WASHINGTON — Those who think the field of smart textiles and wearables is a fad should take a hard look at Ralph Lauren Corp., which is taking the sector seriously and developing and investing in the next wave of products.
David Lauren, executive vice president of global advertising, marketing and communications at Ralph Lauren, participated in the first-ever “Smart Fabrics Summit” here Monday that brought together the worlds of fashion, hi-tech and the federal government.
The Commerce Department cohosted the summit with the Industrial Fabrics Association International. The aim was to showcase the burgeoning number of products and innovation and foster collaboration among a diverse set of industries seeking to push the limits of smart fabrics and apparel application, from main street to the battlefield to health care.
“The idea that the government is interested in looking for new ways to celebrate fabrics and technology and fashion was intriguing because it’s very much in line” with what Ralph Lauren is doing, Lauren said in an interview with WWD. “It’s great they are doing things that could be helpful to our business and to all the other companies that are out there trying to find ways to work together.”
Lauren, who spoke on a keynote panel at the summit, said bringing all of the segments together is complicated, noting that companies are fortunate to have Commerce Secretary Penney Pritzker “take it upon herself to inspire us to connect.”
Pritzker,who moderated the keynote panel, said in an interview beforehand that there is a dynamism and sustainability in the smart textiles market.
“The idea of having this smart fabrics summit is to bring together the innnovators from a number of different of sectors so that they can work together and understand what it is they have to do in order to innovate together,” Pritzker said. “Obviously the apparel business or fabric creation business is very different from the sensor business or the biofeedback business. We’re trying to pull all of these thing together and the potential is to help athletes train better or help doctors monitor patients or have soldiers better protected in the line of duty or help first responders be safe as they help the public.”
Pritzker said the worldwide smart fabrics market increased to $1.9 billion in 2015 from $1.2 billion in 2012, an annual growth rate of 18 percent. In 2015, U.S. sales of smart fabrics were $854 million.
“We’re a natural place for the smart fabrics industry to thrive,” she said.
Regarding the skepticism in some camps about wearables and smart fabrics, Pritzker said she doesn’t believe it is a “passing trend or fad.”
“There is application in transportation, for the military for industrial and commercial [segments], for sports and fitness, fashion and for the medical sector,” the Commerce Secretary said. “If you look at all of that, none of that is passing. These are staples within our country and within the world. We’re looking to be only more connected, not less connected. We are looking for more information, not less information.
“This is a nascent industry and we think by convening [the summit] we’re creating an enormous amount of connection that will lead to incredible innovation and we’ll do it here in America,” Pritzker added.
Lauren’s presence at the summit indicated how Ralph Lauren has been among the leaders in the wearables market. The company unveiled its Polo Tech shirt at the U.S. Open in 2014 and it is now selling in some of its stores, he said. Ralph Lauren also launched a version of its “Ricky Bag with Light” later that year that comes with LED lights and contains a built-in phone charger.
The Polo-Tech shirt is a compression shirt that reads biological and physiological information via silver fibers acting as sensors that are woven into the fabric and connected to a small “black box” clip. The information that is tracked, ranging from heart rate to energy output and calories burned, can be streamed directly to an iPhone, iWatch or iPod Touch fifth generation and above. The shirt retails for $295.
“We took a gamble with the shirt because we didn’t know if there was a customer base for it,” Lauren said. “We knew the wrist bands were popular. The buzzword has been about wearable tech but no one has actually put out a shirt that does all of the biorhythms” and other functions.
He said the reaction to the shirt has been “interesting.”
“A lot of people coming into Ralph Lauren stores are not expecting to see such high-tech product,” Lauren said. They expect the classic all-American styles associated with the brand but are “struck by the more thoroughly modern product on the market, sitting before their eyes and it’s a surprise to them.”
Some customers have bought the products but not used the information on the app because they like the look of the shirt, he said. Others who want cutting-edge fashion products have bought it for the technology “to see how good we are and we’ve passed the test with them,” he noted.
“So it’s helped to show the leadership of the company, to help us reinvent the brand, to show a new side of ourselves and it has helped bring new customers into the store who are starting to realize that we do make very high performance products. It has opened a lot of doors to new customers because it’s so forward thinking in terms of wearable clothing.”
What’s next for Ralph Lauren in the wearables area? Lauren said he frequently is asked that question. He said the company has a few products in the pipeline that it hopes to get to market by the summer, but declined to provide details.
Asked if he believes the wearables market is sustainable, Lauren said the market today will be completely different in five years.
“The world has evolved so fast,” he said, pointing to the evolution of iPads and electric cars. “I think you are going to see a big breakthrough happen and then leapfrog, ideas will begin to happen off of that.
“While it seems sort of questionable if you would wear tech right now — and there are a lot people who say they don’t need it, or it is complicated or it will add things that don’t simplify their lives — there are a lot of people out there solving for those challenges,” Lauren said.
“What happens at a a marketplace like this [the smart fabrics summit] where the Secretary of Commerce comes up, is it opens the doors, it changes the paradigm and you start to see things differently,” he said. “When one or two companies succeed then it shifts again. All of a sudden there is some breakthrough and someone walks into a room with something that looks cool and everyone is going to want it The world is open now. That’s the first step. The first step is being open. The second step is now sharing of ideas. As we build ideas and platforms to share them, that will be next. The third will be how well it gets marketed.”
As for the skeptics who claim wearables is a fad or even a gimmick, Lauren said it is an evolving market that he expects to grow.
“I think a lot of people thought when the Palm Pilot came out that it was nice but we don’t need to carry something so clunky. And the iPhone came along and showed not only could you make it sleeker and cooler but everyone is going to want one,” he said. “So it’s always an evolution.”
Most people could not have imagined buying a $20,000 handbag online or on a phone just a few short years ago, Lauren pointed out.
“We were one of the first brands in the world to sell on a mobile phone. Everybody said that is the ugliest way to sell an expensive product. You’re killing off the branding of the company, but in effect we led the way and showed if Ralph Lauren does it that’s cool and I think we’re doing the same thing with wearables,” Lauren said. “We don’t know if it’s going to work. The world has to change with us. But if we can get there first, we provide some leadership and that is just what happened after we started selling on the mobile phone. The world changed and the iPhone came along and then other brands started doing it.”