The week of September 14, 2014

Is the runway ready for high-tech fashion?

By EJ Dickson

The fashion world’s entrance into the realm of high tech has been the digital equivalent of tripping on the runway.

Earlier this year, the iconic designer Diane von Furstenberg released her collaboration with Google Glass, DVF I Made for Glass, featuring five different shades of Google Glass. With its lofty ($1800) price tag and shades with names like “shiny elderberry” and “matte java,”

DVF I Made for Glass was clearly intended to signal an aesthetic shift in the wearable tech market. While Google Glass had been roundly derided since its release, DVF I Made for Glass sought to prove that smart eyewear could be sleek, sexy, and ultra-modern, rather than a piece of high-tech nerd hardware that’d be more at home in a 1950s sci-film than on someone’s face.

The DVF I Made for GlassThe DVF I Made for Glass

Yet when the line was unveiled in June, fashion and tech bloggers alike were less than enthusiastic:

Valleywag’s Sam Biddle perhaps summed it up best: “What does it tell you that DVF—one of the most elegant, fashion-savvy style geniuses of our time, a woman with enough foresight to literally invent a new kind of dresslooks dumb with a face computer? It tells you that there’s probably a reason Google didn’t mention Glass a single time during its recent mega-conference, and that if high fashion can’t save high tech, the project is probably fucked.”

Following Diane von Furstenberg’s example, a number of other high-fashion brands have sought to collaborate with tech developers, to varying degrees of success. In the last month alone, Samsung released the Galaxy S smartwatch, including a version embedded with Swarovski crystals. (“Looks like a Dali-esque melted galaxy phone,” one reporter cracked on Twitter.) And Ralph Lauren released a line of performance-tracking smart polo shirts that premiered at the U.S. Open.

There’s been signs of progress recently. Apple just teased the release of its much-hyped smartwatch, and designer Rebecca Minkoff premiered two pieces of wearable tech, a bracelet that delivers mobile call and text notifications and one with a USB that charges your smartphone, at New York Fashion Week.

But few of these products have caught on in the general marketplace, and designers and developers have consistently failed to achieve one simple goal—creating wearable tech that you’d actually want to wear. That prompts the question: Why has it been so hard for designers to marry high tech with high fashion? And what does that say about the future of wearable tech in general?

In search of sex appeal

Part of the failure to create a sleek, stylish, and functional piece of wearable tech stems from the fact that fashion designers haven’t been dabbling in the wearable space for very long. While designers like von Furstenberg have been quick to jump on the wearable tech bandwagon, with the designer sporting Google Glass on the runway as early as 2012, she’s largely been the exception, not the rule.

Up until a year or so ago, “I don’t think [most designers] saw the market in wearable tech and they couldn’t find people to collaborate with, to combine the engineering part and design part in an appealing way,” says Ruth La Ferla, a style writer for the New York Times, who has covered the wearables market. “It’s only now that they [fashion brands] are starting to find ways to fuse different sides together, now that technology is smaller and lighter and it’s possible to incorporate very discreet things into fashion.”

“Design is a holistic thing. You have to think of the concept and the realization as one object.” —CuteCircuit cofounder Ryan Lenz

Designers hoping to enter the wearables market face two main challenges. First they have to seamlessly integrate style with tech by creating an item of apparel that’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing, and then make that item more than a novelty and incorporated into everyday life. A ring that tells you how much sun you’ve gotten today, for instance, is interesting in theory. But it probably won’t have as much cache as a phone that charges your bracelet, or a watch that doubles as a phone, two products that are among the wearable items that debuted at New York Fashion Week.

An increasingly crowded wearables market, combined with a surfeit of products that offer “an unnecessary luxury instead of a useful functionality,” has made it increasingly difficult for designers and developers alike to gain a foothold in the space, according to Alessandro Libani, the head designer for the wearable startup Q Designs, which recently launched a USB bracelet.

The Q bracelet by Q Designs

The Q bracelet by Q Designs

“There are so many wearable companies releasing different products that offer the same functionality that it is becoming more difficult for a few single brands to really establish themselves in the eyes of consumers,” Libani says. “I believe that people are still getting used to the idea of wearing a piece of technology.”

The issue of integrating technology into small, aesthetically compelling objects—of making wearable tech look less like tech and more like a well-designed piece of apparel or jewelry—has always plagued designers. This is especially the case for designers looking to branch out in the fitness tracker market, or devices like Jawbone and Fitbit. Most of them emphasize focus over form, says Jing Zhou, the founder of wearable tech startup elemoon.

“They lack personality and sex appeal,” he says. “Plus they aren’t very pretty.”

