Ready to Ware

By the time powerful mobile devices started chatting back and forth quite without human help, London-based designer Amy Winters had decided to stop taking what she was given and get a piece of the future for herself. She pressed pause on a decade-long career building garments that reacted to sunlight and sound and entered the School of Materials at London’s Royal College of Art in the fall of 2013 to pursue a PhD focused on smart textiles. “I wanted to start owning some of this tech,” Winters says.

Since then, she’s watched the campus population of candidates similarly interested in wearable technology more than double. Courses in technologically advanced textiles have sprung up at nearby academic institutions, including Central Saint Martins and Ravensbourne. “[Wearables] is a big thing to get involved in right now. It’s all over the media,” says Winters. At first, she showed her work mainly at science museums, a natural fit. Within two years, the venues diversified considerably, landing her in Milan, at Paris Fashion Week, and at the annual South by Southwest conference, in Austin. Tokyo, New York, and Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) would soon follow.

It's kind of this up-and-coming niche where everyone's excited to study it, but no one's wearing it, says Winters.

Such widespread interest is a notable shift since the mid-aughts, when the designer began showing tech-infused garments such as the illuminated dresses she created under the name Clubbing Couture. Winters sees wearable tech trending—and hard. The topic draws hundreds to meetups and spawns conferences attended by thousands. It drives niche web publications to breathlessly cover every development bubbling up from the Internet’s depths. The attention makes sense: The promise of wearable technology is simply too huge and full of possibility to ignore. If the Internet itself was revolutionary, wearable technology is, to many, the only vehicle capable of finally realizing its potential.

“We’re about to change and advance human technologies of self-awareness,” says Redg Snodgrass, founder and CEO of Wearable World, which hosts industry meetups in more than 18 countries and operates Wearable World Labs, an incubator-accelerator program for startups in the wearable and Internet of Things space.

With a change in the ways we perceive ourselves and new realms of communication waiting in the wings, it’s easy to see why wearables turn heads. But relatively few people—industry insiders included—are getting into the category by embracing the “wearable” part of the equation. “It’s kind of this up-and-coming niche where everyone’s excited to study it, but no one’s wearing it,” Winters says.

She’s discovered the knottiest tension point in the global wearable market. It’s expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 35% during the next four years, to reach a projected 148 million units shipped annually by 2019. But actually hacking into a person’s wardrobe decision matrix and achieving a spot in the daily outfit lineup is proving to be a science all its own.

One of the most promising colonies on the wearable frontier is your wrist. Smartwatches have grown in popularity, expanded consumer awareness, and driven the convergence of lifestyle and self-quantification—it’s not just for fitness anymore. An estimated 5.3 million smartwatches shipped globally in the second quarter of 2015, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics. That’s a 457% increase over the same quarter last year, a surge driven by the debut of the Apple Watch. Laying claim to three-quarters of the market share, Apple entered in April as the dominant player in a category that also includes Pebble smartwatches, the LG Watch Urbane, the Samsung Gear S, Sony’s SmartWatch 3, and Motorola’s Moto 360.

Fitness bands and activity trackers have also become increasingly common sights since the launch of the first Fitbit app in 2011. Today, they account for about a third of wearable devices purchased, according to recent BI Intelligence numbers.

Still, most experts agree that what we see presently is the very first wave of many more to come. “We’re moving from a 1.0 world to a 2.0 world,” says Misfit Wearables Founder and CEO Sonny Vu. “It’s really going to be the next generation of devices that’s going to make this mainstream.”

In other words, the way we think about wearable technology is going to change yet again. Fashion will move it beyond the data-crunching-geek set and secure it in the hearts and minds of the everyday consumer.

“I think everyone has stars in their eyes about the potential for wearable tech, but I think fashion and design are essential to making this work,” says Liza Kindred, founder of Third Wave Fashion, a New York-based fashion tech think tank with clients as diverse as Bergdorf Goodman, Cisco, and Vodafone. Says Vu, “Most of the stuff looks like it’s designed by Silicon Valley guys for Silicon Valley guys. Most people don’t live in Silicon Valley.”

For early adopters living in tech hubs like the Bay Area, there is an ease with tech for tech’s sake; outward appearances tend to be of far lesser concern to them than functional features. We are, after all, talking about the land of the mythic hoodie-clad genius, a place where “just ship it already” is advice that routinely trumps the wisdom of making a good first visual impression.

