“Let’s see if...together we can identify policies that might accelerate the design of these products by U.S. companies.” Josh Teitelbaum, U.S. Commerce Department

he Obama administration is joining forces with leaders in fashion and technology to promote collaboration on new smart fabric technologies that could give momentum to the Made in America movement.

This story first appeared in the March 30, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Under the direction of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the administration will devote a full day to a “Smart Fabrics Summit” on April 11 in the nation’s capital.

The day will feature David Lauren, executive vice president at Ralph Lauren; Josh Walden, senior vice president and general manager of Intel; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and several other government officials and small business executives who are developing some of the most cutting-edge technologies and fabrics in the wearable-tech area.

Advances in technology have brought a trio of industries — apparel, technology and textiles — together to develop capabilities in fabrics that could transform how athletes, soldiers and first responders interact with their clothes and the environment.

“The thing that is exciting and challenging about smart fabrics is that it really involves all three sectors working together to make products that work,” Joshua Teitelbaum, deputy assistant secretary for textiles, consumer goods and materials at the Commerce Department, who is spearheading the agency’s initiative, told WWD in previewing the summit. “I think this is going to be a great venue for each of those sectors to get together.”

Teitelbaum said the purpose of the summit, jointly hosted by Commerce and the Industrial Fabrics Association International, is threefold:

· Foster collaboration between the three industries.

· Raise awareness and increase education among the public sector agencies about the capabilities of the products.

· Consider new policies related to standards and intellectual property protection.

The wearable tech area has spawned much attention in recent years as companies launch finished commercial products into the market. Ralph Lauren, for example, introduced Polo Tech, a compression shirt that reads biological and physiological information via sensors knitted into the product, at the U.S. Open last August.

Levi Strauss & Co. and Google Inc. launched the “Project Jacquard” initiative last year to bring wearable tech to traditional apparel like jeans and shirts by incorporating conductive fibers into woven textiles, essentially putting functions available on smartwatches directly into woven fabrics.

Under Armour introduced its “Speedform Gemini 2” smart shoe that tracks a user’s runs.

The high-tech products have a range of capabilities, including tracking and communicating data about their wearer or environment to other devices through embedded sensors and conductive yarns.

The global market for smart clothing is expected to grow to $600 million by 2020 from $17.2 million in 2013, according to research from Tractica LLC. Teitelbaum said other analysts think the market is already on track to surpass that figure by 2020.

There are skeptics who question whether the new field is a gimmick or a true niche industry that is developing. But companies don’t appear to be listening and continue innovating and introducing new products. Teitelbaum sees it as an emerging industry.

“As the administration’s ‘innovation agency,’ as the secretary [Pritzker] likes to say, I think we can play a really important role to try to bring all of the different players together and say that this appears to be an emerging industry,” Teitelbaum said. “Let’s see if, with the industry, together we can identify policies that might accelerate the design of these products by U.S. companies or manufacturing them in the United States.”

Teitelbaum said there could be opportunities for the U.S. textile industry, which has seen some hints of revival as a “Made in America” sentiment has improved in recent years.

To that end, the administration launched a competition for $150 million public-private investment in a new textile manufacturing innovation institute last March.

Dubbed the “Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute,” it will seek to “ensure that America remains at the leading edge of fiber science” through a $75 million public investment that will be matched by more than $75 million of private investment in researching, prototyping and commercializing fibers with “extraordinary properties,” the White House said. The applications, currently under review, were open to leading manufacturers, universities and nonprofit organizations.

“It is focused on technical textiles of all kinds, whether that’s extraordinary flame resistance or fabrics that have photovoltaic capability to capture sunlight and store that as energy or [features] that really reduce the weight that soldiers have to bear while they are in the field,” he said. “Fiber and textile innovation is going to be key for all of those things.”

The fiber and textile institute will be an important factor in being a place of innovation for apparel as well as smart fabrics, he added.

Textile employment and export data has shown “this continued resurgence over the last few years” in the textile industry. U.S. textile exports increased nearly 40 percent to $17.6 billion in 2015 from $12.6 billion in 2009, according to Commerce data.

Average annual employment has increased 0.6 percent, by 1,500 employees, from 2013 to 2015.

Several companies, such as PurThread, a maker of antimicrobial thread, will provide demonstrations of their products at the summit, he said.

“That is a high-tech textile product that may be a good fit for smart fabrics because they don’t interfere with any electronics in the garments,” Teitelbaum said. “There is that interesting complement between an electronics integration and an advanced textile.”

Teitelbaum said he began analyzing emerging industries when he was appointed last year and smart fabrics was one of those identified. After speaking to several industry leaders and academics, the idea of a summit was born.

“One of the pieces I thought was missing from that conversation…was the policy piece. That’s what we are trying to contribute here.”

As such, the summit will feature a panel on intellectual property protection, as well as a discussion about developing standards.

He added that more information on the summit can be found at smartfabricssummit.com.