Back in July, designer Tory Burch tried to solve that problem with Tory Burch for FitBit, a collaboration with the fitness tracker company that includes bracelets, pendants, and wristbands bearing Burch’s insignia. Because the jewelry concealed the FitBit tracker, allowing the wearer to remove or insert the tracker by popping open a small, discreet clasp, it was relatively indistinguishable from a non-tech piece of jewelry. (At $38 a pop for the wristbands, the items were also fairly reasonably priced.) Yet Burch’s line was nonetheless dismissed by many as clunky and cheap-looking:

Whatever you might think of its aesthetic appeal, Burch’s fitness tracking jewelry is only the tip of the iceberg in the world of fashion tech. Many designers are also zooming out from the world of wearable accessories and looking at how we can incorporate technology into high-end fashion in new, often radical ways. The Sensoree GER: Mood Sweater, for instance, changes color to reflect how you’re feeling based on data from sensors on your hands that calculate your excitement level. The eponymous garment from the Netherlands-based startup Intimacy 2.0 is based on a similar premise, using smart e-foils to detect your heartbeat and become increasingly transparent as you become more physiologically aroused.

The Sensoree GER: Mood Sweater

The Sensoree GER: Mood Sweater

While it’s highly unlikely that any of these more experimental offerings will become marketplace staples anytime soon, the basic concept of infusing technology into not just one accessory but your entire wardrobe, is not as out-there as we might think. The fashion tech company CuteCircuit, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a ready-to-wear collection of smart apparel, says that the future of tech and fashion will require more than a high-profile tech/fashion watch or bracelet or fitness tracker collaboration.

“What’s missing with all the other products on the market, is that [designers] have this idea that design is simply a component, that you can paste this thing on another thing and make a whole new product,” says CuteCircuit cofounder Ryan Lenz. “And design is a holistic thing. You have to think of the concept and the realization as one object.

Photo via CuteCircuit

Photo via CuteCircuit

Using smart textiles and nanotechnologies, CuteCircuit creates interactive garments such as LED-embossed skirts, like the one featured above, or dresses that display tweets. Via its new app, Q, CuteCircuit users can download new patterns and designs for their garments, creating a fully customizable fashion experience. CuteCircuit cofounder Francesca Rosella calls it “the iTunes of fashion.”

Most of CuteCircuit’s most famous garments, such as the tweet dress or the LED-embossed gown that Katy Perry wore to the Met Ball in 2010, are designed exclusively for haute couture or the red carpet. But with their new ready-to-wear line, CuteCircuit hopes to prove that wearable tech or tech-infused fashion is not just a buzzword or passing trend.


Photo of Katy Perry via CuteCircuit

“Everybody wants to jump on the wearable technology bandwagon. but the only thing out there is wristwatches, bracelets, and Google Glass,” says Lenz. “I think designing new experiences is a really important goal. Seeing a skirt that lets you show a tweet—that’s a new experience. No one’s ever done that before. But simply reading a tweet on your wristwatch versus reading it here, that doesn’t do anything new for you.”

The future of high-tech fashion

While CuteCircuit also designs unisex and men’s apparel, most of its clothing is designed for women, which appears to be the target audience for the first generation of high-end wearable tech. That’s apparent from the crop of wearable tech startups in the “lifestyle” niche, such as Elemoon and Ringly, which makes cocktail rings that deliver notifications when you receive phone calls or texts.

Zhou says the reasoning behind the onslaught of wearable tech products for women, such as O2’s talking designer handbags, is simple: The trend is “particularly driven by female consumers who are willing to spend more money for something that truly speaks to them.” Translation: Women are more likely than men to blow loads of cash on something that looks pretty, whether or not it’s truly functional.

What the wearable tech market needs is “a Steve Jobs, someone who can combine the two elements [of design and functionality].”

This trend of wearable tech for women raises some interesting questions and assumptions about women’s relationship with technology, but La Ferla predicts that the wearables market won’t skew toward female-oriented products for very long. Following the upcoming release of the Apple Watch, she says, we’ll see a lot more offerings for men.

What the wearable tech market needs is “a Steve Jobs, someone who can combine the two elements [of design and functionality],” she says. “Steve Jobs knew there were plenty of men who wanted good-looking items, the same way men want good-looking cars. If the stuff is right, they’ll pay for it. It’s not a gendered thing.”

In general, the objects in the fashion tech field are increasingly sleeker and better-designed, and the technology more discreet. It’s estimated that by 2018, the wearable market in general will be worth more than $8 billion.

With designers Rebecca Minkoff and Opening Ceremony in collaboration with Intel unveiling their own smart jewelry and accessory lines, it’s clear that the high-fashion wearable tech market is about to get a lot more crowded.

Photo via Rebecca Minkoff

Photo via Rebecca Minkoff

Whether it’s about to get more attractive, or whether the tech and fashion worlds will become instantly interchangeable, remains to be seen. But the fact that the fashion world is increasingly clamoring to work with tech innovators on new projects is a promising start.

“Good design has the potential to reach a mass audience, but fashion people are the influencers,” says La Ferla. “If [a product] looks good and it works in their lives, they’ll buy it. I don’t need anything that tells me what’s in my refrigerator, but I might need a watch that functions like a phone or TV. You start with something high end and attractive, and then if it’s functional everyone else will start knocking it off.”

Illustration by J. Longo