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Tech-to-Wear: Wearable Technology on the Rise

Technology is moving beyond the back office and factory floor and creeping toward the accessories, dresses and shirts themselves.

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CuteCircuit's silk chiffon and LED light New K-Dress.

CuteCircuit's silk chiffon and LED light New K-Dress.

John Aquino

Hussein Chalayan has long used light and mechanical effects in his designer collections, including this light-up dress from spring 2008.

Hussein Chalayan has long used light and mechanical effects in his designer collections, including this light-up dress from spring 2008.

Courtesy Photo

Pierre Cardin's "egg carton" dress, 1968.

Pierre Cardin's "egg carton" dress, 1968.

Pierre Cardin Archive

Google Glass marks the tech firm's first foray into fashion.

Google Glass marks the tech firm's first foray into fashion.

Courtesy Photo

Under Armour's Armour39 helps athletes monitor their performance.

Under Armour's Armour39 helps athletes monitor their performance.

George Chinsee

The geeks are coming into fashion.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Computers have already remade the world, changing business and culture as they jumped from clunky mainframe to desktop to phone. But now technology is growing even more prevalent, moving beyond the back office and factory floor and creeping toward the accessories, dresses and shirts themselves.

Wearable technology, if not yet mainstream, is having a serious moment.

“Technology’s so integrated in our lives, it’s like a second brain to us,” said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University. “It’s just a no-brainer [that it will be integrated into fashion]. There’s a craving for that on the part of consumers. It’s a ‘postable’ moment when you can have special clothing that sort of boosts who you are. It’s interesting to other people. It gets your attention.”

Talk of “wearables” has taken the technology industry by storm, from Apple to Google. Serious outside money and talent are being devoted to developing a market in fashion’s backyard, a market that might — just possibly — be the Next Big Thing.

The buzz around wearable technology is only one indication of the fashion industry’s techie turn. Also looming is the potential of 3-D printers, machines that allow consumers to produce three-dimensional objects at home. At her couture show in Paris last week, Iris van Herpen showed platform shoes that were printed while Stephen Jones revealed he’s working on a 3-D printed hat. Dita Von Teese made plenty of headlines when she modeled Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti’s 3-D printed nylon dress, produced by Shapeways.

While the commercial implications are small right now, the potential is huge.

Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times, which produces technology conferences, said, “The fashion designers kind of gave up the fashion business once on the manufacturing side because our factories couldn’t retool fast enough, etc., and a lot of it was done offshore. I think technology is going to stop mass production to some degree. They’re learning how to 3-D print cloth.” For now, there are limitations. Shapeways gives designers access to its two production facilities — one in Long Island City, New York and one in Eindhoven, The Netherlands — that house industrial size 3-D printers, which can currently work with 30 types of materials, including ceramics, silver and plastics. The printers can only process one material at a time, which often yields smaller fashion items, such as jewelry or handbags. Nylon was used for Schmidt and Bitonti’s dress because it can be manipulated into a weave small enough to emulate traditional fabric.

At a recent symposium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, “Cross-Pollination: Fashion and Technology,” speakers discussed invisibility cloaks, airbag helmets for bikers, the sustainability of growing skin in a lab instead of killing animals and on and on.

Suzanne Lee, founder and director of BioCouture, which is working on techniques that use microbes to grow material for apparel, said this new, possible world “requires a shift in thinking. It calls into question everything about why we wear clothing and what we want our clothing to say about ourselves.”

“The real competition is really between you and your imagination,” said consultant Steve Zades, founder and chief executive officer of The Odyssey Network, a consultancy. “There’s a monster gap between what is technically possible today and what the consumer can buy on the shelf. It’s a team sport. It’s very collaborative. You’re not going to get there on your own with this kind of innovation.”

Zades told FIT students at the symposium: “Things are going to change big time in the next five years. When you think about who you’re going to work for, it may be Samsung.”

So while it used to be the geeks on one side and the fashion crowd on the other, the fashion set is now becoming increasingly geeky and the two sets are intermingling.

Already, Google Inc. introduced its hands-free digital interface, Google Glass, at Diane von Furstenberg’s spring runway show in September. While the tech world has continued to buzz about the potential for an always-on life via Google Glass, the fashion reaction mostly fizzled after the show. The technology is expected to be rolled out next year.

Apple Inc. ceo Tim Cook recently described wearable technology as an “incredibly interesting” and “profound area for technology.” “I see it as another very key branch of the tree,” he said, speaking at an All Things Digital conference.

Apple’s products have always stressed form as much as function, but an indication of how important fashion now is to the tech giant came this month when the company hired Paul Deneve, former ceo of Yves Saint Laurent. Deneve had worked at Apple before switching to the fashion world. Apple was vague about his new duties, saying only that he would be involved in “special projects.” Observers speculated that could be “wearables.”

Moves such as this put fashion directly in the crosshairs of both Google and Apple, two of the richest, most powerful and industry-transforming companies the world has ever known.

Apple is rumored to be exploring a “smart watch” and Cook, who predictably downplayed the potential of Google Glass, told the All Things Digital conference, “I think the wrist is interesting.”

