Henry Holland's Spring/Summer 2016 show at London Fashion Week was a pretty big moment for wearable tech. It was a teensy bit awkward and most of the crowd probably weren't aware of what they were witnessing but it was a big moment all the same.
In an early evening, late running show at Collins Music Hall in Islington, House of Holland and Visa Europe Collab, Visa's Shoreditch based innovation lab, showed off their NFC smart jewellery shopping experience to a packed fashion crowd. Put together in just 100 days, the Cashless on the Catwalk event was designed to show ten front row VIPs shopping the collection, as it was showcased by models at the end of the show, by selecting designs using House of Holland NFC payment rings.
In the end, just two celebs - IT girls Alexa Chung and Daisy Lowe, both part of the same friendship squad as the designer - bought House of Holland items as part of the show. All smiles, they walked up to the models with a big ol' camera in their faces and a couple of hundred journalists, buyers and customers papping them on iPhones and tapped their smart rings to smart brooches attached to their favourite items. A couple of seconds and it was done. The designer himself could finally jog out for a lap of the hall to adoring applause.
The same bold, bright, tropical motifs were used on the insect jewellery as on the models' earrings, zip pulls and handbag charms to avoid the tech sticking out like a sore thumb. Perspex smart brooches with NFC receivers hidden inside - which had light up LEDs to show the audience what was happening - were attached to five shoppable pieces in the collection and Bluetooth Smart tech was used to hook the payment tag up to an iPad, acting as the virtual terminal, and Visa's network.
Alexa and Daisy weren't paying of course, it was all pre-paid, but you get the picture. The purchases were bagged up backstage ready to leave with the guests. It wasn't just a retailer's dream, the whole process took the concept of an impulse buy to the next level. It was a fashion lover's dream too.
"I didn't want something that looked like wearable tech"
House of Holland's show was special because a well known fashion designer was showing tech some love in a high profile, on-schedule catwalk show, something we've only actually seen a handful of times before despite all this talk of a 'fashion tech' revolution.
The ring was bigger than it needed to be, I just wanted an obnoxious ring
But it was also interesting that the tech element wasn't purely decorative - the costume rings and brooches were undoubtedly part of the collection aesthetic but the smart jewellery didn't just light up, it allowed famous models and industry insiders to pay by waving their hand next to the designs they liked.
"I was very clear that I didn't want to create something that looked like wearable tech," Holland told Wareable the day before the show. "We're at the stage where it has its own kind of recognisable look. If you are a vain, fashion conscious customer you wouldn't necessarily want to wear some of the mass market pieces of wearable tech that have come out. People have been turned off by it. So this was about creating a piece of covetable, desirable jewellery and saying - by the way, that's a credit card.
"It's a proof of concept so it's a small scale, controlled environment. There is an element of choreography in the show so the VIPs aren't just randomly punching girls as they walk past them. It's about removing those boundaries about a fashion show being a closed event for an industry crowd."
The race to Fashion Week
The handmade, gold-plated silver rings feature semi precious stones and detailed enamelling but the tech is based on NFC Ring devices, made by a Bradford based company of the same name which successfully crowdfunded its affordable smart ring.
John McLear, NFC Ring's inventor, told us that the manufacturing process for the twenty rings took place in a matter of weeks to meet the total 100 day deadline. "We were so lucky to have access to expert artisans in Cumbria to take care of the embossing that Henry wanted," he said. "We also had to overcome a few challenges such as not being able to bake the enamel, as usual, because of all the electronics inside."
House of Holland's goal was to make the tech "invisible" but in the end the designer didn't even end up using the smallest module available - he used 20mm x 15mm modules in the rings rather than, say, the smallest 5mm x 5mm units.
"The ring itself we've designed is way bigger than it needs to be and that's simply because I wanted to design an obnoxious ring," said Holland, with a laugh. "My designs are quite in your face, quite loud and brash and I wanted the rings to be of a scale that they would read in a catwalk image of the models walking the show as well as the guests. A wedding ring is capable of holding this sort of tech but you wouldn't see it and it wouldn't have the show value."
Throughout the process, there was also very little that had to be amended in Holland's original designs and material choices to incorporate the NFC technology. "The enamelling didn't interfere with the NFC," the designer explained. "With the semi precious, cabochon (rounded off) stones on top of the enamel, the only thing we had to do was have those recut so they were slightly shallower because the transmitting distance is about 15mm. For safety, we just wanted to keep that to an absolute minimum."
See now, buy now, wear now
After the show, we were treated to a demo of the working prototypes in action, sans next season's designer threads sadly, and as promised as soon as the NFC ring was tapped to the top of the leaf shaped brooch, the LEDs kicked into action to show that it had worked. Niamh de Niese, Visa Europe Collab's director of innovation delivery, also showed us a mark two of the device which contained the receiver which is about half the size of the camera-friendly pieces used by House of Holland.
"Hypothetically, what's next is that we'd love to test this out in a small, controlled in-store environment because it's hard to see how people react to using it in a catwalk show," she said. "We've got it down to the kind of size that it could be used in store and a big part of doing that so quickly is that we are working out of a one room flat, essentially, in Shoreditch and acting like a startup with lots and lots of collaborations."
Another key partner in terms of the behind the scenes magic of this project was Miami based startup Flomio, a proximity ID tech company which deals with the integration of Bluetooth, NFC and RFID for all sorts of businesses.
Daniel Berkowitz, Flomio's chief marketing officer, told Wareable that this is a big first in that none of the payment tech companies, such as Square, have demoed unlimited contactless devices all being handled by one virtual cash register processing the payments. When asked how long it will be until we see this tech go through the bureaucratic hoops of companies such as Visa, Berkowitz simply jokes "how much money do you have?" Many of Flomio's clients are in the leisure industries and are looking to recreate what Disney has done with its MagicBand wearable but the CMO warns that what is "magic in one context might not work outside a theme park".
As for the future of Henry Holland's deliciously fun smart rings, the 32-year-old designer says to watch this space. He has been experimenting with closing the gap between showing off his collections to the industry and getting pieces into stores - he revealed his mens' collection to buyers six months before his official catwalk show in June and on the day of the show, the clothes were in store ready to buy.
He gives a shout out to big brands like Givenchy and Marc Jacobs too, both of which are getting their customers more involved in the exclusive, hierarchical fashion world with social media and recognition of a "see now, buy now" culture.
Holland thinks his customers are ready for this kind of contactless retail experience and says that down the line, if there is enough interest, he would explore the idea of selling this kind of smart payment jewellery and selling his garms with the Collab system. "It's all about doing it at the right time. If you do things too soon with wearable tech, you miss the boat," he said. "Now so many people use contactless all over the country that an NFC ring is something they can get their head around."
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