Hear that buzz? If it's not your Ringly accessory vibrating to notify you of an incoming text message, maybe it's the fever pitch surrounding the red-hot yet still emerging wearable technology space, which is manifesting itself in myriad ways within fashion, apparel and retail.
While devices such as the fitness-tracking Fitbit (to which accessible luxury brands such as Tory Burch notably lent a high-fashion edge last year) and smart timekeepers such as Apple Watch and Samsung Gear are often most closely identified with wearable technology, innovators within the apparel industry are finding ingenious ways to leverage technology in creating thoughtfully designed products that enhance the user's experience.
And although a number of brands are busy cooking up quirky tech-driven garments and footwear to ride the wearable wave and address the digitally native Millennial generation, many companies are beginning to consider when — not just if — smart devices will have a place within the enterprise as a means of not only elevating the retail experience but also enhancing employees' work life, productivity and safety, according to intriguing new research from PwC.
Giving fashion tech a leg up in NYC
Manufacture New York (MNY) announced to great fanfare late in 2014 the brand-new Manufacturing Innovation Hub for Apparel, Textiles & Wearable Tech, a 160,000-square-foot Brooklyn facility backed by a $3.5-million investment from New York City. Since its inception in 2012, MNY has championed local and sustainable manufacturing and supply chains, but with advent of the Innovation Hub, CEO Bob Bland is capitalizing on the momentum in fashion tech, bringing MIT grad and Columbia University professor Amanda Parkes on board as CTO and absorbing her Skinteractive Studio — which dabbled in everything from body sensor networks for theatre performances to structural engineering for haute couture — into MNY as the research and technology wing.
The MNY research lab is covering all of its bases, investigating advanced digital fabrication (e.g., 3D printing and 3D knitting machines), wearable electronics (soft circuits, flexible components), and biochemical applications (including a cyber battery with alkaline components). Parkes oversees a $50-million fund tasked with spinning off new companies in the fashion and wearable tech space, lending her particular perspective on where the industry should be going: the fiber science angle has her vote, she says, because our lives aren't solely "device-driven."
"The way we use textiles in the world is bigger than just fashion labels," Parkes notes.
Tackling one of the big challenges in the wearable technology space, the MNY facility is positioning itself as a partner and industrial link for academic laboratories that may be able to produce a one-off prototype but lack the capability to scale up from there, even to modest mid-range runs. To that end, MNY is researching not just new prototypes and processes but also how to get existing prototypes onto industrial and commercial paths, says Parkes.
Thesis Couture: a sensible shoe theory
The first company to benefit from that $50-million fund, Thesis Couture is taking a fresh look at how high heels are designed. Founder and CEO Dolly Singh, who previously worked for Oculus VR and left SpaceX to launch the company, says the brand was born out of her frustration as a consumer when the towering heels she loved in her twenties began taking a toll on her body as she transitioned into her thirties — and she couldn't find options that met her demand for both unrelenting style and uncompromising comfort. "There isn't really a thoughtful, engineered, system-level approach to high heels out there," she says.
That's due in part, Singh says, to the general dearth of R&D in fashion footwear; performance and athletic tend to get all the love. Sorely missing from the current ecosystem of aesthetics-driven designers who create beautiful art and the manufacturers who execute these visions is a partner focused exclusively on making the entire process better, faster and cheaper, she explains. "How do we take the latest technology and capabilities from other ecosystems and technologies that are maturing and apply them to our industry?"
After surveying the spectrum of traditional materials and methodologies used in footwear, Thesis Couture abandoned most of them, looking instead to other industries for inspiration and considering the function and physics of wearing and walking in stilettos — the statics, dynamics and kinematics that inform how the shoe serves the foot (and often how the foot feels after wearing). Singh decided there must be a better system to accommodate those three critical physics functions (citing patent filings, she was reluctant to divulge too many shoe design specifics).
While the thoughtful scientific approach to creating its initial three-piece collection that will launch this year is an important part of the brand story, Singh is quick to note that she looks to Elon Musk and Tesla for guidance on designing a technologically advanced product that is still first and foremost a thing of beauty. "He didn't lead with 'I'm going to make a high-performance electric car,'" she says. "He set out to make a super sexy car that performs well and happens to be electric."
At the end of the day, consumers buy with their eyes, gravitating toward stunning, inspiring design. "You have to lead with that and then follow with really remarkable performance and technology," Singh says, tapping into a greater sentiment plaguing the wearable technology space: that a large number of the current wearable tech products on the market just aren't winning many points for style.
Toward a new manufacturing platform
To say that efficiently sewing electronic components such as sensors into soft goods and garments is challenging is an understatement, according to Dr. Lucy Dunne, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who directs both the school's apparel design program and the Wearable Technology Lab and co-authored the recently published "Functional Clothing Design: From Sportswear to Spacesuits." It also doesn't help that the apparel manufacturing industry isn't exactly set up to make radical changes. "Cycles are short and margins are low," she explains, "so it doesn't always make sense to make big investments in completely restructuring the manufacturing process."
Through a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, Dr. Dunne is investigating ways to adapt existing cut-and-sew processes to manufacture smart clothing. Since asking apparel factories to stop work, shift gears, retrain workers (or hire new employees outright) and buy new machinery isn't feasible on a wide scale, it makes more sense to adapt existing, scalable processes to produce smart garments more efficiently — which could also be a boon for the domestic apparel production sector, she says.
