SEOUL Not everyone would buy underwear that's coated with soil, but Chang Seong Ho is particular about his health.
The 26-year-old university student recently paid $12 for a pair of "yellow earth" boxer shorts, made from a fabric infused with micro granules of a yellow soil purported to emit far-infrared rays. Those rays, the low-energy waves farthest in the spectrum from visible light, cut odor and improve circulation, the maker of his shorts says.
Chang's soiled underwear isn't an outlandish wardrobe choice here. Textile innovation is a big and growing business around the world, and Asia, where consumers love both New Age gadgets and Old World naturopathy, is leading the way with some of the most unusual fabrics. In a land of conservatively dressed salary men, South Korea's Kolon Corp. has been boosting its sales with a line of "fragrant suits," available in stress-busting lavender or peppermint. Cheil Industries Inc. is doing a brisk business with its new Rogatis brand "Ki" business suits, which have sachets of a charcoal-and-jade powder sewn into the armpits and crotch. The mixture, according to the company, blocks electromagnetic radiation emitted by computer and television screens and also gives the wearer an energy boost.
Eager to boost sagging prices for ordinary fabrics, companies around the world are racing to find the next Lycra. Everyone from Dupont Co. and Levi Strauss & Co. to Philips Electronics is investing heavily in everything from antiwrinkle technology to so-called textronics, clothes with conductivity that can power cell phones and MP3 players.
The aim is to generate the same sort of advances as the latest electronic gizmo must-haves, says Bill Ghitis, vice president of DuPont Apparel, a unit of DuPont Co. His company spends about $60 million annually on apparel research and development. Last fall, the company teamed up with Levi's to produce Lycra-blend jeans. This year, it launched Kevlar jeans with Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. Dupont is now making clothes that can be detected by global positioning satellites.
Asia has been leading the charge with some of the most bizarre inventions. In January, the Hong Kong unit of the United Kingdom lingerie maker Triumph International Ltd. launched in Asia the aloe vera bra and underwear set, which promises to lubricate the wearer's skin for up to 40 washes.
Asian consumers' penchant for gadgets makes the region a good market for new products, says Marc Mendel, general manager for Triumph Hong Kong. People see "anything that involves a technological advance, and they go for it," he says. The company's parent is now making a shea-butter version of the aloe vera lingerie for Europe.
Korea is particularly receptive to naturopathic remedies, so certain soils and metals believed to possess special powers are especially appealing.
Kwon Hyuk Ho, manager of the men's-businesswear division at Kolon, maker of the aromatherapy suits, says many of his ideas come from simply opening his eyes to fads. Koreans, for example, believe that silver can absorb germs, cut static and improve blood flow. So he developed the Silver Plus suit, which has silver threads woven into the lining.
The 34-year-old Kwon takes his inspiration from a former professor of textile engineering at Kyungbuk University, who once made an aromatherapy umbrella with a fabric infused with scented microcapsules of peppermint essence. Kwon later joined Kolon and rose through the ranks of the menswear division. In 1999, he engineered Kolon Fashion's first fragrant suits, garments coated in microcapsules that release their scent as the wearer moves until the garment has been washed about 15 times. He went on to develop the yellow-earth business suit and Vitamin D slacks, which lubricate the legs.
The aromatherapy line is his claim to fame. In 1999, Kwon was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, a spoof award for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced" that is handed out each year by real Nobel Laureates at Harvard University. Clad in his favorite dark-brown peppermint number, Kwon flew to Boston to accept the prize.
Kwon had the last laugh. Suits with Kwon's "added functions" accounted for about 25 percent of the $40 million in sales revenue earned last year by the men's-suit division he manages.
In the United States, some specialty shops import such computer wear as electromagnetic shielding ties and vests. In Korea, these items are becoming regular department-store fare.
On a recent Sunday at Lotte department store, in central Seoul, Joung Hea Souk flipped through a rack of Rogatis energy suits when the salesman swooped in. "Look at this, these aren't ordinary pieces of cloth," said Jun Yong Soo, the clerk, turning the suit inside out. "They have charcoal and jade to absorb sweat and odor in the armpits and crotch."
"What?" asked Joung, rearing back. Then he moved in for a closer look. Moments later, he was on his way to the cashier.
While both Cheil and Kolon highlight the properties of their fanciful fabrics, they avoid making specific health claims. Indeed, in the case of Chang's infrared-emitting shorts, any nearby object might do as much for his circulation. Far-infrared radiation is generated by any object above zero degrees Kelvin (minus-459 degrees Fahrenheit). The human body, at a normal temperature of 98.6 degrees, itself emits waves that fall into the far-infrared spectrum. So anything warmed by the body like a chair will emit far-infrared waves as well.