Prada’s Re-Nylon is fabricated using industrial waste retrieved from oceans, watercourses and landfill sites. The resulting fabric can be regenerated ad infinitum
Nylon was first synthesized in 1935 by American gunpowder and chemical manufacturer DuPont, after eight years of research on synthetic polymers that also resulted in the invention of neoprene, Lycra, flame-resistant Nomex, and faux leather Corfam, to name a few.
Three elements – coal, water, air – and four chemical reactions were needed to produce nylon. First, coal was turned into coal tar through the process of pyrolysis, or thermal destruction. Coal tar, a thick dark oil, was then processed to obtain adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine, two substances that mixed together with the addition of water caused the formation of nylon salt crystals. The nylon salt was then heated in a pressurized chamber so as to evaporate the molecules of water contained in its atomic structure. The resulting paste was finally churned, extruded through spinnerets, hardened through a jet of air, stretched and spun into nylon yarn. Today, nylon is produced from petroleum following a similar process.
Due to its durability, resistance, strength and lightness, nylon was welcomed with enthusiasm by a public that had seen it promoted as ‘coal, water and air-derived’ and ‘as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web’. When it was launched on the market in the form of stockings as an all-American, innovative alternative to imported silk, the new fiber upheld all expectations and earned immediate success – 64 million pairs of stockings were sold in the first year and nylon fabric production skyrocketed, reaching 1,300 tons annually in 1940.
Besides its use in the production of garments, nylon was adopted as a convenient solution by other industries; toothbrushes now have bristles that do not wear down or accumulate bacteria, new hypoallergenic and aseptic surgical suture threads are available at affordable price points, tires have been rendered stronger with a reinforcement of their rubber parts, construction workers now rely on ropes that do not stretch or break under heat, frost or shock. The new material conquered manufacturers of all fields with its promising versatility. After some decennia spent wallowing in the realm of the commonplace materials, nylon plastic debuted on the fashion scene in 1979, with Prada releasing a line of bags and backpacks made with synthetic materials. These items were not released for the wholesale market, thus remaining at a sort of prototypical stage, under the public’s radar. Miuccia Prada had just taken over her family’s brand. She had the clear vision that we know well. Miuccia’s aspirations for Prada served as compass for the brand’s research on materials and techniques, which promised to question common canons and preconceptions, and dictating new definitions of excellence and refinement, hence the 1979 experiment with a synthetic polymer of supposedly mundane application.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the fashion industry truly witnessed a demonstration of nylon’s potential as a luxury material — the impending turn of the century posed new challenges to fashion designers. Prada came out with a backpack with leather inserts and a minimalist IT bag, both crafted from a silky nylon fabric that had been specifically designed for the house and was inspired by the water-resistant, durable nylon fabric used by the military for items like tents and parachutes. While fashion design had relied on classic materials like leather, silk, fur, lace, velvet and linen up to that point, perpetuating the assumption that luxury was entwined with natural origin, exclusivity of the fibers and manual crafting, a new conception of luxury – one compatible with the expanded horizon and technological surge of the new millennium – had now been ushered in. During the Nineties, Prada innovated its collections with nylon gabardine, a fabric woven on traditional silk looms conceived by founder Miuccia and produced as an exclusive for her brand, gaining recognition over the years as a staple of the Prada design.
Prada Re-Nylon is a fabric made of regenerated nylon yarn that can be recycled without deterioration in physical properties and quality.
This project was born as a manifestation of the brand’s engagement in the research for sustainability. The brand intends on converting all their virgin nylon into Re-Nylon by the end of 2021. Using a regenerated nylon yarn for the Prada Re-Nylon collection actively contributes to the reduction of global warming up to 90 percent compared to the use of the virgin nylon yarn.
With more than three and a half million tons produced globally each year, nylon comprises 20 percent of the world’s manufactured fiber production. Because nylon is extracted from petroleum, its manufacturing relies on the petrochemical industries for their raw material – aside from the environmental impact entailed by the extraction, manufacturing and shipping of nylon product, the use of fossil fuels carries the risk of other detrimental issues such as oil spills, pollution of water and food resources, and disruption of ecosystems and biodiversity. In addition, one of the byproducts of nylon manufacturing is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas over three hundred times more potent – and thus dangerous – than carbon dioxide, that weaken the ozone layer by reacting with the gases present in our atmosphere, as well as trapping heat in the atmosphere and preventing its dispersion into space.
As all synthetic fibers, nylon is not biodegradable, taking from thirty to forty years to decompose. Discarded nylon is polluting whether it is amassed in a landfill or dispersed in the environment, as it biodegrades into small fragments that can penetrate through the ground and contaminate aquifers, water courses and basins, and soil. Fragmentation into microplastics has become a problem of increasing urgency due to the diffusion of low-quality nylon yarn that breaks down easily, sometimes with as light an abrasion as that caused by a washing machine. These microplastics are also created during the process of manufacturing, as the processed polymer compound undergoes different stages of cooling and dyeing by immersion in water, which becomes saturated with chemicals and plastic molecules. A study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that out of the one and a half million tons of microplastics that make their way into the ocean each year, thirty-five percent derives from synthetic fabrics.
Despite ongoing shared effort by institutions and organizations and a rise in awareness among consumers, the modern fashion industry’s voracity for synthetic fibers isn’t easily redirected towards sustainable organic or recycled alternatives due to the volume and urgency of the demand and to the competitive prices and versatility.
Prada has set itself as an example by focusing resources on the development of Re-Nylon. Discarded materials such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpets and industrial waste are retrieved from oceans, water courses and landfill sites. They are sorted and hygienized – to maximize the quantity of recuperated nylon – at production plants in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Arco in Italy. The nylon waste is recycled by a restoration of its original purity through the chemical procedure of de-polymerization. Having retrieved its properties, the recycled material goes through a new polymerization process and is re-transformed into weavable threads. The resulting fabric is water-repellent, lightweight, resistant to stains and soiling – and can undergo the regeneration procedure an indefinite number of times.
Prada joined hands with National Geographic, and created a five-episode short video series titled What We Carry, which provides insight into the production process in five plants across the globe, belonging to some of the sources of discarded nylon that Re-Nylon uses. The Prada Re-Nylon episodes will be also used along the autumn in secondary schools all over the world to educate and raise awareness among the new generations about adopting responsible and mindful behaviours towards the ocean and its resources, the goal of the educational program conceived by Prada and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission dedicated to sustainability and ocean literacy.