Dr. Dunne's lab has developed a "bend and stretch sensor" that's sewn into a fabric with a cover stitch, swapping out one line of regular thread for a conductive thread, thereby replacing the soldering or bulky wires that have dominated similar approaches to embedding sensors in the past.
What's more, the lab is striving to design the "cell phone equivalent of a smart garment." That is, just as today's smartphone is a versatile and indispensable piece of hardware that can be used to do any number of things within the same hardware structure, "if we can do that, it means you're just going to wear one garment, which represents a major shift in the way that we normally use clothing," Dr. Dunne explains. "You normally don't wear the same shirt every day, but I think that you might in the right circumstances [if it's delivering myriad benefits]. That's where you get into crazy talk."
Forget the jocks, this one's for the lazy people
"The real turning point for wearables and smart fabrics is not when there are products for those who are trying to excel in athletics — it's going to have to appeal to the lazy people," says BeBop Sensors founder and CEO Keith McMillen. "When it provides convenience or makes something easier to do or reduces some level of menial work in your life, it'll become widespread and important."
BeBop Sensors produces smart fabrics embedded with millions of sensor particles coated with flexible, stretchable inks that extract data. The fabric can accommodate a variety of circuits, from conductors to resistors, whose traces are integrated into a very small embedded device, says McMillen, so that the entire system is compact and robust with minimal points of failure.
To date the smart fabric has been used to create products such as an insole that senses 20 areas on the foot. While the most obvious application for a high-tech insole might be sports, the insole could be paired with a smartphone and contain a small buzzer that would "tickle" the wearer to prevent slouching and help to improve posture, McMillen explains.
Such highly interactive and responsive garments may not be for everyone, but the youth of the today are likely to embrace these innovations. "Millennials are curious, lazy and intelligent — the right cross section of the population to take the technology from a fringe phenomenon and into the mainstream," adds McMillen.
Skip the supplements, just slip your shirt on
If you've ever thought that there has to be a better way to pack more minerals into your health regimen, Fittersift's performance-fabric dress shirts might just be for you (but gentlemen only during the brand's Kickstarter launch, sorry ladies). Made with "responsive textile technology," a proprietary mix of 13 thermoreactive minerals sourced from Utah's Great Salt Lake and chosen specifically for their ability to convert wasted body heat into infrared energy, these innovative shirts aim to make the wearer not only look good but feel better. The heat-to-energy conversion boosts blood oxygen levels, which improves circulation, which in turns aids with temperature regulation, says founder Eric Gruboy.
"This is the future of textiles, the next step in transitioning from regular clothing to wearing apparel that works hand-in-hand with and responds to your body," he adds. However, according to PwC's "The Wearable Future" report, while 80 percent of survey respondents say a health care component is very important in wearables, 40 percent don't think they'll actually use smart clothing. On the other hand, 24 percent of Millennials say a smart clothing purchase is a "likely" part of the coming year.
Beyond the mineral angle, Fittersift shirts feature eco-friendly silver salt antimicrobial odor-resistant properties; a top moisture-wicking cotton/polyester blend fiber; and a wrinkle-free easy-care design that should appeal to on-the-go urban Millennials and tech-savvy consumers. Gruboy worked with a New York City Garment District provider to develop the shirt — which will be available in Mineral White, Carbon Black and Neon Black — and plans to manufacture in the United States, if not in New York City.
The future of retailing?
As wearables gain mainstream traction, retailers should start to think about how to make the most of these devices within their four walls. Wearable devices such as smartwatches potentially could have significant implications for retail payments — and perhaps more important, payment security.
PayPal developed an app for the Samsung Gear 2 watch that enables users to pay via the device, and the combination of Apple Watch and Apple Pay, which uses tokenization to validate the card owner's identity, could stymy hackers in the event of a retail data breach.
But retailers deploying wearable tech to associates and other store staff are setting high expectations for consumers, 72 percent of whom, according to the PwC report, say it's very important that wearables improve customer service and expect to receive better information.
High-end retailers might want to take a cue from Virgin Atlantic, which equipped its Heathrow Airport staff with Google Glass in order to provide a subtle heads-up and pertinent details about VIP passengers. Imagine using smart glasses to greet high-spenders by name during each store visit and to access a client's purchase history and preferences without consulting a handheld device.
Like it or not, smart glasses, smart watches and other "traditional" wearable tech devices might find their way into your workplace, according to PwC's research. Wearables can be useful for tracking how employees spend their time in order to address any inefficiencies and boost productivity. In a warehouse setting, smart glasses and similar devices could correct a worker who's filling an order incorrectly or alert a forklift driver at risk of crashing.
Does it need its own name?
Just as the term "omnichannel" got old pretty quickly, there's a feeling among some apparel industry insiders that "wearable tech" is a phrase that doesn't actually say much at all.
"It's a really sad symptom of the fashion industry that we call it 'wearable technology' because fabric is technology," notes architect turned 3D printing designer Francis Bitonti. "For some reason the fashion industry has always tried to divorce the technology and the design, more than any other discipline. I'm not quite sure what the reason for that is but I think that's probably starting to change.
"Technology is just tools, and you can't make anything without tools."
—Jessica Binns is a Bay Area Apparel contributing writer.