Fashion Brands Absent From Wearable Tech Revolution

As the technology industry sets its sights on wearable computing, it’s time for fashion and luxury brands to take the space seriously, or risk losing highly lucrative real estate on the emerging battleground of the human body.

Google Glass | Source: Google

LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent weeks, there’s been a flurry of activity in the emerging market for wearable devices — personal accessories with embedded sensors, displays and other digital technology — a space many analysts believe is set to be the next major technology battleground and a $10 billion industry by 2016.

First, three of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capital funds, Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, announced an investment partnership targeting apps for Google Glass, the company’s Internet-enabled eyewear. Then, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to Asian suppliers, Microsoft is working on a touch-enabled smartwatch to compete with Apple’s rumoured iWatch.

A day later, Google released guidelines for software developers building services, or “Glassware,” for Google Glass. And just yesterday, Jawbone, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures, among others, announced its acquisition of BodyMedia, a maker of wearable health tracking devices, for a sum that is reportedly over $100 million.

“We’re very bullish on the idea of ubiquitous computing, which has been an idea our industry has had since the late 1980s. The essential idea is that computers will be everywhere — they’ll be in your glasses, they’ll be part of your clothing,” Margit Wennmachers, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, told BoF. “We already see people bringing their smartphones with them everywhere and reaching for them first thing in the morning so we know people want a computer with them at all times — to help them figure what they need to do or where to go or how to get there or to learn more about the person they’re about to meet with. Google Glass is just a less obtrusive, always there, always on extension of that same idea.”

Much like the iPhone, the ultimate success of these platforms will be largely determined by the ecosystem of apps that grow up around them; it’s not hard to imagine a wide range of potentially powerful applications in areas like health and fitness (where companies like Nike and BodyMedia have focused their efforts), as well as navigation, social networking, gaming and commerce.

But critically, when it comes to wearables, consumer adoption will also depend on the stylistic merits of these devices and how users who wear them are perceived by others. In other words, as well as being functional, they will have to have both aesthetic and social value.

“I was intimately involved in the shift at Palm from the original gray plastic case to the Palm V, the sleek shiny metal object that was much more of a fashion accessory. That seems like ages ago now, but what has proven true is that cell phones are the ‘cars’ of the new generation. They define your individuality and your freedom,” Trae Vassallo, general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, told BoF. “We expect that platforms like Glass will have to appeal as fashion items.”

Fashion isn’t something that most technology companies do particularly well, however. “I’m desperate for some fashion sensibility to enter tech. Over the last 20 years, I’ve looked at a lot of ugly stuff,” said Wennmachers. “For the next wave of true merging of fashion and tech, we need more companies that have a culture that celebrates both, the technical and the design talent. You’re already seeing this at companies like Jawbone, but we have a long way to go.”

Fashion and luxury brands, on the other hand, have a deep understanding of how to create desirable personal accessories that carry and convey stylistic and social value. But with the exception of eyewear start-up Warby Parker, which is reportedly in talks with Google to help the tech giant design more fashionable frames for its smart glasses, these brands have been noticably absent from the wearables revolution.

It’s worth remembering, however, that real estate on the human body is limited. People only have two wrists and one face. And personal accessories are where fashion and luxury brands make a sizable chunk of their revenues. As young technology companies slowly but surely start to develop wearables with more evolved aesthetics, will consumers still have room for bracelets, watches and sunglasses that may look good, but lack appealing functionality?

Indeed, if they don’t want to risk ceding highly lucrative and limited space on the emerging battleground of the human body, it’s time for fashion brands to take wearables seriously.

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  1. We’ve been wearing tech since the dawn of time.

    We’ve come from desktops to laptops now to eyetops @eyetops FB:eyetops

    eyetops – making smartphones the dumb choice

    eyetops from United Kingdom
  2. “I’m desperate for some fashion sensibility to enter tech. Over the last 20 years, I’ve looked at a lot of ugly stuff,” said Wennmachers”
    I am your woman! I love gadgets and fashion, to merge them would be my dream come true. On a more seeious spirit: luxury houses are sometimes ran by people unaware of new technologies; very experienced and perhaps savy bussines wise but not very aware of the use of technology in younger generations. I remember my ex boss using a brick Nokia still with a mono sound ringtone! She would not know how to operate an iPhone and this was the creative director of a trend setting luxury company! There is the need for someone to research and establish which is the right product, and define the right alliance to stablish; why not create a new position for someone with a different expertise within design or research departments. Some designer alliances can be disastrous! For instance I still remember the Prada -LG phone, perhaps cause I really admire Prada group business decisions but that just didn’t made any sense to me. Why on Earth Prada would chose LG? I still have no answer for that. LG mobiles were never well positioned in the market as say- at the time- Nokia or Ericsson or even the Motorola Razor which was the big IT phone; the other mistake is that they launched the product almost at the same time as the iPhone, of course everyone had the expectancy and wanted an iPhone; none was willing to pay as much for a Prada LG as for an iPhone. It was a ridiculous. Luxury definitley needs the experience but it also needs young blood, and ideas to be able to understand an therefore compete in the upcoming markets.

    Laura from Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
  3. I find this ties in perfectly with a recent BOF article on the future of fashion, particularly when Lawrence Lenihan sais that “The next generation of fashion companies will be smaller. But there will be many of them…” and he highlights that successful fashion brands thrive and succeed when they are able to connect with their customers through a well defined identity (or point of view).
    I think this offers a plausible answer as to why merging fashion and high-tech is such a challenging task, for now.

    To me these two worlds seem to have different objectives and want to connect with customers in very different ways. For now, the high tech companies that are investing in wearable fashion are juggernauts like Google and Apple with products that need to appeal to a wide customer base and therefore are simplified to their minimum common aesthetic-denominator. Fashion brands, even global brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci, do exactly the opposite; their aesthetic code is much more specific to a particular customer and therefore don’t want to look like they are trying to appeal to everyone. A good example of what I mean comes from eyewear, Prada’s remit is different from Google’s remit, the Glass.

    My view is that until we see a shift in this balance we won’t see a true merger between fashion and high-tech.


    Eyespectacle from London, London, United Kingdom