Standing in Levi’s sweaty atelier, where the jeans maker experiments with new designs, just blocks from the San Francisco Bay, Paul Dillinger pulls on a new denim jacket. Created for cyclists, it has a drop-back tail, so your back isn’t left exposed; storm cuffs, to stop air blowing up your sleeves; and, unexpectedly, the technological equivalent of a magic wand.
“What spells would you like to cast today?” he laughs, tapping on his left arm, where sensors have been woven into the fabric and a colour-changing light is snapped on to the cuff.
The sleeve is enchanted: inside is technology that can help cyclists do everything from answer phone calls to avoid getting lost. Cyclists can use their smartphone to set up the jacket so it recognises “favourite” callers. They can then tap or swipe their sleeve to send a text saying what time they are likely to arrive home - drawn from data on their location via Google Maps.
The jacket - due out in spring 2017 - is part of a new generation of wearables aiming to make technology fashionable. Fashion has been experimenting with technology in high profile one-off garments for a while. But it has not yet brought that technology to a larger market. People were wowed by the Marchesa dress - developed with IBM’s artificial intelligence system, Watson - that changed colour when people tweeted, which Karolina Kurkova wore to the Met Gala this year. Make Fashion, a group of Canadian artists and engineers, have spent five years creating playful designs such as “Gamer Girls” dresses - where the dress changes depending on whether they win or lose. But thus far widespread uptake of such technologies has been slow.
Even technology companies led by Apple, the most design conscious in the industry, have floundered in creating products that appeal beyond their geeky base. The Apple Watch offers a wide range of straps, including a collection handmade by Hermes artisans in France.
Now some fashion houses are starting to form partnerships with technology companies to swap expertise and fill in blind spots. Tech manufacturers are teaching fashion companies about how to make chips and batteries thin, while fashion houses are teaching techies about the trials of making many sizes and ensuring a teched-up garment is fit to launder. Chipmaker Intel has worked with watchmakers Fossil and Tag Heuer and eyewear company Luxottica, while fitness-tracker maker Fitbit has teamed up with both Tory Burch and clothing company Public School.
Earlier this month during New York Fashion Week Michael Kors announced its first foray into wearable tech. In partnership with Google, the brand has unveiled a smart watch based on its bestselling analogue collection. The new Dylan and Bradshaw models include features such as notification functions, maps, and a voice-directed Google search facility. It will retail for £329 - about £100 more than the analogue version.
For Sidney Chang, the principal of business development at Google, these collaborations are an essential part of the company’s future. “We’re very nimble,” he explained during the launch last week. “We’ve already partnered with Fossil, Tag Heuer and Nixon on smartwatches, but each brand represents a different customer and a different set of criteria. We love the diversity of working with different brands, and developing wearables that reflect your identity. Of course, we have the physics to enable these technologies, but we can’t bring the people, or the party, or the associations.”
If Google Glass was an excellent example of a great idea that looked tragically uncool, these new collaborations should go some way to bridging the gulf between function and fashionability. Google gets access to a younger, more image-focused market and all the benefits of a high-end marketing campaign. The fashion house gets to bring its brand to life in new ways, to a new audience. Everyone wins.
Google was also Levis’ partner in developing the cycling jacket, bringing together Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects team in Silicon Valley, with the brand’s in-house skunk works .
Dillinger, Levi’s global product innovation lead, says the partnership worked because Google came willing to learn from Levi’s as much as the other way round. And there were considerable challenges: the technology had to survive the aggressive testing conditions demanded of the denim before it gets into stores.
“We had the best capabilities of the two companies frankly,” says Dillinger. “We are not very good at technology and they are not very good at garments.”
Sandra Lopez, vice-president at Intel’s new technology group, has both skillsets: she studied textiles and clothes marketing, and then went on to work in tech, including at Adobe and Macromedia, before arriving at Intel.
Intel brings retailers into its Silicon Valley office to discuss the challenges and has even had its own wearables shown at New York Fashion Week. For example, it worked on the MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory) designed by Opening Ceremony and launched in 2014. The chunky bracelet, with precious gems and Ayers snakeskin sends the user notifications from SMS and social apps.
In the last year and a half Lopez says she has begun to see real progress as more fashion houses are building their own research and development departments to examine how to use technology in their collections. Sometimes, she says, the key is to strip down the technology to streamline a product , so it doesn’t need as many buttons or as large a battery .
“Engineers like to push technological boundaries - bring in a bunch of features - that is their mindset. We see this when we are creating a product for a young woman, aged 18 to 35, and asking what would be relevant for her? Engineers want to add more tech for tech’s sake, but a designer with a customer-centric mindset thinks ‘what is really needed?’”
Designers are also learning from a set of data they never had before: information on how a customer actually uses the product. On the MICA, designers assumed their audience would prioritise the social notifications - in fact wearers were using the fitness functions much more than expected.
Those “aha moments” were never possible before, once someone had left the store. “What does it mean for merchandising strategy? Should design get sportier?” Lopez asks.
Fashion and technology are edging closer to a relationship that could produce more stylish wearables, but a future where every wardrobe needs its own chargers still looks a way off.
Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst at Silicon Valley market research firm Creative Strategies, says the tech industry has failed to make wearables fashionable enough to expand beyond a niche of - often male - early adopters. “As a segment, technology doesn’t do gender differentiation very well so far. You don’t need it when a PC is a PC - and you don’t need to change it if I’m a man or a woman - but it is different if I’m wearing it,” she said.
Pursuing fashion - by making the technology beautiful or hiding it - should also help the industry sell their products for higher prices as the purchase stops being based on features and becomes an “emotional buy”, she adds.
“The impulse buying of ‘Oh my god it looks beautiful, I’m going to buy it’, makes the price issue go away”.
(c) 2016 The Financial Times Limited