Manel Torres had worked a long time for the chance to spray an almost naked Bella Hadid with a white mist in a viral Paris Fashion Week stunt this fall. Over the course of 10 minutes, Torres’s spray formed into a dress right on Hadid’s skin. After straps were rolled down her shoulders and a slit was cut into the dress’s side, the supermodel sashayed down the runway as if she was wearing a garment like any other.
Torres—the man with the salt-and-pepper beard whom Hadid towered over at the finale of the Coperni show—had spent two decades perfecting his spray-on fabric after experiencing a “eureka moment” on a trip to his native Barcelona. There, the then fashion student watched guests shoot each other with Silly String at a friend’s wedding and thought, Why not design a mist that transformed into “an instant non-woven fabric that could dry instantly?” he recalls.
Torres’s interest in spray-on technology was born of impatience. The usual process of making clothing—from creating the fiber to finishing the final garment—involved many steps in various places around the globe. It all took far too long. “That was my motivation—to speed the traditional process of manufacturing clothes,” he says.
By making clothes faster, Torres’s innovation could ease some of fashion’s supply chain and environmental stressors.
“[Spray-on fabric] gives me hope that it will save a lot of time, and if it’s biodegradable we are looking at a revolution in the textile industry and textile supply chain,” says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor of textile development and marketing at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
Fabrican, the London-based company Torres founded in 2003 to develop spray-on fabric, has branched out since his original Silly String idea. It now makes spray-on casts, CBD pain relief patches, bandages, and even an application to contain oil spills. Torres first funded the 10-employee company with academic grants, but it’s now earning royalty revenue through research and product development contracts with companies like Henkel, a German multinational chemical and consumer goods firm. Torres declined to specify company revenues.
The textile supply chain is one of the largest and most complex of any product, with its raw materials, cheap labor, and end consumers often located in different countries, if not on different continents. In its voyage from raw material to store shelf, a typical T-shirt travels an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 miles and generates a carbon footprint of almost 15 pounds.
“It’s an arduous process,” says Jeff Joines, head of the textile engineering, chemistry, and science department at North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles. Fiber becomes yarn. Yarn is knitted or woven into fabric. Fabric is then dyed, cut, and sewn into a final product.
Raw materials harvested in the U.S. often travel to the Caribbean, Central America, or Asia for later stages of production, Joines says.
With such a complicated supply chain, the U.S. does business with over 150 countries in textiles alone, says Arya at FIT.
Spray-on clothes would eliminate most of the traditional weaving, cutting, and sewing processes and return textiles’ labor-intensive manufacturing to the U.S., Arya says. “We would not be so dependent on so many other countries.”
The technology could also shorten brands’ lead times, which could in turn reduce waste.
“Anytime you can eliminate cutting and sewing, you can move the production or the process closer to the end user, you’ve reduced that cycle time, which means you can reduce the inventories,” says Joines.
For Torres, the advantage is simple: Spray-on fabric takes the “long and time-consuming processes” of clothing making and collapses them all into one action—spraying.
Torres’s early iterations of Fabrican created clothing far less elegant than the white dress that elicited gasps and applause in Paris.
After his Silly String inspiration moment, Torres based his Ph.D. thesis at London’s Royal College of Art on “spray-on fabric from an aerosol can.” He collaborated with chemical engineering professor Paul Luckham at the nearby Imperial College to develop a spray.
The first versions weren’t great; the fabric fell apart on models. But within two years, Torres landed on a spray that showed promise. The version Torres uses now is a mix of small fibers—the one used on Hadid was cellulose-based, but Torres has sprayed cotton, mohair, and nylon—blended with a biodegradable binder and a water-based solvent. When the spray hits the skin or other surface, the fibers cross-link to one another via the binder to create an instant nonwoven fabric as the solvent evaporates. More layers create thicker fabric.
Torres describes the spray-on fabric as feeling like suede, while other observers have noted that it is elastic and bumpy, almost like a sponge. It smells like glue, but sweet, Torres says.
Nonwoven fabrics have been around for over 50 years. Traditionally, they were made by laying out fibers and joining them into sheets of fabric with heat, chemicals, or pressure. Surgical masks, for example, are one kind of nonwoven fabric. Torres’s innovation was combining them in one sprayer. “Chemically bonded fabric is not new. What is new is making a small fiber immersion and spraying it directly on the skin,” says Eunkyoung Shim, an associate professor of textile engineering at NC State University.
The clothing can be washed and reworn or, if put back in the polymer and solvent mix, dissolved and used again. According to Torres, Hadid’s dress required 1.5 liters of Fabrican solution. “She could walk straight away. And that’s the beauty of it,” he says.
Torres’s next goal is to turn his invention into products. Until this point, Fabrican has largely been a research and development firm that other companies contract to design possible new products.
Fabrican developed a pain-relieving spray patch for Chattem’s IcyHot line, Torres says, but Chattem was bought by Sanofi soon after, and the product never made it to market. One product that will be released is a hair treatment that uses fibers to increase hair volume for the Henkel brand Schwarzkopf, which will pay Fabrican royalties.
In a Zoom interview in October, Torres brandishes prototypes of various spray-on products Fabrican has made, from shoes to lampshades to T-shirts and bandages. He says the company has 2,000 different spray-on fabric formulations.
“We are looking for investors, but not just investors with money,” Torres says. “We just really need investors with expertise, channels of distribution. We need capital with people who know how to help us turn these prototypes into products and commercialize them.”
“We need people outside to say, ‘Come on, there are 2,000 formulations here, and there are many prototypes, they have to go to the market.’”
Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.