Magazine article The New Yorker

SOLAR CHIC; Annals of Technology

Magazine article The New Yorker

SOLAR CHIC; Annals of Technology

Article excerpt

History has not been kind to garments that serve a function other than that of keeping their wearers warm or unnaked or adorable. You don't see a lot of people running around in chain mail these days, and the vogue for beer helmets--those baseball hats equipped with beer-can holders that allow the hat's wearer to drink beer through a plastic tube--seems to have stalled in frat houses. But I have hopes of better things for the Solar-Powered Jacket, a new item that the Italian firm Ermenegildo Zegna is launching later this year. Its heart is in the right place. Moreover, after test-driving the jacket for a three-week period recently, I can report that it possesses a quality quite rare in an article of clothing: utter unpredictability.

I started on the seventeenth floor of Zegna's offices, on Fifth Avenue, where Christian Lorey, one of the company's sales directors, issued me a prototype of a silvery-gray bomber jacket made of a breathable fabric called Microtene. Lorey is an ebullient man with a diamond stud in each ear and a fondness for the word "ciao." He pointed out two two-inch-by-three-inch solar panels embedded in the jacket's removable Nehru-style collar. The panels are wired to a battery in the breast pocket which is the size of a deck of cards; with four hours' worth of sun, the battery can be used to charge five- and six-volt appliances like cell phones and iPods.

Lorey sketched a few scenarios in which the solar jacket would be useful. "Say you've driven from San Francisco to Napa and you're having lunch at the French Laundry. You can leave the collar on your dashboard and let it charge while you eat," he said. "Or, in the Northeast or the Caribbean, it's great for boat owners--say, if you're on a boat for a week." I asked if the solar panels were fragile, and Lorey told me that if I took a hammer to them they'd break. He added, "But you can throw the coat in the back of your Bugatti and you'll be fine."

Putting on the jacket, I headed off for the No. 6 train--I'm riding it while my Bugatti is in the shop--eager to start charging my battery. Owing to a slight metallic sheen and to the verticality of its three-inch-high, solar-panel-bearing collar, the jacket attracts its share of stares on the street. "It's a solar jacket," I found myself explaining to one gawking passerby, who gave me a thumbs-up and said, "Beautiful." Over the next several days, I experimented with various methods of harvesting the sun's energy--with the collar both on the jacket and off--and then injecting this fiery goodness into my cell phone and iPod. I loved obsessing over the positioning of the three-inch-byeighteen-inch removable collar in my office window as I tried to make it soak up the sun's rays as effectively as possible; I was reminded of tanning, or of grilling eggplant. One day, outside a cafe, I sat on a bench with my feet pulled up in front of me so that my knees were shoulder height; I dangled the two shiny black solar panels over my kneecaps, like some sort of Sierra Club pasties. The peak experience, though, was the first time I juiced my iPod with the power of the sun; I whooped with joy, and wished Al Gore were present.

During these initial forays, two things quickly became clear. First, the solar panels wanted to be in direct sunlight--in hazy or diffuse light it could take as long as twelve hours to charge the battery fully. Second, solar energy--or solar energy as filtered through the lens of a fashion designer--is mercurial. Though my iPod had easily taken a complete charge from the battery, I could never get more than a forty-one-per-cent charge on my cell phone. Stranger still, seemingly identical weather conditions on different days would produce varying results; one day's four hours of direct sun would charge my phone thirty per cent, another's only sixteen per cent. Moreover, the battery's light sometimes flashed when it was not supposed to.

I decided to investigate what other gizmos the solar jacket might be able to charge. …

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