The search for a "plus factor" for its textile range has taken Welbeck Fabrics, the knitter from Derbyshire in the UK, into a sensual new dimension. As a specialist supplier to the international underwear and swimwear trade, the company believes it is no longer sufficient for a fabric to have visual and tactile appeal - it should smell good too.

"The time is not far distant when we believe consumers will be able to buy garments permanently fragranced with their favourite proprietary perfume," says Welbeck managing director Robert Brown.

Since it first set out on the fragrance trail a little over three years ago, Welbeck has been in "serious negotiation" with a leading US couture house which wanted to investigate the possibility of offering a clothing range impregnated with its best selling house fragrance. "All the technology for such a development is already in place," says Robert Brown. "In fact, the only reason the project has not yet gone commercial is due not to any practical difficulty but to the legal complexities involved in licensing designer label products destined for global marketing."

Now underwear can come with its
own built-in scent

This spring, however, Welbeck's first range of scented textiles entered the retail scene when the Italian group, La Perla, launched a collection of upmarket lingerie "generically scented" with citrus and vanilla.

Enquiries have also come from a manufacturer of deodorant body sprays - who is contemplating launching his own underwear range as a spin-off from his best selling toiletries brand - and a major European retail group that asked Welbeck to produce a fabric for its next own-label collection using a fragrance which would give a lift to pre-Christmas sales in the mainstream men's underwear market.

"At the moment it looks as though they will be settling for sandalwood, a fragrance already widely employed in men's toiletries," says Robert. "There's no limit to the range of aromas which could be added to a fabric during finishing."

The fragrance is added in the form of micro-capsules which burst, releasing their contents, during the normal course of wear.

"It is a process initially developed in Japan where it has chiefly been used to lend deodorising properties to sweat laden sportswear. However, we wanted to turn it from simply a negative concept of getting rid of bad smells to the positive virtue of adding pleasant ones," says Robert. "So we found ourselves a British specialist fragrance supplier who, though they had never worked with apparel fabrics before, were keen to explore the potential of a new market.

Perfume's pulling power

"At our initial meeting they brought along a batch of some forty potential fragrances for us to try out, of which perhaps the oddest was leather. It appears that this is already being widely sold into the footwear and handbag trade where it is sprayed on to linings of shoe boxes or the tissue paper stuffed into expensive handbags to reassure consumers that what they are getting is indeed real leather even if the product itself has lost its distinctive tang.

"When we tried out this first batch on an in-house test panel convened from our own l45 strong workforce, comprising both men and women and a broad spread of age and social groups, one of our first discoveries was the strong correlation between colour and smell. Nearly everyone in the test team liked the idea of a lemon fragrance when it was presented to them on a lemon coloured fabric swatch, but became distinctly disoriented when it came on scarlet and expressed positive dislike when it appeared in association with turquoise.

"Meanwhile the aroma of chocolate deeply divided the panel. Some loved the idea of wearing chocolate scented underwear - others found it frankly disgusting. So since at that stage we were looking for consensus, out went the chocolate - at least until such time as chocolate brown becomes a must-have fashion colour."

Robert explains that whereas twenty years ago 80 per cent of all underwear sold in the UK was white, today the figure has dropped to a mere 40 per cent. Black accounts for 20 per cent, and the rest is evenly divided between skin-tone and topical fashion colours which change from season to season. "These days anything goes colour-wise in the high fashion underwear sector," he comments.

Another familiar aroma discarded by the test panel was pine. "Although this fragrance certainly had the freshness we were seeking for intimate garments and would retain this quality throughout a lifetime of at least forty washes - in the minds of the panel it was too reminiscent of disinfectant," says Robert.

Fruity Character

Eventually the forty were whittled down to four - all of which turned out to be vaguely fruity in character. "It was this quartet of basic fragrances which we then tried out on our customers," says Robert.

"Even as we presented the scented samples we were uncertain of the reaction they would evoke and were prepared to have the whole idea dismissed as a mere gimmick. But to our delight the customers were prepared to take the idea very seriously indeed, which leads us to believe that fragranced fabrics may have a very big future.

"Within our quarter century lifespan we have already seen two technical revolutions. When our company, then a division of Coats Viyella, was founded in the mid-60s we operated primarily as warp knitters, producing power nets to service the burgeoning demand for the first generation of stretch fabrics which would ultimately take over from bones and lacing as the basis of all support corsetry.

"By the mid-80s a second revolution was well under way. Control was no longer the sole motivation for buying foundation garments; they had become part of the fashion business. Demand was now for lighter weight fabrics with a lacy construction which eliminated the need for extraneous trimming and which were capable of dyeing to any shade fashion demanded.

"To meet these new demands, by the time of the l990 management buyout which created today's Welbeck Fabrics we switched production from primarily warp to weft knitting, making use of the new branded fibres like Tactel diabolo to build texture interest into our fabrics and Lycra to supply the functional stretch factor.

The shift from warp to weft was a wise move which ensured Welbeck kept staff working round the clock throughout the 90s, a decade when many of their one-time rivals were having to switch to short time production or even put up the shutters altogether. As a result, Welbeck Fabrics now enjoys a yearly turnover in excess of £l8 million and sells its wares worldwide. "Between 65 and 70 per cent of our business is export," says Robert Brown.

"However in today's aggressively competitive trading climate, no textile manufacturer, no matter how apparently successful, can afford to rest on its laurels," he adds. "Innovation is the name of the game, especially for European producers who can no longer hope to compete in the international market place on a purely price basis.

"So by the late l990s we were looking for another new direction - a third fabric revolution which could have consequences as far reaching for our sector of the textile trade as the first two. And we think we may have found it in the world of fragrance."

By Sonia Roberts.

Retailers hit a fragrant note too

Customers entering designerwear stores selling Joop, Calvin Klein, Escada or Versace will soon be enveloped by fragrances to help get them in the right fashion mood. This, at least, is the vision of Elu-Klima, the German seller of room fragrancing systems. The company has applied for a patent on the concept, and now wants to bring it to market.

Fragrances stimulate the senses and influence behaviour. And when the smell is introduced below the level of perception, behaviour can be manipulated subconsciously. The brain registers fragrances as either pleasant or unpleasant. If it is the former, the consumer feels comfortable, and the length of stay in the store is increased. These processes have been scientifically proven in surveys carried out by the Universities Kiel and Göttingen.

It is a tool that has been used as a consumer incentive in the food industry for some time now. Take, for example, the smell of freshly made popcorn in the cinema; or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting through the foyer of a supermarket. The car industry is also keen to take advantage of fragrance, particularly for perfuming car interiors. Analysts have shown that 60 per cent of the people who test-drove a fragranced car perceived it to be larger than the inside of an identical, non-fragranced equivalent. Meanwhile, many car dealers already use masculine wood and leather aromas in their salesrooms.

So it's little wonder that the clothing retail industry is also going to make use of this effect.

Elu-Klima points out that by working with its perfumers it can break down each fragrance on the market to its raw ingredients. For health reasons, the usual market perfumes with an alcohol content of around 80 per cent cannot be put through the fragrancing systems. The special "note" is copied with pure perfume oils and aromas. It is interesting to observe that while the packaging and name of a perfume can be protected, the smell itself cannot.

By Christiane Reichwein.