Picture a piece of smart clothing. Unless you're a tech-inclined athlete, chances are you've conjured up an image of a light up LED dress. The smarts are on the outside, on catwalks and in paparazzi snaps from the Met Ball. Madison Maxey is no stranger to said light up dresses, having created one for Google and Zac Posen at last September's New York Fashion Week.
Still, the smart fabric engineer, founder of Brooklyn-based studio Loomia (previously The Crated) and winner of Topshop's wearable tech competition hopes her work can both help to show what smart clothing could be beyond LED frocks and make it a technological and commercial reality.
"No-one is excited about the flour, they care about the cake. We're much more of a flour kind of company," she told us. "Now, flour can make sweet cakes, savoury cakes, it can make fried chicken batter. Flour is an ingredient that be used to make so many different things.
"The same ingredients that are used to make an LED dress can be used to make a heated jacket. The problem is that most people can't connect that there is a lower level ingredient that unites these things. People might think that an LED dress is the only thing that can be made."
Mastery and craft
It isn't, of course. And 23 year-old Maxey is happy for herself, and her four person startup, to stay out of the fashion tech limelight and focus on creating the technology to make it happen in clothing, furniture and industry. Even with the Topshop win, we won't see Loomia branded smart clothing anytime soon.
"Something that I'm personally very excited about is mastery and craft," the designer/engineer/coder explained. "Making really good products takes a long time and making good engineering decisions around those products takes a long time."
Loomia's current system works like this. The team uses its proprietary ink-based (rather than thread-based), conductive wire trace replacements to make textile circuits. These are able to turn stretchable materials such as muslin and lyrca into smart fabrics. And this is Loomia's focus right now - electronics such as LEDs, sensors or actuators for haptics come later. Without the pressure of building a consumer product and a brand, as well as the technology, Maxey has allowed herself to make something well and something soon.
"The main challenge is getting electricity to flow in a pattern that is conducive to circuitry," she said. "The goal is to have something that is easy to manufacture and easy to fit into an apparel product that is more manufacturable with wiring."
The first mainstream piece of smart clothing powered by Loomia's technology could be a heated garment (we're betting on a jacket) sold by fast fashion giant Topshop.
Why? Because at the end of August the studio was announced as the winner of Topshop's first Top Pitch wearable tech competition, beating startups with existing fashion tech products including runners up Pins Collective and Luma Legacy. The prize is the chance to develop a smart clothing prototype with the retailer's Design team so sadly nothing is guaranteed.
Heated clothing was a feature - on the periphery of connected tech - that Topshop was interested in and one that could put paid to office arguments over air con and heating. For Maxey, it fits into her theory of what clothing should be for, even as it becomes intelligent: "to keep you warm, safe and comfortable."
She is fairly coy about the details of what's next for this public partnership: "I don't want to speak too much on Topshop's behalf as they'll have lots of products coming to the market. You'll hopefully see in the near future and in a brand that you recognise and love. I don't think people want to buy my brand's thing."
As part of the Top Pitch bootcamp, Maxey visited London to meet with Topshop teams and guest mentors including Technology Will Save Us' Bethany Koby and Fash and Mash's Rachel Arthur before pitching a proposal to Arcadia boss Philip Green.
"There are people who aren't so active in this space," she said, "and when we tell them about wearable tech or smart clothing, it sounds really far out or really futuristic. It was interesting hearing about how Topshop is thinking about their process - we realised that it's much closer especially on a mass market scale than a lot of people acknowledge."
Much as impatient early adopters and the press (ahem) would like otherwise, Maxey also isn't getting ahead of herself in terms of what Loomia's techniques can deliver. The heated garment prototype is very much Phase Two: "The technology we're working on with Topshop is later in our product development timeline of a more functional module." In other words, adding electronics to the conductive traces to make a fully functioning circuit.
Time for design rules
Aside from heating us up when we're cold (and vice versa), the potential of smart fabrics stretches to areas such as safety and posture correction if you bring haptic into the mix. I ask Maxey about what her technology could power in the future and, although she's loathe to hypothesise, she indulges us a little.
"Let's say you're hiking," she said. "You don't want to bring a map with you but you always get lost. In that environment, it could give you haptic feedback depending on where you need to turn. And if you go off course then it pings somebody you know to keep you safe. That is an interaction that is more comfortable than reading a map. There are a lot of case specific ways we could use this."
This is reminiscent of what Billie Whitehouse and Wearable Experiments have been working on. Maxey references Whitehouse along with Sabine Seymour and Amanda Parkes as women to watch in and around the New York fashion tech scene. As for the research in this space, the University of North Carolina, which is working on smart fabrics with Intel, is very much on her radar. Despite the long history of research into smart textiles, Maxey does believe that the time is now for smart fabrics and clothing:
"The industry has gone through so many cycles when consumers just weren't ready for it. There are people I talk to who were in the industry in the 80s or earlier who think that now is a really good time. If you're somebody with a fashion design focus you just get take an Arduino board rather than finding a custom micro-controller. I think in the next few years we'll really start to see products on the market."
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Taking a step back from the smart garments we'll be wearing in three, five or ten years, Maxey has more pressing concerns about how you make robust and reliable textile circuits and how smart clothing gets made. "A lot of comes down to good design rules," she explained. "If somebody asks me how do you write a good function or algorithm, there are all these answers - 'oh, you want to write the function in a certain way'. If someone asks - how do you make a good smart garment? There aren't a lot of rules that are in place so it's hard to set up manufacturing for an industry that doesn't have rules yet."
It's a slight Catch 22 in terms of studios and startups to big labels and designers dipping a toe into smart clothing. After the first mainstream product line has been produced, we will know how the smart clothing should and shouldn't be made. And if it's not the Loomia/Topshop heated clothing range, it'll probably be an LED dress.
"Because that manufacturing process is really valuable," said Maxey, "if somebody focuses on making a really great, mass manufactured, programmable LED dress that could be turned into tens of thousands of units, that's a huge step for the industry."