The bar is high at Apple. “For something to work [on the wrist] you first have to convince people it’s so incredible that you want to wear it,” he said.

It’s safe to say Apple is more design-savvy than fashion is tech-savvy. However, there are a few players, mostly athletic brands such as Nike and Under Armour, that are already playing in the area with workout-related wearables that could contend for market share if the category catches fire.

Apple’s Cook wore Nike’s $149 FuelBand at the conference and praised the focus of the device, which looks something like a bracelet, syncs up with smartphones and tracks how active the wearer is. Under Armour also has workout gear that monitors activity and has hinted at a shirt with a digital display built into the sleeve.

Accessories are an easy first step for technology in fashion — and luxury brands such as Prada and Giorgio Armani have in the past even designed smartphones for the likes of LG and Samsung, respectively. Then there is the slew of fashion brands who design iPad and iPhone cases and laptop bags.

But the pioneers are now pushing beyond accessories. There’s a small core of budding businesses and do-it-yourselfers who are making a variety of fashion looks that can log in or light up. They are followers of Hussein Chalayan — whose illuminated dresses and other flights of fancy have delighted and amazed since the Nineties — and they want to transform the future.

The stakes are high, and incorporating technology into apparel could ultimately change what it means to be a designer.

“Instead of designing patterns flat and static, I design little videos and animations,” said Francesca Rosella, creative director of London-based CuteCircuit, which sells a dress with nearly 9,000 LED lights that are controlled by an iPhone and can change colors and flash patterns.

Video textile design would essentially be a whole new world for fashion, one that gives the consumer more control than ever, allowing the wearer to change the pattern of her dress on a whim.

Katy Perry wore a CuteCircuit light-up dress to the opening of a Costume Institute exhibit in 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, giving the company a lift.

CuteCircuit has a variety of washable looks that light up, as well as a shirt that can remember what a hug feels like and then send a similar sensation on to another person wearing a hug shirt, which has sensors and actuators that are linked up with Bluetooth technology.

The fashions are sold at some boutiques and on CuteCircuit’s Web site — the New K-Dress with a strip of LED lights costs 2,500 pounds, or $3,797 at current exchange, while a men’s T-shirt with a few lights that turn on when the wearer moves runs 150 pounds, or $228.

“The garments that we make are really unobtrusive, and you feel like you’re wearing a normal garment,” said Rosella, who is an enthusiastic techie and fashionista.

She might be a template for what designers in the future will look like.

“Designers will have to learn the language of how technology works,” said Syuzi Pakhchyan, author of “Fashioning Technology: A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting.”

Pakhchyan said wearable fashions are still restrained by technology and described today’s techie styles as “expressions of ideas that will come in 10 or 20 years.” By the time the technology is ready, she said designers would be ready, too: “It’s going to be seamless for the fashion designer to be designing with some of this stuff.”

Others believe it might not take that long.

Joanna Berzowska, chair of Concordia University’s department of design and computation arts, said the technology for wearables was “getting exponentially closer.”

Take the athletic heart-rate monitors that have been built into shirts, connecting the sensors that touch the body with conductive thread. “It’s clumsy, you have to wet the sensors [to make the connection],” Berzowska says. “Then you have these big snaps and you need to snap the transmitter in it. It’s not a seamless experience. There is an amount of clunkiness. Early adopters are willing to put up with that clunkiness. So how long is it going to take to move past early adopters to the mainstream? It’s about five years. I’m involved with a couple of start-ups, so I have my time and my money on the line.”

Berzowska said technology’s point of entry in mainstream fashion would be very simple, for instance a strip that changes color for embellishment — similar to fashions that are already on the market.

In essence, wearable technology is in the process of being wrestled away from the function-minded engineering set and taken over by the designers.

“The goal is to really connect you to digital life without really taking you away from real life,” said Sergey Brin, the billionaire Google cofounder, of Google Glass. He went largely unnoticed backstage at von Furstenberg’s spring runway, where models and the designer helped introduced Google Glass to the world.

“It’s not just about technology,” Brin said. “It’s about lifestyle.…It’s a very important component of making technology desirable and compelling — it’s got to be stylish and fashionable.”

The collaboration between Brin and von Furstenberg left a big impression on fashion’s tech contingent, who are starting to feel their time has nearly arrived.

“As opposed to technology coming in and changing fashion, [the Google Glass debut showed] fashion kind of having an influence or an impact on technology,” said Emma McClendon, cocurator of the “Fashion and Technology” exhibit at FIT, which ended in May. “They chose to not only align it with a fashion designer, but New York Fashion Week…using the whole process and the whole aura of fashion to promote a tech gadget.”

McClendon said any move to the mainstream would likely be a gradual process.

As an analogue, she offered Pierre Cardin’s “egg carton” dress from the Sixties, which used heat-set Dynel to create a distinctive three-dimensional diamond pattern. The dress remained a novelty, but the technology lived on. Pants with heat-set pleats became a staple of the modern wardrobe in the Seventies.

Just which innovation today will become the staple of tomorrow is a project that seems likely to consume fashion for the next decade.

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