Early wearables entrant Google Glass-developed by "Captain Moonshots" Astro Teller of Google X Lab-may not have raptured the fashionista market, or the mass market for that matter. However, as a tech wearables concept it has helped spawn a previously implausible nuptial between fashion designers and technology companies. While it's premature to predict what form the first fashion tech wearables mass market will take, there is consensus among the fashion cognoscenti: Form trumps functionality.
Speakers at last month'sDecoded Fashion NYC Global Summit on Wearables and Retail Innovation in New York offered a glimpse of the future, and the present, showcasing beautifully designed functional techwear and jewelry. Significantly, they also shared lessons learned in the trenches of mutual courtship between tech and fashion.
With analysts predicting the health and fitness wearables, mostly wrist accessories, market to reach 91 million units by 2016, sales will dip next year, according to a recent Gartner study on wearables. EDventure Holdings CEO Esther Dyson says the wearables market is extremely congested and poised for consolidation. Players on both sides are rapidly striking fashion-tech alliances in hopes of carving out wearables marketshare and hoping to set new standards to meet shifting consumer attitudes towards wearables.
However, Gartner forecasts the most accelerated growth will occur in "smart garments," with a market explosion anticipated from 0.1 million units in 2014 to 26 million units in 2016. As Ralph Lauren revealed at the U.S. Open this year with his smart Polo shirts worn by ball boys, the luxury brand has been experimenting with circuit-infused fibers which measure heart rate, breathing and stress levels. Continuing its stride into techno-luxe, Ralph Lauren will begin selling its limited edition circuit infused Ultimate handbags in stores early next year, as the much anticipated Apple Watch also debuts.
Speaking on a panel that addressed how smart manufacturing is transforming fashion, Dr. Amanda Parkes, founder of fashion and design incubator Manufacture New York, is building a flagship Brooklyn manufacturing facility (160,000 sq. ft.), which also includes display room space for emerging brands. Evidence that tech players are entering the fashion "bodyscape" market and going beyond the health/fitness space, into fashion and design, Parkes revealed she's working on a fiber project with Google.
Addressing two of the summit's key topics-sustainability and scalability-Parkes, a fashion technologist, believes 3D printing has the potential to be more sustainable, offering possibility not only as a prototyping technology, but also as an end of road manufacturing product. (One #3D printing network has 5,000 printers-enough for an order the entire Statue of Liberty to be fulfilled in a week.)
Interviewed by Business of Fashion, Parkes talked about the market split between devices and smart textiles, noting "the evolution of wearables towards smart textiles will allow us to explore the entire landscape of the body, moving beyond the wrist and head. It will also help to make the technology invisible, which will create an amazing perceptual shift."
The inflection point? Mobile power, of course. In the same BofF interview, Parkes speculated "I believe not having access to distributed and decentralised energy is our biggest limitation within wearables, so anyone who can solve the mobile power problem will be a game changer. For that, I'm looking to Dan Steingart at Princeton and his work with printable fibre batteries."
A pragmatist, Parkes knows that true integration of tech and fashion must first overcome a very real language barrier issue, which will have to be mitigated by creating tools that can facilitate a hybrid experience between fashion designers and engineers. A similar language barrier was faced by Uri and Rebecca Minkoff as they sat down with Intel to design the smartphone bracelet MICA. Jennifer Hyman, CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway, spoke of her "lost in translation" moments with potential investors who don't "speak fashion."
Other DFNYC speakers, too, echoed the critical question of scalability. Sabine Seymour of Moondial, positioned as the "nexus between silicon and style," suggested innovating modular technology that can be customized and integrated into garments, allowing scalability. To succeed, Seymour believes the technology must be a technologically seamless (transparent) design integrated into the garment.
Seymour and other designers alluded to the crucial emotional connection to the wearer, particularly if the apparel is tech-infused with biosensors, such as sun sensors related to depression or mood enhancement. This sentiment was echoed by Two Hustlers CEO Kevin Kollenda, who said "I'd rather spend $1,000 on one pair of shoes that change color with my mood...than buy 100 pairs of shoes."
MakerBot founder Bre Pettis noted changing realignments in fashion tech have spurred the proliferation of startups and new supply chains, shifting the industry while creating opportunity for creative partnerships. Among other issues discussed at the DecodedFashion Summit, speakers generally agreed that the wearables industry still has a long way to go in addressing issues of sustainability, e-waste, even biodegradable garments. But here, too, lies opportunity for new alliances and startups to be incubated.
While DFNYC wasn't explicitly a "data" summit, discreetly it was. The evidence was the presence of Flextronics, a $6.5 billion global electronics design, fabrication, assembly, and test company who hosted a think tank with attendees, to discuss everything from Vivalnk digital tattoos to OMsignal biometric smartwear. Flextronics, which manufactures enabling technology for about 90% of all wearables on the market, foresees the future "wearer" experience as customizable apparel integrated with metrics into any wearable, whether device or garment.
According to research by Flextronics, which manufacturers everything Internet of Things, 50% of people want wearables that feel more like jewelry-connected jewelry. As they seek partnerships with fashion designers, Flextronics realizes that the wearable tech industry is still in its infancy and that the fashion industry is still in a wait and see phase. With manufacturing being one of the biggest barriers to entry for fashion wearables, Flextronics offers scalable manufacturing capacity-and is willing to invest and incubate innovative startups.
Retail innovation was another leading theme at DFNYC. Remarkably, Rebecca and Uri Minkoff are leading both fashion tech retail innovation in their "smart dressing rooms" collaboration with eBay, and in wearables devices with their MICA partnership with Intel. While privacy experts weigh in on the "cool or creepy" factor behind the smart dressing room "experience," the Minkoff brand is betting on seamless and personalized customer preference tracking mitigating the creepy factor.
Fashion retail innovation and personalization is also maturing in virtual dressing rooms. An early entrant into the designer fashion sharing economy, Rent the Runway is among several top players in resale designer fashion ecommerce who are profitable and attracting investors. Nineteenth Amendment's personalization approach to fashion design and manufacturing delivers on millennial authenticity sentiment, customization and made in U.S.A. preferences, while offering designers a platform that delivers both an engaged audience and efficient manufacturing options. Retailers on the hunt for emerging designers can minimize risk by taking advantage of manufacturing efficiencies that permit small inventory orders.
Liz Bacelar, founder of Decoded Fashion, said: "We wanted to bring all the industry players together in one venue to collectively figure out how to turn cool concepts into retail reality. Because there are so many brands in the wearables space, there needs to be a certain level of collaboration to ensure that consumers get the best of all possible worlds when products start hitting the stores. The NY Summit was about creating that space for debate and consensus."
I fall into the category of the wait and see fashionista who wants my haute-tech wearable to offer actionable insights into my physical and emotional well-being. My "wearables" experience to date? Let's just say it's satisfied by the decidedly non-tech silent medium provided by my digital detoxing, pulse calming, deep breathing inspirational mala meditation beads.