Where are all the wearable tech fashions

Digital technology has remade how people work, communicate, live, love and more. It’s on the desktop, in the car and has utterly taken over the phone.

Apple, Fitbit and others have brought tech to the wrist and wireless earbuds have become omni present. But what happened to all those logged-on shirts and connected jackets? Yes, there are some, but they’re few and far between. 

In a smart world, fashion still looks pretty dumb. 

While there are good reasons for that — a lot of the tech still isn’t ready for the washing machine — there is no shortage of companies and entrepreneurs racing to get in on the still-small, but quickly growing and many say promising, category. 

According to a recent report in Research and Markets, the smart apparel market is worth some $1.6 billion now, and it’s expected to grow 26.2 percent annually to $5.3 billion by 2024, thanks in large part to sports and fitness. The growth rate would be even higher were it not for barriers like pricy components. 

That’s just a slice of the overall wearable-tech sector, a growing field that includes smartwatches, smart earbuds, glasses and jewelry, as well as sensor-equipped clothes and shoes, among other things. According to Gartner, global spending on wearables is on track to grow by nearly a third, reaching $52 billion in 2020. Once again, health and fitness gets the credit as the main category drivers. (Google likely popped Fitbit in its M&A shopping cart to take a bigger piece of that market.)

While smart apparel might represent only a fraction of the overall wearable tech market, die-hard enthusiasts still push to dress customers in connected shirts, bras, shoes and other tech-enabled fare. Naturally, many of them target the athlete or fitness enthusiast with circuit- or sensor-laden ath-leisure wear. 

The market has seen several proofs of concept, and even some launches, of clothes and shoes that capture biometric data, including heart rate, pulse, temperature and movement, and send the data to smartphone apps via Bluetooth. 

Under Armour — which has had some upheaval recently following revelations of a federal probe into the company’s accounting practices and a downgrade in its financial forecast — looks to its popular tech-enabled HOVR sneaker line for long-term growth. 

Under Armour’s Phantom/SE running shoe, one of several models that connect to smartphones to monitor cadence, stride length and more.  Courtesy photo

The style fits into the brand’s focus on athletes and their high-performance needs. But some analysts are critical about this approach. “Under Armour views performance and fashion/lifestyle as mutually exclusive, which they are not — just ask some of the largest athletic retailers out there,” wrote Susquehanna International Group analyst Sam Poser. “Performance product, positioned properly, becomes a fashion item.” 

Other brands integrate sensors into bras or compression pants for similar reasons, while managing the balancing act between function and fashion. OmSignal, for instance, scored a major partnership with Ralph Lauren a few years ago for the brand’s sensor-laden smart shirts for the U.S. Open.

Still, the drive to capture detailed performance metrics lands in the domain of athletes and fitness fanatics, not the average consumer. Companies like Adidas, Nike, AiQ Smart Clothing, Athos, Catapult Sports, Clothing+, Heddoko, Hexoskin and Lumo Bodytech, which cater to this audience, top analysts’ lists of smart-clothing companies to watch. The outlier is Owlet Baby Care, which targets parents looking to monitor their little ones. But the vast majority is locked in on athletics. 

There’s a catch, though: Most consumers are not all that fitness-oriented. 

Less than a quarter of Americans get enough exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and even less are looking to fine-tune their regimens. 

The rule of thumb for wide-scale adoption of any technology is that it must appeal to a large consumer base. So just maybe, in order to tap into health or build a broader wearable movement, someone first needs to break through with fun, mainstream features — perhaps in the rap, rock ‘n’ roll or gaming lanes. 

Susan Paley, who helped establish Beats by Dre and led the headphone maker as chief executive officer, is looking to blaze that path with her new company, DropLabs Footwear. DropLabs shoes connect via Bluetooth to an audio source and vibrate along with music or video games. 

The shoes are fun, yes, but Paley sees other uses, including rehabilitation and therapy. 

“How do we make it so people focus on their health before the last two years of their life?” she said. “If you look at what drives innovation, health is not going to drive innovation. It never does, entertainment does.”

Paley said wearable-tech apparel needs to gain enough adoption and scale to serve as a platform, similar to how the App Store and the popularity of the iPhone drove developers to invent apps for everything. 

When fashion becomes connected and enough people are wearing tech-enabled styles, developers will start to come up with tricks to serve this new kind of consumer base.

“No company can do everything,” Paley said. “You need to have these platforms that are open because you’ll never be able to develop all the applications.”

The EP 01 sneakers

DropLabs’ EP 01 sneakers, which sync up with audio for a new experience.  Courtesy Photo

Already there is a glimmer of a network forming, with tech’s biggest players wading further in.  

Google’s full-on wearables offensive may be best known for its Wear OS software, partnership with Fossil and purchase of the latter’s intellectual property, not to mention its $2.1 billion Fitbit acquisition. But in subtler ways, the tech titan is also making inroads with its clothing-oriented Project Jacquard. 

Levi Strauss & Co. is an early adopter of Google’s smart textile platform, having put the vibrating haptic components and other hardware into a classic denim jacket. The point was to allow wearers to interact with paired smartphones for a select set of features, without pulling out the device. 

When asked about Levi’s commitment to Jacquard, executives pointed out that the company just released the second version of its Jacquard-enabled Trucker jacket last October. The implication is that the jeans maker is still developing the product, coming out with expanded features and new styles, and that says everything one needs to know about the company’s commitment to smart clothes. 

