Fashion companies are desperate for wearables to happen. The question is: Will they — and when?

This story first appeared in the September 9, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After all the hubbub about them last year, the fact is that wearables still remain relegated mainly to smartwatches and activity trackers, with a growing number of handbags, bracelets and rings that double as accessories with notification devices or smartphone chargers. Except in highly specific-use cases — like doctors wearing Google Glass during procedures or athletes donning smart clothing to track performance — wearables right now are shaping up to be a head fake.

Wearables were the great hopes for a booming new business after Diane von Furstenberg partnered with Google to have the tech giant’s Glass debut during her spring 2013 runway show. But that was three years ago, and despite designer collaborations and efforts to build a corresponding range of optical and sunglass frames for the product, the $1,500 smart glasses amounted to little more than a runway stunt with fashion culture vultures and billionaire tech nerds basking in each other’s reflective, zeitgeisty glow. Consumer production of the device ceased earlier this year.

The problem is that the industry hasn’t quite figured out exactly what a “wearable” is. Some define it as a connected device that’s little more than an extension of a smartphone; others think the category remains at least a decade away from reaching critical mass. Those in the latter group are betting on smart apparel — clothes that sense if the wearer is cold and promptly heat them up (and vice versa) or fibers that have medicinal, healing benefits.

“Many people don’t really understand or have a clue [what a wearable is] — especially in fashion,” said Mazdack Rassi, creative director of Milk Studios, which has worked with Intel Corp. for over a year to create Muzse, a multiworkshop initiative specializing in all things digital. “It’s basically technology. It’s an idea to make something better — and it’s on the go and on you — and that’s the difference between regular technology and wearables.”

“We think the wearable space will require a massive, connected ecosystem like we’ve never seen before,” said Aysegul Ildeniz, vice president and general manager of business development and strategy at Intel’s New Devices Group. “To that end, Intel is focused on partnering with leading fashion and sports/fitness brands, such as SMS Audio, Tag Heuer, Fossil Group and Luxottica Group, in order to bring the benefits of technology to the accessories already on our body. At [New York] Fashion Week, Intel will discuss the future of fashion and demonstrate a number of new ways that technology and fashion are coming together.”

For now, “wearables” mainly mean fitness trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone’s Up — even if they have relatively limited appeal. “Initial engagement is high with cool factor and personal curiosity, followed by pretty significant churn in active users within 12 months,” said Clara Sieg, a partner at venture firm Revolution Ventures, which has invested in companies such as Zipcar, Handy, Sweetgreen, Bigcommerce, CustomInk, Framebridge, LivingSocial and OrderUp.

Sieg is, at best, lukewarm on the category. Glass and Apple Watch are merely new mediums to access data that users can already get from their smartphones. Fitness trackers are more ubiquitous because they provide specific data that wasn’t available before — and at a more attainable price point. Still, “After the charm of knowing how many steps you take and hours of deep sleep you log wears off, the general lack in useful, prescriptive information makes the annoyance of wearing an ugly bracelet that runs out of batteries outweigh its benefits, and leaves a lot of high-tech arm candy abandoned at the bottom of a desk drawer,” she contended.

Experts seem confident that the future lies in smart textiles, garments woven with conductive threads that can have different functions depending on the use-case.

Google said in May that it was working with Levi’s on developing smart textiles, but little is known about the project. The tech giant said there are no updates to the initial announcement when WWD reached out for comment.

The initial products from OmSignal, the firm that worked with Ralph Lauren on its first smart shirt, are focused on fitness and sports performance, but the long-term vision will be aligned with issues relating to wellness and well-being, not just productivity, according to Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles at OmSignal.

Berzowska is also the founder and research director of XS Labs, which specializes in smart textiles and responsive garments, and an associate professor of design and computation arts at Concordia University in Montreal. As part of her work at the university, she’s developing fibers that can replace traditional electronics such as fibers that can change color and harness electricity from one’s movements as well as garments that can either warm up or cool down the wearer.

“We knit conductive threads directly into the shirt. That’s why sensors are part of the shirts; it’s not something you need to attach,” she said, referring to Ralph Lauren’s new compression shirt, which debuted at the U.S. Open last summer. “The future isn’t just to have conductive threads but to have other functional threads.”

Unfortunately, these won’t be on the market until 15 years from now, Berzowska said. But what might reach mass production in a decade’s time are threads that deliver medicine to one’s skin. Through this method, or microencapsulation, fibers can be imbued with aloe or vitamins and still be durable enough to withstand about 20 washes.