But elsewhere in the world, looks often take precedence. Beauty, fashion, and style attract; functionality creates a bond. Just as with lasting human relationships, there’s the initial, often indescribable thing that turns the head. Only later comes the assessment of whether living in parallel is not only possible but infinitely more desirable.

Recent history also backs the notion that the look of wearables will be a powerful element in the success of devices of the future. After Apple ushered sleek product design into the hands of generations of tech consumers, subsequent products have underscored the power of floating products with design that’s in line with contemporary style. The success of Beats by Dre was as connected to bold colors and a hip silhouette as it was to sound quality, a fact that was not lost on Apple before it made the decision to acquire the company last year for a reported $3 billion.

As far as we’ve come with tech, a sleek design that leverages function and fashion is still a rare thing indeed. Take Misfit and its flagship product, the Misfit Shine. It’s one of the few—if only—activity trackers making outward attempts to become more than just an add-on. It wants to be a part of wearers’ wardrobes.

“Having technology that blends beautifully and invisibly in your life is what we’re after,” says Vu, who previously founded AgaMatrix, a company that created medical device hardware compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. For Vu, turning to fashion is a means of reaching a highly sought-after customer population: women, who account for 85% of all consumer purchases and 58% of all spending online, research from Sheconomy indicates.

In the four years since Vu founded Misfit, he has steered the company away from the black bands and square shapes used by the majority of fitness tracker and smartwatch device makers. Instead, the Misfit Shine, which tracks activity and sleep and runs on a long-lasting battery, is round. It’s available in no fewer than nine colors. There are multiple options for bands, as well as a micro collection of necklaces and bracelets created in collaboration with Swarovski, whose crystals lend the device the look of contemporary jewelry. A limited run of Misfit Shine devices for Victoria’s Secret, done up in the company’s signature pink hue, point to what has become a core part of the wearable maker’s strategy.

“They’re trying to get people more engaged with their brand, and there aren’t actually that many products that are appropriate for their segment in the wearable space,” Vu says. When it comes to making an activity tracker that appeals to women, and fashion-focused ones at that, “those guys don’t have a lot of choices.”

Misfit is hardly the only company to realize the potential of marketing wearable technology to women and, more specifically, to the style-conscious subset. A Tory Burch collection of double-wrap bracelets for disguising the Fitbit dropped in time for the holidays last year, while the Intel-powered MICA cuff, designed in collaboration with New York cult fashion retailer Opening Ceremony, aimed to attract fashion insiders with its 18-karat-gold exterior, notifications, and headlines from popular style website Refinery29.

Over the last year, startups such as Ringly and CUFF have introduced notification-based devices that double as jewelry for the digitally savvy woman who is likely to carry the latest iPhone and has both disposable income and an Instagram account. Jon Lou and HiSmart by Lepow are poised to release smart bags that charge devices and, in the latter’s case, help accept and make phone calls.

Designers with household names are also getting into the mix. A collection of Kate Spade handbags capable of charging iPhones is due this fall from the startup designer label Everpurse. And in what is likely to be the fashion world’s most high-profile foray into wearable technology yet, designer Diane von Furstenberg has revealed plans to release a limited run of luxury handbags that will wirelessly charge smartphones in time for this year’s holiday shopping season.

While the handbag’s high-tech features are undoubtedly buzzworthy and make perfect partners for a pre-holiday media blitz, the designer says they’re not meant to take center stage. This is a trend that von Furstenberg—and many others in the space—expect to continue.

“Wearable technology won’t even be a word anymore, because everything you do will have technology,” she told an audience that gathered at this year’s Allen & Company Sun Valley conference to hear her speak on a panel about the future of fashion.

The march toward smaller, seamless, invisible technology is gaining momentum as brands hungrily eye the spending power of the millennial generation (and those beyond it) at the same time that hardware shrinks to fit into more objects—from jewelry and eyewear to handbags and apparel.

“In a generation that wants to stay connected all the time and wants to communicate and be communicated with all the time, we have a need now. They very much want to have that level of communication in their brand,” says Jeannine Sargent, president of Innovation and New Ventures at Flex.

