Premium wetsuit makers, Manera, have just launched the ‘Alt’ range – a brand new collection of Yulex suits, combining natural rubber with recycled jersey to create a set of top-quality cold water wetties, with a massively reduced environmental impact. Several years in the making, the release marks the culmination of a long process of innovation and collaboration.
It all started back in 2014, when brand manager Julien Sales first began flirting with the idea of adding a surf-specific wetsuit to the Manera range.
“Back then, if you wanted to launch a wetsuit brand, it was pretty easy,” he tells me over the phone, “you just had to go to the factory and ask for an existing design, choose a colour, get the logo and then you had a wetsuit brand.” However, picking something off the rack like that wasn’t the Manera way. “We never get into a new product range if we don’t have something innovative to offer,” Julien insists. So, the brand set about exploring how they could approach the well-worn wetsuit-making path from an entirely different angle.
After chatting with his team of sales reps, he was put in touch with a software engineer, living up in northern France, who’d spent the last 5 years working on a programme that could design clothing in 3D. At the time, he was working in the niche world of compression garments and struggling to drum up much interest from elsewhere.
“Actually, the guy was in a state of depression at that time,” Julien explains, “because he couldn’t really find brands to work with.” He’d been in touch with all the big surf companies, but they already had their own designers and processes and weren’t much interested in new software written by some bloke in his garage. But Julien saw the potential.
Back then, wetsuits were designed mostly in 2D, by cutting out each panel, stitching them together, then putting them on a mannequin to make adjustments, like how a high fashion brand might design a dress. The software allowed Julien and the team to really drill down into the minutia of flex and fit on a virtual 3D model and then export it as a 2D pattern.
When Manera sent their first design off to leading wetsuit manufacturers, Sheico, to actually make into a suit, the reaction confirmed they’d hit upon something unique.
“They said, ‘there’s no way it’s going to work,’” remembers Julien. “‘We’ve never seen anything like this and we’re not going to be able to build it.’ And we said “just try,” and they said “ok.’” A few weeks later, the first sample suit arrived. “It was already almost perfect,” says Julien.
Eight years on and every suit the brand has ever released was designed with the software built by that Frenchman, whose identity the brand still likes to keep under wraps. The main benefit, according to Julien, is that doing it in 3D means the suit arrives pre-fitted to the body, with all its strange bulges and curves. Whereas, when a wetsuit is designed in 2D, the neoprene has to stretch and adapt to the body as you wear it in.
“It makes a big difference in a lot of ways, including comfort and warmth, because you don’t have air pockets, and the durability of the wetsuit too,” Julien elaborates, “because it doesn’t stretch when you put it on.”
Maximising longevity has always been an integral part of Manera’s design process – not just for the obvious reason of customer satisfaction, but because of the implication for the planet too.
“We’ve always thought the best way to be sustainable is to offer a wetsuit that performs and has a long life,” Julien says, “because if someone is not happy with their wetsuit, they’re going change it and that is not good for the environment.”
With this in mind, they’ve always got an eye out for new materials that might better tick the boxes of durability, quality and sustainability. So when Yulex came on the market a few years back, they naturally took notice.
For the uninitiated, Yulex is a natural and renewable rubber, sourced from FSC-certified Hevea forests. The fact the trees grow fast and don’t need to be cut down to be tapped ensures long-term supply stability and a drastically reduced environmental impact.
“Everyone thinks Yulex is a huge company,” says Julien, “but it’s actually a family business, just like ours.” A few years back, he organised what was supposed to be a work call with the company’s founder.
“I thought we’d talk about business, but he’s a surfer, so we chatted a lot about surfing and he told me about how his daughter had done an internship in the forest, learning how to harvest the rubber.” They stayed in touch, and last year the brand sent over a sample of their new foam formula. “It was really good,” says Julien. “In terms of flex and warmth and durability, it’s as good as the best limestone foams.”
Soon after, Manera set about incorporating Yulex into a new range for 2022, adding recycled jersey – using polyester made from old plastic bottles and nylon made from production waste – and their super warm MAGMA fleece, made from 45% recycled materials.
While Julien is candid about the fact the resulting Alt range is more expensive than their limestone-based suits, he knows the more brands who adopt Yulex, the more the material price will come down and he’s enthusiastic about Manera’s role in contributing to this process – while also offering premium, more eco-friendly suits to his customers.
Before we hang up, I ask whether the mystery software engineer, who Julien tells me has recently got super into wing foiling, will be spending the winter levitating clad in the latest Alt 5/4/3, which still owes so much to his original innovation.
“Oh yes,” says Julien. “He has free Manera wetsuits for life.”