Levi’s introduced version two of its Google Jacquard-powered Trucker Jacket in a traditional denim jacket and a new sherpa style (shown). Wearers swipe to interact over a removable module plugged into the sleeve.  Courtesy photo

As for how it updated the jacket, the brand integrated smaller components and added more features, based on customers’ feedback on how they used the product. 

“[It was the] creation of consumer insights about what would be valuable to people on the weekend,” said Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi’s. “We started to merge the interface with ride-share function — so that rather than on the weekend, rather than riding a bike to and from work, you might want to take a car service. We created an interface with Uber and Lyft, allowing notifications…to come through the jacket.

“And we pushed them out through the app and downloaded new firmware to the jacket, without anyone knowing it,” he continued. “We simply improve the garment that they already had.” 

Dillinger sees this as a pivotal aspect of smart clothing — one that finds spiritual kin with the fashion world. 

“Fashion is change,” he said, “and if we can deliver on the value of the cycle of change, of the excitement of the new, and do it without having to create obsolete objects, I think that’s a really important potential.” 

Project Jacquard, for its part, isn’t staying static, either. The tech has expanded beyond jean jackets, with Saint Laurent debuting a Jacquard-enabled strap into its $880 Cit-E backpack this fall. 

This fall, Yves Saint Laurent partnered with Google on a Cit-E backpack strap featuring Jacquard technology.  Courtesy photo

Where else it might pop up has watchers playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” 

One such area could be enterprise. Companies like Digimarc use cases that go beyond consumer delight to solve business issues. 

For instance, the firm collaborated with tech giant HP and Nike Inc. designer Edward Harper on dresses created with invisible bar codes and signal-processing tech. The effect is a design-oriented garment that’s trackable, but doesn’t look high-tech. 

“Where’s this dress made from? Who’s the manufacturer? Did this dress get shipped to the support to the retailer that I had in mind?” said Digimarc’s Heidi Dethloff. “There’s all sorts of use cases that you could use with this type of technology.”

Connected dresses by Edward Harber, formerly of Nike, printed with a HP Stitch dye sublimation printer to contain a Digimarc barcode. The project is part of Link by HP, a “track-and-trace” effort for consumer-goods packaging.  Courtesy photo

In another project, the company worked with Avery Dennison, a material science and labeling solutions company, to embellish sportswear with digital tech. With Digimarc added to a jersey’s logo patches, player names and numbers, customers could scan the apparel with their phones to see exclusive videos, real-time game stats and behind-the-scenes imagery.

The uses for connected clothes tech can range from authentication and supply chain information, to entertainment to consumer research. Knowing how often customers wash particular garments, or what sort of weather or temperature conditions certain items face most, for instance, would be extremely valuable data for apparel companies. 

The big potential, whether driven by fitness or other needs, seems obvious. But there’s a lot of space between the reality and that shiny future of possibilities. And what’s less clear is how the fashion and tech sectors will cross that chasm. 

A key part of the hold-up has to do with technical limitations. According to smart textile company Loomia, even fundamentals, like batteries, become huge obstacles once stitched into clothes. 

“A battery is basically a delayed contained chemical reaction, and the more and more powerful a battery is, the more dangerous it can be,” said Maddy Maxey, founder and chief executive officer of Loomia. “So there are kind of limitations as to how small you can make a battery that packs a lot, without making it dangerous. And so that’s a whole challenge. Sometimes we’ll talk to companies, and they’re like, ‘Can it not have a battery?’ And you know, the way electronics function is that they need a power source.” 

Loomia’s smart textiles makes its way into outerwear, as well as automotive interiors and medical wearables, among others.  Courtesy photo

Washability is another issue. In analogue fashion, minor changes to fabric colors after repeated washing could escape the naked eye. But in electronics, such degradations in circuitry, even minor ones, could eventually lead to connectivity failures. 

That’s a major reason why Levi’s worked so closely with Google. The jeans giant wanted to address any problems in a production setting. 

Levi’s wanted the components to be “able to bend several thousand times without showing tension. It has to be washable, and more importantly, it has to be weavable,” explained Dillinger. “We had to work with Google to help them understand what the mill conditions are going to be like, getting those conductive yarns to move effortlessly without breakage and without degrading efficiency, through a conventional loop at a denim mill. That was a big challenge.”

The companies needed to figure out how to test the strength and viability of the conductive yarns as they were loomed, to ensure no breakages or damages occurred during the industrial scale-weaving process. And so they assembled the materials and connected the yarns to the components and microprocessors in a garment factory, not at a consumer electronics factory.

They figured out how to make the batteries, light system, Bluetooth antennas and vibrating haptic motors discrete enough to fit into the garment. And then they had to ensure the tech would hold up over time, through laundering.

Google’s rechargeable Jacquard module is a small component that snaps directly into apparel.  Adriana Lee

Levi’s wanted people to feel like they’re wearing a regular jacket, not “a big hunk of technology,” Dillinger continued. But even then, the work still isn’t done. The next step is figuring out how to educate the consumer about the product. 

“It’s still a really new area,” he said,”and we don’t have a shared language for the two industries [apparel and technology] to talk to each other yet.” 

But fashion is becoming more fluent in tech all the time. And if there’s money or style to be had, someone is bound to find the sweet spot eventually.

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