to lure Scott Mellin, then VP of mountain sports at The North Face, to helm the LifeLabs team. At the time, Mellin had nearly 35 years of a storied outdoor industry career behind him and had a pretty good gig. But this was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“When I understood what this was, I had a discussion with my wife,” Mellin says. “I told her, ‘This feels like a once-in-a-100-year opportunity. This is a chance to really reinvent apparel.’”
Needless to say, he took the job.
When all this was initially pitched to me by an especially glib PR guy, I was skeptical. I’ve been testing and writing about gear for the better part of a decade, and I’ve heard countless claims about supposed fabric-science breakthroughs. I can’t name one that lived up to the hype.
So, I accepted a sample of a CoolLife long-sleeve with low expectations. It looked like any other wicking synthetic tee, but I did notice almost immediately that it felt different—sort of like touching the cool side of a pillow.
For two weeks, I wore my sample while traveling through Russia and training with the Russian national ice-climbing team for a story. I wore it to work out, chase metros and trains, and climb long, overhung routes at an outdoor climbing wall in Kirov in full sun—only to find that during it all, the shirt remained cool to the touch.
At home in Colorado, I’ve taken it hiking and trail running. I’m a pretty sweaty person, and this is the first time in my life I’ve been able to charge a trail in 75-degree weather in a long-sleeved shirt without feeling the need to rip it off.
The shirt’s not perfect—it isn’t very stretchy, and the cut makes it look like the uniform pajamas of some kind of hip boarding school. But the performance perks are hard to argue. Like polyester, PE is wicking and quick to dry (I found my back sweat evaporated after just ten minutes in the shade, albeit in Colorado’s drier climate). But unlike polyester, it’s waterproof, has better UPF protection, and doesn’t seem to retain stink despite the fact that there’s no specific anti-odor treatment. Even after wearing it for three weeks of international travel without washing it, my shirt didn’t take on odor.
OK, now ignore all this technological promise for a second. In a world where clothing is thrown out to the tune of about 80 pounds per person per year, do we need to be making more new products?
Nicole Bassett, co-founder of the Renewal Workshop, has asked herself that same question. Once a sustainability director for prAna and a social responsibility manager for Patagonia, Basset partners with brands to refurbish and resell used clothing to keep it out of landfills.
“I spent my whole career looking for more sustainable materials and reducing the impact of the things we make. But the reality of the question here is: Do we have enough things?” Basset says. “After all, 60 percent of the environmental impact of a product is just in making it.”
Products woven from natural, renewable fibers like wool or organic cotton are no exception. Both require huge water and energy inputs to make. Besides, the hard truth is that if we want high-performing, sustainable outdoor gear, we’ll never be able to rely on organic fabrics alone. They just don’t have the same durability, water-resistance, light weight, or quick-drying properties.
For those reasons, synthetics aren’t going anywhere. And virgin synthetics—those freshly made from fossil fuels as opposed to recycled—aren’t either. That’s because people are slow to come around to the look—and sometimes the feel—of recycled fabrics, even those that are widely available like recycled polyester. And while the upcycled or pre-owned gear market is gaining steam, Basset says it doesn’t solve for one of the biggest reasons people buy clothes: to express themselves, experiment with style, and engage with the art form that is fashion.
“I spent my whole career looking for more sustainable materials and reducing the impact of the things we make. But the reality of the question here is: Do we have enough things?”
So, LifeLabs argues, if people are going to keep buying new stuff (and they are) you might as well make new stuff out of whatever material is the lesser evil. And according to an analysis of Higgs Index reports—the gold standard for measuring materials sustainability—PE has a lower carbon footprint than any other synthetic material on the market, including recycled polyester.
Still, LifeLabs has ambitious plans to keep its products out of landfills. Right now, its first batch of CoolLife products (which launched in October 2021) are made of PE-nylon blends. (WarmLife products are made with recycled polyester and recycled aluminum.) By 2022, though, Mellin says the brand plans to make all threads, glues, and fabrics in CoolLife products from 100-percent PE. That would mean they’re 100-percent recyclable—throw one old shirt into a mechanical recycler and get one new shirt out the other end, minimizing material waste.
LifeLabs isn’t the first brand to pursue product circularity in this way. Patagonia, for example, recycles its own T-shirts. The brand also partners with Infinited Fiber, a Finnish recycler that can turn pretty much anything—including cardboard and agricultural waste—into a soft, cotton-like fabric it calls Infinna, which Patagonia plans to use in T-shirts starting in spring of 2022. In spring 2020, The North Face started making 100-percent polyester sleeping bags and tents that are both fully recycled and recyclable. And in spring of 2021, Salomon released the Index.01, the first fully recyclable running shoe. By 2025, the brand aims to have 100 percent of new products be part of a circular economy.
While LifeLabs hopes to start incorporating recycled PE into CoolLife clothing as early as this year, Basset has her doubts. After all, just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean people will actually recycle it.
“I also think that for small brands, there’s a huge challenge to make [product] circularity viable,” Basset says. That’s because recycling facilities need tons of volume to make a partnership deal worth their while. “They want hundreds and thousands of pants coming in at a regular interval,” says Basset—not just a few stragglers from a capsule collection. The volume issue, incidentally, has been a problem for most of the other brands listed above, she says.
But since PE is widely available from other industrial sources, it’s possible that LifeLabs could still pull off the robust recycling program it’s hinting at, though that remains to be seen.
Sustainability targets aside, LifeLabs’s technology alone could leave it poised to fundamentally alter the outdoor apparel landscape. The brand has released a small collection of everyday products like lifestyle tees, jackets, and sleepwear (again, hitting sort of a weird urban style niche, but we can probably expect this to expand as they add more products). Climbing and running collections are due this coming spring, with ski and snowboard gear to follow. And in the future, Mellin says, customers can expect even more variations on the technology. He mentions a hiking shirt with a cooling lower back and warming sleeves. Or shells with both warming and waterproofing components.
“We’re hybridizing these material combinations really quickly to reach what’s essentially the nirvana of temperature homeostasis,” Mellin says. “We’re going to create new classifications of product that no one has even imagined.”