As the hype of wearables dies down, one thing is clear: companies need their fashion tech offerings to look more like fashion and less like tech. They also need to sell their products in places typically associated with fashion.
One entrepreneur who grasps the importance of reaching his demographic where they already shop is Gerald Wilmink, the founder and chief executive officer of WiseWear. In an exclusive interview, Wilmink revealed that his smart jewelry accessory will be available at Saks Fifth Avenue in September.
WiseWear is a connected bracelet with features including activity tracking, mobile notifications and distress messaging. Unlike clunky, plastic wristables, WiseWear emphasizes style, with brass bangles plated in precious metals like 18-karat gold and palladium. The company offers a variety of form factors, from the Kingston (a clean and simple bangle) to the Calder (a bold design available in rose gold). Styles are interchangeable, since the device is made of two jewelry parts: a bottom, called the brains, which houses the hardware, and a top, called the beauty, which allows wearers to express personal style.
WiseWear made waves at CES in Las Vegas earlier this year when it revealed an official partnership with Iris Apfel. At that time, it said that in addition to lending her public image, Apfel was designing a collection of bracelets to be released in time for the holiday season. While WiseWear hasn’t revealed any details of those pieces, they are expected to be carried at Saks Fifth Avenue come fall.
“The retail launch of WiseWear in Saks Fifth Avenue will be with Apfel in New York in September,” Wilmink said in a phone interview from the company’s San Antonio, Tex., headquarters. “We’re going to start with the flagship Saks in Midtown [Manhattan] before moving to other locations across New York. By the holiday season, we hope to be at Saks throughout North America.”
Saks operates 41 stores in the U.S.
Wilmink said WiseWear will also be included in the department store’s annual holiday gift guide.
Although Saks currently offers a few smartwatches and tech cases and accessories, this is the first time the department store has delved into smart jewelry wholeheartedly. Two years ago, when Tory Burch designed an encasement bangle for Fitbit, Saks offered the stainless steel, gold-plated and leather bracelets, but the Fitbit Flex was sold separately. WiseWear’s placement in Saks underscores the brand’s commitment to fashion — a tactical move in a smart jewelry market saturated with technology-driven gadgets.
In addition to elevating the aesthetic of wearables, WiseWear is raising expectations in terms of features included in a smart device. “Our main differentiator has been our safety feature,” said Wilmink.
If a wearer feels unsafe or falls, she can simply tap the bottom of the bracelet, which sends a text message alert with her exact GPS location to her emergency contact. Wilmink said that the distress messaging capability has been the main selling point.
“Primarily, our customers are college-age women who want to stay safe on campus, and professional female executives working in big cities and real estate agents who want to keep safety one click away.”
Wilmink anticipates Saks will introduce his product to a new audience — specifically, an older demographic raised on high-touch shopping experiences.
Selling a hybrid product like WiseWear in a department store doesn’t come without challenges. “It’s an entirely new category” on the department store floor, said Wilmink. “If you put a smart jewelry product in the accessories section of a store, the sales associates aren’t trained to sell electronics. At the same time, if you put a piece of high-end jewelry in a consumer electronics store, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Wilmink, who holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, originally developed the technology behind WiseWear as a medical product. After his grandfather developed Lewy body dementia and died after a tragic fall in 2010, Wilmnik started WiseWear in his garage with a mission to detect and diagnose falls before they happen. “We started this company designing wearables that were actually hearables,” explained Wilmnik.
Hearables are small, connected devices that sit in the ear and communicate with the wearer. “We developed a hearing aid for seniors that picks up when you’re dehydrated and when your gate is off. The hearing aid sends a signal via Bluetooth, and then whispers to the wearer to sit down in an effort to help them avoid a fall.”
What Wilmink and his team discovered in developing that initial device was the ability to transmit Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi through metal. That’s when they started working with Apfel and the chief operating officer of fine jewelry maker Ippolita.
Where other wearable tech products on the market hand over their hardware to fashion designers as an afterthought, WiseWear has had an integrated approach from the beginning. When Wilmink started working with Apfel, his team of engineers and technicians visited the design team in New York. “It was like the nerds visit the ‘Devil Wears Prada,’” he recalled.
Since appearing on the smart jewelry scene in North America eight months ago, the biggest criticism launched at WiseWear (mostly from technology journalists) has been over the device’s price. Ranging from $295 to $345, WiseWear retails for more than most wearables on the market. Wilmink said WiseWear plans to roll out more accessible options in the near future. “We’ll offer a variety of products that aren’t just for the classes, but for the masses as well. Our goal is to empower women to be safe while providing them with options for expressing themselves,” he said.
In addition to its partnership with Saks, Wilmnik said WiseWear will be partnering with a global on-demand safety service that will enable wearers to use the distress signal feature to send an SOS message to local security officers in every major city across the globe. This safety-as-a-service feature will operate on a subscription model, which opens up recurring revenue opportunities.
He also hinted that WiseWear is working on a family of fashion products fused with technology — from smart jewelry collections with various form factors to a line of connected clothing. “The idea from the start was to make the hardware disappear to empower everyday objects. We want to fuse fashion with threads of technology,” said Wilmink.