Innovation

Will the wearable tech revolution be as fashionable as it hopes?

"What I find interesting, looking at people at the top of their game in stretchable electronics, is that some very basic textile manipulation techniques are beginning to creep in. I think textile designers can offer a lot in this space, just by their knowledge of material manipulation - how things are stitched, how things bend and stretch. How you construct clothing, even - this can require some clever manipulation to unite it into a system. There are some soft skills in fashion and textiles that aren't being tapped into at the moment."

April 24, 2014

Anne Toomey is a Reader at Northumbria University in Materials Research For Design, someone who might not seem like the first person to ask about wearable technology. She doesn’t work in Silicon Valley, probably has fewer Foursquare mayorships than you and isn’t the least bit interested in coding.

But this is who we need to listen to if wearable tech is going to happen, because it needs to be just that: wearable. The question is: who really knows about what we want to wear? And the answer is: the fashion industry. You might know all about user interaction and designing information architecture, but if you can’t make it cool to wear something, it’s not going to happen.

This is the thinking behind Google getting Luxottica involved with Glass, prompting some fashion bloggers to proclaim “Google Glass will soon be available in Pretty” But is it enough? As another Google Glass user gets attacked in San Francisco (where else?)  – the question remains: when will “pretty” trump “deeply unpopular”?

Fashion people tend to talk a lot about how clothes are a form of self-expression. Weirdly enough, there’s a kernel of truth in that. People wear clothes to be something, and in a specific and different way to the way they consume electronic products.

There are some areas where functionality becomes an asset in fashion – sportswear for example, which accounts for the success of Recon’s Snow, among others. But this is a niche market. If wearable tech could assume two thirds of our smartphone use, as some experts estimate, it needs to reach the level of fashionability of jeans, of scarves, of T shirts: it should be with us all the time. It needs to be cool.

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How do things become fashionable? There’s a quote in The Devil Wears Prada that attempts an explanation of the process: the fierce fashion editor-in-chief explaining to her deeply sceptical and “fashion-blind” assistant that the blue sweater she is wearing has in fact filtered down from the highest echelons of fashion elite, despite her claims to be outside of fashion’s grasp. The point is, whether we like it or not, there are cues we all follow about what is right for us to wear, and those cues are created by a vast system: the fashion industry.

There are, however, some fashion professionals working to bring design expertise to the field of wearable tech. Here are a few of our favourites:

1. Studio Roosegaarde

Studio Roosegarde are the Dutch creators of the Intimacy 2.0 dress which alters in transparency according to the personal interactions of its wearer, responding to their heartbeat, and therefore excitement. They’re a design studio with a background in fashion, architecture and design, and are currently working to select haute couture designers for Intimacy 3.0 – watch this space.

2. Studio XO

Fashion and music are inextricable in the creation of trends. This is something Studio XO is more than aware of: they’ve made a dress that blows bubbles for Gaga, a bra for Azealia Banks that sparkles in time to her music and a digital cube helmet that projected Prince’s face onto Win Butler’s (lead singer of Arcade Fire).

3. Ying Gao

Ying Gao’s work is interactive, conceptual and inaccessible, yet remains intensely desirable. Influenced by the possibilities of an outfit transforming before our eyes, her work uses technology to create commentary – again, creating the distance between functionality and the user where true design resides. This is the distance that is crucial for wearable tech to stand on its own fashionable feet.