Just as “fashion tech” focuses more on the functional — tracking the heart rate or delivering text messages — Nancy Tilbury is zeroing in on what she prefers to call “emotional technology” with XO, a Gen Z-focused brand.
And she has Lady Gaga helping her out.
XO, which was created by Tilbury and Benjamin Males, is an offshoot of Studio XO, an atelier that designs one-of-a-kind pieces for the likes of Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire and the Black Eyed Peas.
The London-based start-up creates apparel for the mass market that can be customized through features like fiber-optic LEDs and haptic feedback and connected to an app. Translation? Ten- to 25-year-olds who want to “wear the Internet” can change the color of their backpack with their smartphone or wear a cap at a concert that reflects the performer’s heartbeat.
Tilbury said the fun of customizing or “remixing” one’s look offers the magic that is often missing in wearables. “When we look at fashion, we talk about features, and happiness is a feature,” she said.
Tilbury sees the connectivity and color change as just another way to alter the surface of a garment.
She also said the ability to publish emotions — “tonight I’m feeling purple” — is particularly apt for people of the younger generations, who often consider themselves creators who want to express themselves, rather than curators.
Many of XO’s initial applications are closely linked with the music world, as much of the Studio XO’s early work was for performers on stage and screen. The atelier worked with Gaga on projects like the Volantis “flying dress,” which uses fans to lift the wearer above the ground. Tilbury said Lady Gaga will work more closely with the brand this year and will share with the company her artistic vision and guidance in technology for stage, performance and fashion.
The connection between music and fashion is a natural one, especially for XO’s target audience. The low-cost hardware that is imbedded into the looks, the first of which are caps and backpacks, is controlled and customized through an XO app. So a concertgoer can, for example, buy the performer’s content and wear XO apparel that responds in real time to the music or performance. Although exact pricing and availability is not yet known, XO’s target audience is the Topshop audience and Gen Z, for situations like going out clubbing or attending a concert.
Although the applications for nightclubs and concerts are natural, it also makes smart business sense. Gen Z is estimated to represent $44 billion in spending power, and Tilbury pointed out that Topshop’s light-up LED sneakers sold out in hours. She also pointed out that tour merchandise is a major element for performers such as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, who recently collaborated with VFiles on “Purpose World Tour” merchandise, sold at a pop-up in Manhattan. Tilbury said she envisions something like an “XO Justin Bieber collection,” or a wristband for a Taylor Swift concert that continues to work to connect the wearer to the artist even after the concert is over.
Tilbury, a fashion designer, and Males, a mechanical engineer, are graduates of The Royal College of Art in London who began working together in 2011. The two boot-strappers recently graduated from Highway1, a four-month accelerator program at San Francisco’s PCH for hardware start-ups, and are seeking a seed funding round. They were drawn to the program in an effort to scale their tech couture for the ready-to-wear market. Tilbury said in the investment world, the concept of “emotion” is especially alien.
PCH is the company behind recent products like L’Oréal’s My UV Patch created for La Roche-Posay, and a partnership to create other similar wearable skin patches.
Highway1 gives each accepted start-up up to $100,000 and takes equity while supporting start-ups looking to scale. Vice president Brady Forrest said the 67 companies that have completed the program have raised $100 million. Other recent graduates in the wearable-technology space include a wearable blood pressure sensor company called Blumio and OBE, which created a jacket that allows for an immersive virtual reality gaming experience.