I recently heard Google Glass described as the
Segway of wearables and I’m still smiling.
Whether you believe wearables are a dynamic and growing part of consumer technology or a short term trend favored by early adopters, it’s a innovative sector that’s hard to ignore. Wearables are media friendly, at the forefront of R&D and instrumental in linking two seemingly disparate sectors, fashion and technology. Beyond Google Glass, there are better examples of wearables and fashion.
You’ve probably thought about being the creator of the next Pebble or Fitbit but what about working in fashion? I undertook some research and interviewed three people working in fashion wearables in Berlin, Brooklyn and Shanghai and came up with a list of 6 things to consider.
1. Can You Respect Evolution within Fashion?
Any technological advances you’ve seen in the tech industry are mirrored in other sectors. As an industry, fashion cannot be removed from the technological advances which have been a natural part of its evolution. These range from the creation of synthetic materials to supply chain changes, to the technological advances in machinery like cutters and sewing machines. What remains constant is the ability of fashion to continue to recycle trends with fresh takes alongside technological advances.
The relationship between fashion and technology is not new. Does anyone remember mood rings in the 1970’s or Hypercolor t-shirts in the 90s? They look lo-fi now, but were advanced for their time. Technology can bring new capabilities to fashion but innovation has always been there.
2. The Tortoise and the Hare
Research suggests that 1/3 of American consumers who have owned a wearable, stopped using it within six months. The report also notes that 1 in 10 American adults own some form of activity tracker, but half of them no longer use it. Whilst this is problematic for companies creating gadgets which require long term sustained engagement like fitness and health apps, this is less of an issue in fashion, as trends in fashions can change anywhere from seasonal to every fortnightly.
Due to high prices, bespoke wearable fashion should be made to last and be washable and repairable. Fast fashion from the likes of H&M and Zalando are about new and regular trends.
There’s a need to navigate the complexities of both of these markets. Many bespoke wearables are languishing in museums and galleries under the guise of art rather than worn by consumers. Short term fashion trends grapple with balancing consumer demands for low prices with the realities of garment workers in sweatshops and environmental impacts.
You might create the most amazing wearable, to critical acclaim, but never sell a single item or face constant demand for new, different or better products. Innovating whilst balancing the complex needs of both consumers and retailers is a challenge.
3. Expose Yourself and Walk the Talk
Have you ever read a fashion magazine, attended a fashion week or seen a catwalk show? Have you bought handmade jewelry? It might be a good time to start.
I met with Lisa Lang, founder of ElektroCouture, a Berlin-based fashion technology house creating bespoke, ready-to-wear technology for the fashion industry. Lang notes that men (in particular) in technology are, as a rule, not fashionable.
Men in tech wear lots of free t-shirts with jeans and hoodies.
She encourages developers to think outside the tech uniform, suggesting that to work in fashion you need to appreciate wearable fashion beyond it’s function, not just what it does.
Developers are always interested in what does it do, what problem does it solve? Whilst no one in fashion would dare ask a Chanel suit what it does! Developers need to understand how it feels to wear a high quality t-shirt over a cheap t-shirt, Calvin Klein boxers instead of Target, or handmade made shoes instead of mass produced trainers.
Lang suggests that developers wanting to work with wearables need to gain an appreciation of the tools, including the physics and chemistry of fabrics like wool and silk. She recalls being on a panel of developers at a conference who were raving about creating fabric which changed structure and could warm and cool it’s user. She reminded them wool and silk have been doing this for thousands of years.
Developers should visit a Fab Lab and attend a workshop.
Play, have fun, learn to use a printer or laser cut designs into your t-shirt…
Learning to use a sewing machine is a great way to gain an appreciation of how garments are constructed and designed. In case you’re thinking that Lang singles out developers unfairly, her designers are taught skills like soldering and 3D printing and she holds full classes with both fashion and tech students.
This is a sentiment echoed by Colin Tohen, CE0 of solar company Pvilion who design and manufacture flexible PV solar structures and products. They partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to design and produce Solar Powered Jackets exclusively for the 2014 holiday season. The product featured removable solar panels that provided energy to power electronic devices such as mobile phones and tablets. Colin comments that developers must learn how to talk the talk.
We know how to use sewing machines and laser cutters and understand manufacturing and the fashion world, not just programming. A lot of people can come up with great products, but you need to build strong fashion relationships and understand your audience. What your engineer friends think is cool will not get the same response from a designer.
4. Fashion Is an International Business
I interviewed Thea Bauer, director of Metaverse Makeovers, who bought a new communication method to the young women of Asia through press-on nails that interact with a corresponding smartphone app. Bauer’s team is spread across Melbourne, Shanghai and Hong Kong with the engineering and development team based in Melbourne, Australia. In Australia, online marketing is different than in China, which requires a different way of marketing and commercialization. Marketing cannot exist just through Facebook, Google and Twitter. She noted that this means a plethora of different challenges for her marketing team, based in Facebook friendly Australia.
A cross cultural team will mean scheduling meetings to accommodate a range of time zones, this needs compromise and understanding from team members.
5. Understand User Behavior
I read an analogy likening the use of a mobile phone to a pocket watch. A product that was revolutionary in its time but that become obsolete with the creation of affordable wrist watches.
Will a ring that notifies users of incoming calls or SMSs ever be enough considering I still need to use my mobile phone?
Can a sports bra that monitors fitness, but only available in sizes that would suit the already fit and does little to encourage exercise be enough to motivate the unmotivated?
But maybe a dress that lights up or a beautiful item of jewelry can provide enough pleasure and creative expression to the wearer that goes beyond pure functionality.
6. Collaboration Is the Way of the Future
Metaverse Makeovers uses
cool, young artists and developers from different parts of the globe whilst Elektrocouture began retailing their designs through ASOS in July, making them the first fashion technology company worldwide to sell products on a retail e-commerce platform.
Collaboration means there’s less space for egos but more room for opportunities and provides opportunity for mass exposure. Colin Tohen admits,
We’re not set up to sell 100s of 1000s to consumers over the internet. We needed to find a partner that was willing to act on brand and distribution. Tommy Hilfiger was able to do that. Now we are in a position of aligning ourselves with other brands.
In this article, I tried to cover advice for those interested in creating new wearables from perspectives you may not thought of before. I would love to hear your opinions and experiences on topics discussed and the future of mainstream wearables.
Cate Lawrence is a Berlin based writer and blogger who spends her spare time cooking and teaching her cat to chase a red dot.