The word seems to stand for all others of its kind.
You know it's bad when the guys in the Tyvek suits show up.
Not quite paper, not quite plastic, Tyvek is to the toxic cleanup industry what canvas is to construction crews. Loose, crinkly and usually white, it's the stuff that transforms hazmat workers into marshmallow-men of the apocalypse.
Maybe it was the anthrax. Maybe it was Tom Ridge's color-coded threat meter. But Tyvek seems to have ascended to the ranks of Kleenex, Tupperware or Band-Aid -- brand-name products that stand for all others of their kind.
The Tyvek brand also has a high profile as a weather-resistant undergarment for homes under construction. But mentions in the news media are a sure sign that a brand has hit icon status.
For example, after the wreck of a train carrying chlorine gas in South Carolina recently, National Public Radio reported that evacuees who had to surrender their clothing were hustled into Tyvek apparel.
Obviously, function trumps fashion when it comes to protective apparel.
"When you're dealing with such dangerous chemicals, at that point you really don't care what you look like," says Thea Papadakis, associate publisher of HazMat Manager magazine, based in Toronto. She knows of what she speaks, having walked the runway at a hazmat tradeshow last year, modeling the latest in PPE (that's Person Protection Equipment).
"After trying on several of these suits, I can say that there are no fashion aspects to them," Papadakis says.
What it is
Made by DuPont, Tyvek has been around for decades. It's an example of a nonwoven material, a textile that consists of a web of synthetic fibers. It's lightweight and resists dirt, water and rips, as anyone who has tried to tear up a FedEx envelope knows. (They've been made of Tyvek since the 1970s.)
Occasionally an artistic soul will try to make Tyvek into garments that work for occasions other than oil spills and bio-terror scares. White Tyvek wedding dresses, for example, have shown up at several art school exhibitions. And some high-end hotels, including the Four Seasons Chicago, hand out Tyvek bathing suits (baggy, but better than nothing) to guests who come without.
But at least one fashion-forward designer has graduated from his early Tyvek visions.
"There's ways of wearing it, but it's not an easy fabric," says Roberto Crivello. The president of Design Development Concepts, a Manhattan fashion studio and boutique, Crivello first incorporated the stuff into a garment line in the late 1990s. Since then, DDC has worked with DuPont to produce high-performance materials, including Climate Control, a mutant mix of Tyvek, polyester and nylon used by deep-sea divers and climbers on Mount Everest.
Not for everyone
But such space-age duds are extremely expensive. Thus, like a Tyvek decontamination outfit, Crivello's gear is not something you'd pull off the rack at Sears.
"It's definitely not for the masses," he says.