Paul Dillinger, Levi's


SAN FRANCISCO — Google and Levi’s aren’t the most obvious of partners, but their coming together is the stuff of which Silicon Valley stories are made.

As Paul Dillinger, vice president of global innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., tells it, two-and-a-half years ago, Levi’s president James Curleigh sat down to dinner with Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group.

The group’s purview was to “make epic stuff,” and part of that was taking on what a successful wearable looked like. So they reached out to a number of companies, wondering what could be done with Levi’s, which came to prominence during the city’s original gold rush 150 years before Google tapped into tech gold just south of San Francisco.

When Dillinger heard about a possible project to inject apparel with an interactive capability, he was not initially into the idea.

“Why would I take on a challenge this difficult?” Dillinger wondered.

They’re both two very big companies that might not naturally be adept at collaboration. He noted that Google was about radical change and inventing the future, unencumbered by supply chains, while Levi’s “predicates its value on six-month radical change — whether it’s jeggings or a skinny jean — within a normal set of parameters,” from a supply-chain standpoint.

But then as Dillinger was riding his bike through the city, he landed on a use case that made sense: The result is Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket, which incorporates interactive fiber via Google’s Jacquard technology and is made to be worn by urban cyclists. Wearers can touch the fabric on the sleeve to perform functions on their smart phone, such as controlling music or silencing calls. The jacket is expected to become available for consumer demos in March.

Dillinger said it’s one example of a way to make wearable tech usable.

“You might not go to Google for a great pair of sunglasses, but you’ll go to Levi’s for a great jean jacket, so you should go to the partner who will offer the form part that will enhance the opportunity you have with technology,” Dillinger said.

He added that a successful wearable might not look like an unknown thing, and that the entirely familiar — like a jean jacket — might be a better starting point.

The key factor, he said, is that to avoid being just a gadget, wearable tech must align with customer needs. “The brands understand those the best — not the creators in the lab,” he said.

Dillinger was speaking at a panel hosted at the Macy’s Fashion Incubator in San Francisco, along with Andrew Lutjens, fashion wearables business strategist at Intel, and Nicole Mason, director of digital media and marketing at macys.com, about working on useful fashion and technology projects.

Lutjens emphasized the need for the designers to create the products, while Intel supplied the technology inside.

“Intel is all about partnerships,” Lutjens said. “We need brands to bring product to market. We are the experts when it comes to tech, but we rely on brand partners.” To that end, Intel recently challenged the 10 designers in the CFDA’s Vogue Fashion Fund incubator to use the Intel Curie chip in a design.

Mason described how Macy’s worked with Alibaba’s TMall to create a virtual reality shopping experience in the store’s Herald Square location in New York, and an artificially intelligent app with IBM’s Watson to make a store-specific directory.

Going forward, she predicted chatbots will one day replace apps — Macy’s has one with Facebook Messenger — and that thanks to augmented reality and VR, customers will be able to have a full, in-store shopping experience without leaving home.

Dillinger said wearables will fuel a return to bricks-and-mortar shopping as “no amount of explanation will get you the same experience. When everything you buy can do something, we finally have that one thing to fight against fast fashion. Bricks-and-mortar will be the place you go to discover this new thing.”

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