The push and pull of tradition and fashion keep fabrics and fabricators in touch with customers.
By Dara Syrkin
The first quarter of each year is rife with predictions. Will the clothing color trends you see in Sunday newspaper advertisements appear in your customers’ boats? Maybe. Has technology responded to boat owners’ needs and desires? Of course. Do you influence what happens in fabric mills? Definitely. Both manufacturers and fabricators pull out their crystal balls and read the interplay of fabric, technology, design, and economics to prepare for the beginning of each season.
“We are getting requests for bolder, brighter colors for exterior applications,” says Jeff Jimison, vice president of marine fabrics, Sattler Corp., Hudson, N.C., manufacturer of Outdura fabrics. “Bright oranges, magenta, purples and limey greens are all now in conversations. Bright, light, and watery blues are also gaining some momentum. I don’t see these becoming mainline colors by any stretch, but there is some movement to these colors. Blacks, navy blues, reds, and greens, along with neutrals, will still dominate marine applications.”
On the other hand, “It’s important to recognize that a single occurrence of a new color or a new pattern does not constitute a trend,” says Gina Wicker, design and creative director for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, Glen Raven, N.C. “New boat builders are creating products to appeal to large market segments, which means they need to stay within the mainstream of consumer preferences.” Custom work has more leeway, she says. “You are also more likely to see fashion-forward colors and patterns similar to home décor in large boats with large staterooms than in smaller watercraft.”
Krisha Plauché, principal designer of Onboard Interiors®, Marblehead, Mass., is noticing fashion-forward elements as well as history in marine fabric trends. “A trend right now in the design industry,” she says “is batik-style fabric. It’s a beautiful and ancient artistic fabric. Sunbrella has a version that reminds me of it called El Greco Calypso. Trends like this that are unusual and exotic make their way sparingly into Onboard design. Instead of upholstering large pieces on a vessel with batik, I could see using this fabric in accent pillows.
“Another fabric trend is using jewel tones from the fashion world. For example, Ralph Lauren has committed to this in his recent advertising. I would love to see these colors used onboard as they remind us of young, sunny, light-hearted days—great for adding fun onboard,” she says.
“We spend a lot of time in the local boat dealers’ shops, and also attend boat shows,” says Anne Niquette, co-owner of Ship Shape Marineworks LLC, Gilford, N.H. “Most of the time, the accents the new boats have is our way of finding out what is now popular. Boats tend to mimic home-market trends. I also love watching HGTV, so it’s easy to spot where designers are guiding people’s color and design choices.”
When to board
“Jumping on a trend always depends on if customers are ready,” says Plauché. “You need to evaluate the customer in regards to age, personality, and the vessel and its purpose, in order to present them with the right fabrics. Customers usually have resale in the back of their minds and what kind of trouble they might have if they commit to a style that would ward off a potential sale. The economic climate affects design in that way.
“We don’t invest much in trends as we build everything to order,” she adds. “We will, however, plan to update our trade-show booth using new fabrics. Trade shows give us a chance to take a potential customer’s pulse on what they might be ready for. We also have a section in our booth with staple items and solid fabrics, because much of the business revolves around traditional colors.”
“You have to be careful with trends,” says John Pierce, product manager at WeatherMax®, Safety Components, Greensboro, N.C. “They can be sporadic or short-lived and that can result in dead inventory, not just for the manufacturer but for the entire supply chain. We tend to avoid regional color trends, and if we do start to see what we think is a trend, we research it to gain more insight and gauge whether we should adopt it or not.”
By recognizing opportunities, fabricators can create work trends. “In our area,” says Niquette, “boats are an extension of people’s homes. Many treat their boat as a second home at the dock. One interesting local marina lets the customer have a gazebo alongside the dock, facing the boats.
The boat owners will build these into kitchens or living rooms. We have re-covered several factory gazebos and helped reupholster their furnishings with outdoor furniture fabrics.”
Technology to the rescue
Fabricators make the most of the latest and greatest advances in fabric technology. They are also using the tools at hand to communicate well with customers.
