When we think about wearable technology today, the first thing to come to mind is still clunky wrist-worn devices – smart watches and fitness trackers that no matter how hard they try, haven’t yet truly nailed looking like something we all want to wear everyday. In fact, that “fashion” aspect of wearables continues to have a really long way to go in terms of true integration in our lives.
Didn’t we all imagine we’d have completely connected wardrobes by now? As Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion, said to me for a story in Wired UK: “It’s 2016, where’s our smart clothing? Where is it?”
Indeed, “fashion tech” as a term rarely means anything close to what we actually put on each morning and rather still relates to things like dresses that light-up – beautiful Cinderella gowns that enhance the wearer on their journey along the red carpet for instance (Met Gala anyone?). Or lingering memories like that of Google Glass and its collaboration with Diane von Furstenberg… Say no more.
As a starting point, all of these launches have been incredibly important in terms of experimentations that lead the industry forward, but they also do a relative disservice to “wearable technology” as a category to be taken seriously in fashion.
So what are the solutions that are going to win? Here’s an outline of 10 brands to be aware of in the rather small but fashionable wearable tech space. Some of them even stretch what the term “wearables” might mean – stepping beyond connected textiles into deeper fibre science, which is the area looking the most likely to shape the future of our wardrobes.
Levi’s and Google Project Jacquard
The Levi’s Commuter x Jacquard by Google Trucker Jacket is a piece of wearable technology designed for urban cyclists. Conductive yarn is weaved into the left cuff enabling touch interactivity so users can tap, swipe or hold to fulfill simple tasks like changing music tracks, blocking or answering calls or accessing navigation information (delivered by voice).
What’s stand out here however is that not only does the functionality answer an actual need for cyclists, but it genuinely looks good while doing it. Why? Because it looks like a jean jacket and not a piece of technology.
The Unseen for Selfridges
London-based The Unseen is one of few examples on this list that has actually launched to market. Founded by Lauren Bowker, who refers to herself as a material alchemist, this is a start-up that has captured the simple idea of colors that alter based on user interaction or the environment they’re placed in.
The resulting line of luxury accessories for Selfridges in late 2015 included a backpack, scarf, phone case and more, which responded to things like air pressure, body temperature, touch, wind and sunlight. An Italian alligator-skin shoulder bag for instance saw environmentally-responsive ink shifting from black in the winter, to red in the spring, blue in the summer and green fading to red in the autumn.
Emel + Aris
Emel + Aris is a crowdfunding success story having raised over £100,000 (GBP) on Kickstarter in March 2016 for the launch of its smart coat. Much like Levi’s and Google, this one also doesn’t look like technology; but rather a line of outerwear for both men and women. On top of that however, comes hidden intelligent heating technology inside.
Made from a lightweight polymer, rather than a load of wires, it produces FIR (far infrared) heat energy from various panels across the garment that is then absorbed by the skin to heat the muscles and increase blood flow. The only cable that does exist is one that leads to the battery pack powering it. At this point, that’s still the evident bit, but get past having to also carry that in one of the pockets and this is one of the most appealing wearable tech functionalities to date. Who doesn’t want to hit a button and be cosy inside their coat whatever the weather?
Billie Whitehouse, founder of Wearable Experiments, introduced a piece called the Fan Jersey ahead of this year’s Super Bowl; a shirt that fans can wear to feel major plays on the American football field. Connected via Bluetooth, the haptic vibrations occur in real-time with the game, creating an emotional attachment for the wearer. She’s also just launched a version for soccer in Europe.
The exciting thing here is not really to do with wearables at all, but about what it might mean for entertainment. If you can feel the heartbeat of your favorite player for instance, does it draw you ever more into the game? What if that was applied to sitting in the theatre watching a high adrenaline film? Long term, it’s entirely possible we might indeed be wearing such shirts while enjoying sports or certain Netflix shows sat at home on the couch too. Tension would have all new meaning.
The only wrist-worn wearable on this list is the all-new Zenta from Vinaya. Still in the midst of its crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, it has already exceeded its $100,000 goal by more than 100%. Much like its sister collection (called Altruis) it enables the user to switch off from digital noise and just remain connected to their most important smartphone notifications. More than that however, it also tracks emotion.
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Tapping smartly into the market for wellness and mindfulness, it monitors activity, sleep quality, breathing patterns, stress levels, emotion states, and overall mood. It also connects its biometric sensing technology with machine learning algorithms so it learns about the wearer as time goes on, and improves the experience accordingly.
Self-proclaimed as the world’s first high performance stilettos, these shoes from Thesis Couture are indeed focused on functionality. By that, what we mean is that they combine being high heels (four inches) with comfort. Sound impossible? Founder Dolly Singh, herself a former SpaceX employee, has hired a rocket scientist, an orthopedic surgeon, a mechanical engineer, a shoe designer and an Italian shoemaker to create a shoe that does exactly that, according to the NY Times.
The short story: a ballistic-grade polymer in the heel stops it from feeling so painful underfoot, while the angle of the shoe and the platform at the front enables it to seem like you’re wearing something an inch lower than it is. Wearable tech by definition, perhaps not – but it sure is a great use of technology applied to something most women would kill for. The above example was merely a sandal for user testing, but the first true design for retail will be revealed over the next couple of weeks and shortly open for reservations thereafter.
VFiles x XO
While light up clothing might usually appear under the more gimmicky header of fashion tech to date, XO creative director and co-founder, Nancy Tilbury, makes a really good argument for it being entirely suited to a very specific shopper. Generation Z streetwear consumers, she says, are waiting for their wardrobes to get on the grid.
As a result, she teamed up with VFiles to launch an interactive collection during New York Fashion Week in February comprised of fibre optic apparel and accessories. A cap and rucksack will retail later this year, enabling the wearer to change the surface colors and patterns in response to music via an accompanying app.
One of the buzziest announcements of 2015 was Bolt Threads, a San Francisco-based company brewing spider silk protein in fermentation vats and then spinning it into yarn. Surpassing what we typically think of as wearables, this bioengineering (and the two further examples below) is one of the most exciting developments for the future of fashion today.
The beauty of engineering such textiles is the additional properties you can add along the way. Spider silk is already stronger than Kevlar, and more durable but at least as flexible as Lycra – create it in this way and you’re also able to do so at scale. Bolt Threads has just raised $50 million in Series C funding in order to start bringing products to market in 2018. It has also announced a deal with Patagonia.
Also playing in the engineered spider silk space is Spiber; this time a Japan-based company that’s been researching how to produce such polymers on a mass level since its launch in 2007. It’s already working with The North Face, having launched a prototype jacket called The Moon Parka made from it late last year.
A one-off design, The Moon Parka then toured the brand’s Japanese stores with plans reportedly in the pipeline to make a production ready version of it some time this year.
Last but not least is Modern Meadow, another company growing materials; this time leather (as well as meat) in a lab. That means it’s able to design and engineer leather to make it not only a more sustainable material but also so that it has additional performance properties that it couldn’t have in nature.
“If you think about the 20th century being one that facilitated a generation of materials that came out of the petrochemical industry – like DuPont creating Lycra, or earlier than that with nylon and the synthetics facilitated by chemistry – the 21st century is about biotechnology,” said Suzanne Lee, chief creative officer at Modern Meadow, in Wired UK. She believes such fabrics will be commonplace within a decade or two.