David Lauren, executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Ralph Lauren, said at a press launch event for the brand’s first PoloTech smart shirt that he sees wearables becoming a mainstream part of the collection in a year’s time. Right now, the $295 shirt is the “halo” product of the new Polo Sport collection, but Lauren said an in-house innovation lab is working on implementing the technology in everything from khakis to oxford button downs.

The tracking chip — a device that snaps on to the shirt right below the chest — collects data that goes above and beyond that collected by fitness trackers to date, including the wearer’s heart rate, calories burned, steps taken, breathing depth and recovery, intensity of movement, energy output and stress levels. He’s sure that the device, created in partnership with OmSignal, is more accurate than any fitness tracker on the market — due to the proximity to the user’s vital organs.

The product and corresponding fitness app that can suggest personalized workouts based on an individual’s habits and fitness levels are impressive for sure, but it begs the question: if you’re not training for a triathlon or a performance athlete, is there really a need to know all of this biometric data? Probably not, said futurist Erica Orange, executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Future Hunters.

“The real utility [for wearables] won’t be in fashion or retail,” Orange contended, noting that performance athletes can benefit from training with a product such as Ralph Lauren’s smart shirt. “It’s going to be how it’s used in the hospital and doctors’ offices, and also for first responders like firemen — in situations with real utility. For instance, [firemen] can use augmented reality to see where people are in a burning building.”

She projects that as a category, wearables will evolve into “implantibles,” “injectables” and eventually “invisibles” because no one wants to wear anything that can be seen as a wearable. As far as smart clothing goes, technology is going to have to be able to respond automatically and naturally to the environment of the user and then react accordingly, like a shirt that can sense when the wearer is cold and then automatically warm them up, for instance.

It may be the next generation — when the wearable moves beyond just checking one’s pulse or number of steps they’ve taken to real medical or emotional information — when they truly will come into their own. “The wearable manufacturers are looking at new sensory metrics that they can add into the mix, and the one thing that’s been woefully missing is the ability to measure our emotional state,” said Gabi Zijderveld, vice president marketing and product strategy at Affectiva.

The company, originally a project born at MIT’s Media Lab, spun out as a stand-alone firm in 2009 to bring software to market that measures facial expressions of emotion — using a highly scientific approach. The technology, through optical sensors, can identify key landmarks on the face and then that data is analyzed at the pixel level and facial expressions are identified.

That is far in the future, though — the kind of future the U.S. Department of Defense may be looking into as part of its soon-to-be-announced $75 million wearables innovation lab in Silicon Valley, which was first reported in Fast Company. The lab, to be called the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics, is due to be a public-private partnership that also, according to Fast Company, will involve the likes of General Motors, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Inc.

The latter’s involvement is intriguing only because, last year, Apple and its smartwatch were seen as the potential saviors of the wearables day. So far, though, with an opening price point of $350 and many functions that only work when one’s iPhone is nearby, its smartwatch leaves much to be desired.

“The value add isn’t super impactful,” said Peter Li, chief executive officer of Atlas Wearables. “It’s helpful with watching phone calls but it’s all very minimal and a not a huge change to my workflow.”

When it comes to wearables, Li is less concerned with tracking movement or having something that’s just an extension of a smartphone. The one thing that will fuel widespread smartwatch adoption for him is once these devices are synced to and can control one’s home. This means the ability to have a “smart home” and connected devices that will be able to do things like control the lights in your house or let you know when the oven is preheated.

But while Li questions the success of the Apple Watch, others believe that if any company is going to bring wearables to the forefront, it will be Apple.

Grant Hughes, cofounder and executive vice president of business development for Focus Motion, a company that develops software for wearable companies, said when such a massive firm introduces a new product category — even if it manages to sell only a few million units at launch — it won’t move the needle in terms of the bottom line just yet. Eventually, he thinks the Apple Watch will bring forth a whole new ecosystem online, much like how the iPhone has done.
For him, wearables is still a game of aesthetics: the technology has to come second and the form has to come first. People wear clothes because of the way they look and feel, and the tech space isn’t there yet.

“A technology giant — whether it’s Apple [or someone else] — they have a lot to learn. The space needs to evolve a little bit and needs to become more fashion, less tech,” Hughes said. “I don’t think anyone ever saw someone wearing Google Glass and said, ‘Oh that looks cool, I want one.”