No-one has figured out quite what smart clothing means yet, or how we'll get there. As such innovation is coming from some unexpected places. One of the companies ushering in a new generation of connected garments is Avery Dennison, which has 80 years of experience in materials technology, labelling and packaging. Together with longstanding partners, it's driving forward the adoption of RFID tags woven into fashion products and the team isn't afraid to announce bold targets. Last year Avery Dennison promised to connect 10 billion 'Born Digital' apparel and footwear products to the internet in the next three years. That's right, 10 billion.
One of the key players with a front-row seat to this growing RFID trend is Francisco Melo, the softly spoken general manager and vice president of global RFID at Avery Dennison. When we got the chance to chat, we dove straight into talking about Avery Dennison's growing catalogue of impressively high-profile collaborations – designer projects include New York brand Rochambeau and Rebecca Minkoff.
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As he highlighted the work of his company's designers, inventors, engineers, weavers and makers, Melo told us: "Innovation is in our DNA, that is why we are determined to make every material smart." Today Avery Dennison is considered to be one of the market leaders in not just fashion tech innovation but also in retail, cosmetics, aviation, food and pharmaceutical. It wasn't always so.
"It has taken us a while to truly understand how we can create intelligent labels," Melo says. "It's only now that we can say that we have a thorough understanding of how it works. There were moments when we would ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Luckily we persevered and soon enough we reached a turning point". I asked him when exactly that turning point was, and Melo explained that for him it was when UK retail giant Marks and Spencer adopted RFID for inventory tracking.
It's not alone either; American department store Macys is also assessing, testing, and looking to adopt RFID while Nike, Hugo Boss and Under Armour already use Avery Dennison for regular labels and tags. For brands and retailers, the benefit of the new system is clear – connecting accessories or clothes offers a direct line to their customers. Jewellery designer Sarah Angold cited this as one reason she developed a line of Avery Dennison RFID-enabled necklaces which communicate with an interactive mirror in 2016.
So what is the attraction of connected threads for the wearer? Unlike most smart clothing we cover, here there is less of a focus on connecting the garments to the wearer's body and more on the environment around them.
In projects like last year's limited edition $630 smart BRIGHT BMBR bomber jacket (with NFC and QR tech also onboard) by New York designer Rochambeau and London based IoT startup EVRYTHNG, it meant VIP access to gifts at stores, tickets to the NYFW show and experiences like tasting menus and private tours of art galleries. And for Rebecca Minkoff's similar, very small scale pilot, the designer sold a run of 10 smart AlwaysOn Midnighter handbags which gave the owner access to her S/S NYFW show. Minkoff has announced that all its handbags will be "smart" by summer 2017.
There is more potential when moving into mass produced garments, of course. Consumers can use their smartphone to scan a product's unique digital ID found on the product tag or label to access reviews, find true-to-size ratings, and receive styling tips. Andy Hobsbawn, co-founder and CMO of EVRYTHNG, told Amanda Cosco on the Electric Runway podcast that in future customers could use the connectivity to access loyalty rewards and unlock experiences, exclusive content and retail gifts.
"And if you think about a product suddenly knowing everything about itself and having access to lots of information," he said, "you could ask it questions about its history, what materials does it have, where was it made, what's the distribution journey. It can deliver transparency to consumers about sustainability."
Is Avery Dennison's 10 billion figure too ambitious? Melo doesn't seem to think so: "We have already been digitally enabling items for a while now. Every time we put an RFID with Janela [the name of its platform] in a product we are enabling it. So we are confident that we will reach 10 billion in three years."
I asked him how many products have been connected to date. Melo didn't reveal that figure but he explained that many of the partners and brands they work with have already adopted the approach, and that several pilots are in progress. The promise of Janela to fashion brands is that it not only allows brands to directly interact with their customers, it is also the first industrial scale digital enablement of everyday products. A solution with the power to elevate brands, drive sales and increase loyalty, Janela sounds like a dream for retailers, but I wondered what the trade off for fashion fans would be.
Learning to trust your clothes
As more objects and articles of clothing become connected to the internet, it is important for brands and retailers to build trust with the early adopters. Agreeing, Melo made it clear that Avery Dennison takes the issue of security and privacy seriously. "We work with a standard body and the industry as a whole to determine what the right usage is. The bottom line is that we do give our customers the option to deactivate Janela." That's a good thing to know but to deactivate the Janela technology entirely sounds like you would end up with just another 'dumb' product – maybe this needs to get more granular to be useful.
It's not just security that is being built into the process – as you'd expect from the potential use cases, sustainability is also key. "Our sustainability goals are very clear. Avery Dennison does more than just talk sustainability, we use many ways and means to make sure we are doing the right thing."
That means initiatives like launching Avery Dennison Greenprint, which helps customers make informed decisions about product sustainability, and RFID SmartFace tech which reduces the chemical and manufacturing waste and energy consumption in producing the connected clothing. The company is also not afraid to use its unique position in the value chain to support emerging sustainable designers and help apparel and footwear brands create more ethical, green products.
Bringing together the fashion and tech industries is no easy feat, as many people have told us, so it's good to see new, ambitious projects like this one.
"We use our R&D capabilities and our collective wisdom to constantly challenge ourselves in becoming more efficient, more sustainable and more creative," says Melo. "This means addressing products that already exist and those that have yet to be created in new or existing markets."
So there it is. Even though he is not exactly forthcoming about what is next on the agenda for the rest of 2017, Melo succeeded in selling me the idea of an Avery Dennison and EVRYTHNG powered world of fashion. It's not the most smarts we've seen packed into clothing, but Janela could be an interesting stepping stone that the fashion industry is clearly comfortable with. I'm also optimistic that the various collaborators will iron out some of the kinks like affordable pricing, realistic availability and privacy/security concerns. Whatever Avery Dennison has under lock and key, something 'Born Digital' might find its way into your wardrobe before the year is out.