Raymond Loewy, an endlessly innovative designer and old time Vogue contributor, once said, "The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the World of Tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves." That was 1939, and Loewy, a thinker and problem solver, envisioned technology playing a key role in yet-to-be-invented materials. For him, an exciting future meant innovative new fabrics. Fast- forward to the present day, and we are now witnessing the apparel, technology, and textile industries coming together to develop smart fabrics with the ability to do many things that traditional fabrics can not.
The enhancement of human capabilities
Whenever I hear the words "smart fabrics", nanofabrics and connected fabrics immediately spring to mind. For those who don't know the difference, nanofabrics are created using nanotechnology to give materials new properties and connected fabrics have embedded digital technology and electronics.
Of the two, it seems like there are a lot more players within connected fabrics, not only experimenting but also actually bringing prototypes to market. These players, mainly from the sports and fitness industry, are recognised as one of the first to take advantage of the possibilities that smart clothing can offer.
Their foresight has led to brands like Athos, Hexoskin, Lumo and Sensoria successfully developing connected clothing with characteristics that include comprehensive perception, reliable transmission and intelligent processing.
When it comes to mainstream brands, early adopters Nike and Adidas are currently cornering the market and driving forward consumer acceptance of smart fabrics. Although the sports and fitness industries are increasing awareness of what smart clothing can do, the end product seems to not have the kind of mass market appeal that one would expect. Which leads me to ask, can the fashion industry step in and successfully bring smart clothing to the mainstream?
Fashion: A smart fabric game changer?
Although the term smart fabrics might sound shiny and new to the current crop of fashion creatives, the truth of the matter is that smart fabrics is an industry which has been operating under the radar in the B2B world for quite some time now. No longer incognito, the future focused, smart fabrics industry has been predicted by researchers to reach over $2.9 million by 2022.
Despite breakthroughs in smart fabrics propelling the merger of fashion and technology in the right direction, the main hindrance is that the fashion industry is prone to hype. It is this hype that has resulted in a plethora of useless smart clothing with short term consumer appeal being made and launched. So how can we fix this problem?
Well, first we need to acknowledge that when it comes to fashion, smart fabrics is an industry that is still in its infancy, especially when it comes to manufacturing. The good news is that, alongside big projects like Google and Levi's Project Jacquard, there is a new tribe of makers and designers who understand that the future of fashion lies in smart fabrics.
Thinking beyond a season, innovators Amy Winters, Maddy Maxey (Loomia) and Billie Whitehouse (Wearable X), are taking smart fabrics to the next level with conductive inks, built-in haptics and materials which react to their environment.
On what's next for the industry's development, Loomia founder Maddy Maxey told us, "I think that the industry is still developing technically and that missing manufacturing processes are what keep these products from getting to market - not a lack of demand from the customer."
When connected fashion dreams big
Game changing makers and designers are not the only ones trying to normalise smart clothing. Recently we were introduced to Rochambeau's BRIGHT BMBR smart jacket teched up Avery Dennison's Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) division and Internet of Things platform EVRYTHNG.
The limited edition $630 jacket was #BornDigital in December 2016. An NFC chip and serialised QR code hidden in the left sleeve, together with a companion app, allows the wearer to unlocks deals and VIP experiences at partnering restaurants, pop up stores, galleries and stores - only in New York City for now.
Smart clothing could help us make daily decisions
The whole idea is that when you wear the jacket the "real world gets better" and it's the same platform that Rebecca Minkoff used in its connected #AlwaysOn Midnighter handbags. Following the launch, Avery Dennison and EVRYTHNG made a bold statement. They promised that they would enable a minimum of 10 billion items of smart clothing in the next few years.
On this daring mission Julie Rodgers Vargas, director of digital solutions at Avery Dennison told us, "I think smart clothing will be a valuable new layer of insight and data that can help drive unique experiences or simply help us make daily decisions. For example, the weather or our calendar can provide input to suggest the right outfit. Or our clothes can notify us if we haven't worn them recently and direct us to the right place to donate."
When asked about the privacy implications she added: "Privacy will always need to be an option. However, if the information and experience is relevant and personalized, consumers are ready to adopt for the benefits the connection can provide".
Expensive prototype to affordable product
As the smart fabrics industry continues to connect at an impressive rate, we have, in the past 12 months, found ourselves entering the next phase of the evolution. This next stage is all about giving brands and designers access to tools that will help them turn their dumb fabrics into smart fabrics.
One of the companies making this possible is Neue Labs. The Swedish startup has come up with a product called Automat. Designed to simplify the whole process of adding technology to products, the tiny set of print boards allows brands to create their own algorithms.
Recently, Neue Labs collaborated with Kassim Denim, a wholesaler of high quality organic denim. Showcasing their combined efforts at Premium Vision in Paris, Neue Labs showed attendees how easy it was to integrate their technology into a product, in this case, denim. "We are giving brands and fashion designers a shortcut to connected clothing and fashion tech," said Arsal Kassim Machiyara, founder of Kassim Denim.
Cityzen Sciences is another company propelling brands into the era of connected fabrics. The French company provides technology that has the ability to adapt to any fabric, in any sector. Specialising in the design, creation and development of connected fabrics, Cityzen Sciences is making great strides towards minimising the limitations that designers have to contend with.
Escaping the niche label
There is no denying that smart fabric products have potential. The question is, are we ready to give up cheaper traditional clothes for smart garments?
This might be true for niche use cases in the sports and fitness industries but in fashion, smart fabrics is still considered a rather small fish in the big apparel pond. That being said, if I was to zoom out, I'd predict the future lies in nanofabrics not just the connected fabrics leading the way today.
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