“I get very excited when new fabrics are introduced,” Niquette says.Â “If they are able to purpose more than one item—such as an awning material being used for a sunpad cover or cockpit area seating—even better. As people spend more family time on their boats they want the boats to serve more purposes and have a more individualized, custom feeling.”
“Technology in the near term,” says Jimison, “will be focused on high-performance finishes that will allow greater water resistance, increased breathability, and durability of the finish. ‘Green,’ environmentally friendly finishes will be used that safeguard both the environment and the customer. There is growing consumer awareness and demand for products that meet recognizable safety and green initiative standards.”
“Sunbrella fabrics featuring recycled content are one of the most exciting areas for development today,” says Wicker. “Our Renaissance line of Sunbrella upholstery fabrics features 50 percent post-industrial fiber content, which results in a highly textural fabric. We believe that boaters will be drawn to fabrics with recycled fibers, given their love of the natural environment.
“Technology is also allowing us to create fabrics that are designed for specific boating applications. Sunbrella Supreme fabrics are designed for boaters who would like a bimini with different colors on either side of the fabric with a flocked appearance underneath,” Wicker adds.
Appearance can be subtle or bold, thanks to advancements in fabric graphics. “Digital printing on outdoor fabrics is an exciting area to watch,” says Pierce. “Improvements on the fade resistance and durability of digitally printed images show promise of a day you can have large-scale graphics and images on whatever fabric installation you want—and it will last. The current limitations with inks are a hurdle and we are not there yet, but the improvements are rapid.”
Portable technology improvements are evolving rapidly as well. “Virtual technology is a great tool for keeping up with customers, showing them fabrics online and putting together coordinating fabric selections,” says Plauché. “When we work with customers from out of state, this saves time. Our new iPad that we travel with to presentations—and onboard—helps bring our website and slideshows to life (of course, we purchased the weather- and waterproof cover). We can go through our extensive portfolio and help steer customers in the right direction about which vessel to research in-depth with the colors and styles they like. The iPad is also great for checking on fabric availability and pricing during the initial meeting. I would love to start using a new computer program to overlay fabrics onto project photos and give customers a computer view of their future design.”
On the horizon
The crystal balls are clear: Tap the untapped. Utilize design knowledge from other industries. Congratulate yourselves on your ingenuity.
“Soft-touch fabrics like Outdura Trio will continue to grow in popularity with consumers as they, and boat builders, seek more automotive-look-and-feel fabrics,” Jimison says. “We are seeing increased demand for Trio due to its ability to be waterproof and maintain breathability. Consumers are more aware of this type of technology. Perhaps it’s due to the growing number of sports apparel companies that promote the benefits of performance and comfort in fabrics.”
Innovation is increasing, too. “Sunbrella upholstery fabrics offer boat owners an opportunity to create interiors with the same sense of taste and comfort they enjoy at home,” says Wicker. “We always like to encourage the marine industry to be open to expanded possibilities for using fabrics to make the boating lifestyle more enjoyable for their customers. There are incredible opportunities for fabric applications that are innovative, yet well within the range of a classic nautical look. Be open to the possibilities and growth opportunities will emerge.”
Several factors are at work, says Niquette. “I think boat owners are going to continue the tendency toward keeping what they own and fixing or updating, instead of buying new.Â In doing this they are seeing they have choices and can make it their own vs. the standard factory-production-line feel. If the materials can come from recycled products and use fewer chemicals, customers feel they have made a safer choice, that their decisions have an additional benefit.Â Also, there is repetition and cycling of what’s in fashion. It seems we are in a ’70s mode at the moment, so a modified ’80s version is probably on the horizon.”
And don’t forget sheer ingenuity. “The fusion of light structures and marine applications that we are beginning to see are simply beautiful and awe inspiring. The natural progression from sail maker to shade-sail maker is understandable, but then to take that experience on the shade side back to the marine side is quite ingenious,” says Pierce.