NEW YORK, United States — The product knowledge and network of industry connections embedded in the world’s leading fashion companies are vital to tapping the full potential of the growing wearables market. It’s encouraging to see that some fashion companies are beginning to understand that, armed with the right technology expertise and partnerships, they can grow, guide and even come to dominate the wearables space with products that are driven by fashion as well as function.
The development path will require concentrated effort, adequate allocation of resources and an open mindset, but fashion has the potential to leapfrog the tech industry, which still thinks in terms of gadgets, by embedding technology into the clothing we already wear, starting at the level of fabrics. This means engaging with fibre science and soft and flexible circuits and embedding this knowledge into the development of new textiles. To turn this into reality, fashion companies should focus on business-to-business relationships and more active involvement in the backend of materials and process supply chains.
Currently, it is all but impossible to find an article on wearable tech that isn’t focused on the Apple Watch or similar devices. Let the tech industry dominate the wrist. It’s become increasingly overcrowded, anyway. Tech-infused apparel is a more fertile, unexplored territory. If you think of the body as an operating system, clothing becomes the interface by which the body communicates with the surrounding environment. And clothing with embedded technology can unlock all sorts of potential applications with body sensing and gestural interaction.
The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) — where computing is everywhere, embedded in all manner of objects, not just gadgets — has arrived and fashion brands should be taking an active role in defining their own unique place and contribution within the ecosystem. What a person is wearing at any given time can reveal a lot about who they are, their state of mind or what they are doing. This data is very different to what can be gathered by a smartphone and, while addressing privacy concerns, fashion brands should be considering how to utilise virtual networks of tech-infused clothing for a wide range of applications, from product development to marketing.
If this all sounds a bit science fiction, it’s worth remembering that, although today’s fashion and technology industries seem to have very different value systems and business processes, fashion and technology actually have a deeply integrated history which is not often recognised. The jacquard loom played a major role in the development of computer hardware. In fact, punchcards were the basis for the design of the Analytical Engine, a mechanical general-purpose computer conceived by English mathematician Charles Babbage. But as computing became silicon-based, textiles remained mechanical.
Now, fashion and technology are set to reconverge in the realm of nanotechnology, which enables us to manipulate matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale. Imagine a textile structured from a blend of different fibres which each function as component within a circuit, for example, battery fibres, solar fibres and antenna fibres. The material itself becomes a self-sustaining ‘textile circuit’ that has its own power and interactive capabilities, but the embedded technology is essentially invisible.
What’s more, wearables are usually defined as powered, connected devices. But let’s not forget, there is a whole category of tech development in fashion that has nothing to do with consumer electronics products like the Apple Watch. One of the most exciting wearable technologies on the market right now is Nike Flyknit. Nike itself has called this the future of their company (and the entire sneaker industry) and yet the media has largely remained focused on connected devices like the Nike Fuelband. Flyknit is a process innovation that brings structure and form directly into the weave of a shoe, creating a product that is low-waste and faster to produce. The process not only produces a more functional product, but allows for a more tightly controlled inventory, which in turn helps to optimise sales and distribution.
Pushing further on structural and process innovation, Thesis Couture (where I am an adviser) is applying the Tesla model of innovation — redesigning a product and its manufacturing processes entirely from scratch — to high heels. With a core team spun out of Space X, Oculus and the fields of orthopaedic surgery and artisanal shoemaking, Thesis is taking advantages of advances in materials and manufacturing (for example, polymers created for space travel) to create high heels that have been structurally engineered around the foot and the walking process, delivering enhanced comfort without compromising on style.
But none of this will be quick or cheap. And perhaps this relates to the biggest challenge facing fashion’s relationship with technology: overcoming a mental model that sees technology’s role within the industry as a mere marketing add-on. Instead, what is needed at fashion companies is deep internal commitment of resources and a willingness to think and invest in increments of time that are much longer than a fashion season.
Dr. Amanda Parkes is a fashion technologist and the chief of technology and research at hybrid fashion incubator Manufacture New York.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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