To Dye For -- Hypercolor Clothes Heating Up Market For Maker Generra

Steve Miska, chairman of one of America's hottest sportswear companies, has a devilish gleam in his eye.

"Kids understand, but imagine their moms," Miska says from behind his geometrically orderly desk at Seattle-based Generra Collection. "She remembers the kid's shirt as blue, but then it comes out of the dryer and it's white. She sets it aside and it turns blue again!"

Such a thing to do to the laundry-doing moms and dads of America.

But such a thing for the retailers and the youth of this country.

What Miska is so pleased about is Hypercolor, Generra's exclusive dyeing process that makes casual cotton clothing heat reactive.

Imagine it: a $24 T-shirt, $15 tank top, $54 pair of jeans or $34 shorts that change color when they get next to your skin or when the air temperature rises. Those are the ballpark prices for young men's and junior women's garments; kids' sizes are slightly lower.

Put a hand on a purple T-shirt and in seconds a perfect hand print emerges in bright pink. Stand in the sun on an 80-degree day and the sunny side of a green T-shirt turns yellow. Sit down and the skin contact wrinkles in sky-blue jeans turn pale blue. And then, almost as suddenly as a colorful image emerges, it's gone again.

Which is about how fast Hypercolor youth-oriented garments have been running out of the stores.

Generra shipped its first 32,000 garments in February (and another 274,000 in March). What that's done is whet the appetites of customers and merchants like Garry Davidson, owner of Fine Threads, an upscale boys and young men's store in Seattle's University Village.

Based only on samples in his store, Davidson says he presold 65 of his initial 150 T-shirts before they were even available. The rest sold the day they hit the store, and "people even bought the samples."

When customers first saw the T-shirts, "they weren't that interested," Davidson confides. "Then they'd touch one. Kids like the novelty. They'll put one on with a friend, and touch each other's shirts and watch the color change."

Davidson has even had a long-distance order from a Boston-area woman who phoned him after meeting a Hypercolor-shirted boy in the Seattle airport.

At Jay Jacobs, the Seattle-based chain of almost 300 youth-oriented fashion stores, "we feel great about Hypercolor," says buyer Janet Sandifer. "It's one of the hottest items we have."

The Hypercolor system was developed last year by Matsui Shikiso, a moderate-sized Japanese chemical company. Many Americans are familiar with a similar process used to make kids' toys, such as cars and dolls, that change color when exposed to heat.

Generra's Miska bought the worldwide rights to use the special fabric-dyeing system. Exactly how it works he won't say, but he says it works on almost every color except darks like navy blue.

The 10-year-old company, which last year posted $150 million in sales, will spend $16 million this year for the dyes. They're shipped to Seattle, where dyeing firms apply them to cotton clothing mostly made in the U.S.

The process also can be used on other natural fabrics, such as rayon and linen, although Generra has no plans to do that anytime soon.

If a $16 million dye bill seems large, consider this: through June, Generra has sold more than $50 million (wholesale) worth of Hypercolor garments. T-shirts account for 80 percent of sales; T's bearing the Generra Hypercolor logo are selling better than plain T's.

And T-shirts are where big money is.

"The total American market is 100 million dozen shirts" annually, says Miska, who well realizes his unique T could corner a chunk of that formidable market - never mind that the Hypercolor process adds 20 to 25 percent to a garment's price.

One who recently bought a Hypercolor shirt is Ira Gerlich, 11 1/2, an Epiphany School fifth grader.

To Ira's mother, Katharyn Gerlich, a T-shirt in the $20 range is "reasonably priced considering some of the fads kids have to have. They're terribly expensive," she says, alluding to big-name athletic shoes with $100-plus price tags.

Ira says his purple-to-pink Hypercolor shirt is "pretty cool. It's different than most shirts. A lot of people I know have them."

If there's a drawback, it's that "every now and then you feel this hand pushing on your back" to see the color change, Ira says. "It's fun, though. The most fun ways of making the color change are either putting your hand on it or blowing on it."

The fifth grader says the shirt feels like any other, and "they still work after they're washed."

Ira knows that because his 7-year-old sister, Delaney, has had her new shirt washed.

Washing was one of the questions Miska was concerned with initially. In tests, Hypercolor shirts were washed 15, 20 times. Although they may fade slightly, Miska's confident the color changeability will always be there.

Another early concern was where the color would change. Would shirts change embarrassingly in the armpits? Would jeans trumpet false intentions?

Neither happens, says Miska, whose employees test-wore the garments. The color change works "where it touches the body, and clothing doesn't touch the body uniformly."

Indeed, T-shirts commonly change colors around the neck and in subtle wrinkles down the back and top of the chest, almost in a tie-dye fashion.

Is Hypercolor a flash in the pan?

Davidson, of Fine Threads, predicts not - as long as Generra "expands the concept to keep it moving."

That the company is doing, says Miska, with a three-color tie-dye shirt that changes to three other colors, and a heavier sweatshirt for fall. The dyes also can be set to react at different temperatures.

But providing new products - Miska's been asked to Hypercolor everything from hair accessories to socks - isn't his current concern.

With major ads running on MTV and in youth magazines, "we can't make enough of the product we're making now right now. Nobody can maintain any inventory levels for more than a week or two."

At that, Miska smiles.