That is, it’s a safe bet to say that future generations will not only welcome technology embedded into the everyday objects they wear and carry, they’ll come to expect it.

“Today, you cannot be relevant in fashion and ignore technology,” von Furstenberg says. “The connection is natural, seamless, and powerful.”

It’s a phenomenon Third Wave Fashion’s Kindred has experienced firsthand with her attempts to infuse tech into her designs. Recently, she says, “I’m starting to ask myself, ‘Yes, it looks great, but what does it do?’”

Not too long from now, it’s possible we’ll all assume technology is alive and well and working away inside our common accessories. On the outside, most experts agree, we’ll see very little high-tech anything. Fashion will hold court publicly as it always has, but the functionality will set it apart in never-before-imagined ways.

The idea that fashion and technology could somehow form a happy marriage has evolved, after years of clumsily trying to mash the two together: through fashion tech accelerators and cross-pollinating industry conferences such as Decoded Fashion, with glossy magazines backing fashion hackathons, and venture capitalists interested in the space supporting a nascent ecosystem.

Along the way, a more mutually beneficial pairing intrigued those in both fashion and tech and led to standout collisions. The best-known example to date came from von Furstenberg in 2012, when she elected to send models down the runway at New York Fashion Week wearing custom versions of Google’s Glass eyewear.

“It was a watershed moment in time. We had a global leader and expert in eyewear and we had DVF, one of the most amazing fashion designers out there, a blue-sky thinker, working with Google X,” recalls Leslie Muller, VP of design for Marchon Eyewear, a manufacturer and distributor for Diane von Furstenberg. The partnering of one of the world’s most iconic fashion brands with one of the biggest names in the tech industry signaled what might become not only possible—but mainstream—in the fashion landscape of the future.

But for most brands, the path to integration is a far cry from the effortlessness exuded by models on the catwalk during von Furstenberg’s groundbreaking show.

More often than not, it’s all too easy for attempts to push fashion and technology together to end up looking like a series of awkward early dates than solid partnerships built on mutual respect and collaborative design. And while it’s easy to snark from the sidelines about the aesthetically challenged early vision of Glass or the Silicon Valleyness of the Pebble watch, the hiccupy trajectory of fashion tech has taken place for good reason. “Those two worlds are so different, people don’t know what they don’t know and there’s a lot not to know,” Kindred says.

Even for fashion brands that champion innovation, bringing technology into the mix at the earliest stage of product design means building collaborative teams that are likely to extend beyond the company itself. Then there are budgets to consider. Internally, which teams will take ownership over a limited-edition wearable built and marketed primarily as an experimental toe-dip into a burgeoning landscape—and whose bottom line will it impact the most? If there’s an innovation team, will the new venture be overseen by business development or product or marketing? If it lives nebulously on its own, as many do, who fosters its connection with the rest of the company? Who will delicately explain to engineers the fashion industry’s long-held interest in seasonality and, in turn, remind creative directors that gorgeous, high-resolution editorial imagery may be incompatible with the quick-to-load, responsive digital design necessary for mobile phones and tablet screens? Who will train the retailers and in-store employees to introduce the new product and its features to potential customers?

“One of the major challenges that we’re finding is the huge changes that have to happen on an organizational level in order to get a design produced and marketed effectively,” says Kindred.

Then there’s the technology itself. Brilliant product design is nothing more than a nice idea if it can’t get to consumers. Fortunately, a few pioneers have good ideas about that, too.

“Designers should be true to themselves,” von Furstenberg says, “and adapt technology to the DNA of their brand.”

Cynthia Sakai, founder of jewelry brand Vita Fede, is rethinking design to be about more than just aesthetics. Vita Fede is working to incorporate wearable technology into future products. At the moment, it’s mum on what the product actually is, or what form it will take, but it is in the development phase.

In a generation that wants to stay connected all the time and wants to communicate and be communicated with all the time, we have a need now, says Sargent.

“It’s not the same as us designing something where we can say, ‘Okay, let’s make the metal a little bit smaller. Let’s make the cones a little bit wider. Let’s put a little bit of crystals on it to make it a little more aesthetically beautiful or comfortable,’” she says. “It’s, How much signal do you need? Or, What stones will let the signal go through? Or, How much space do you need for the battery?”

“Good design is also about being able to get to market,” says Wearable World’s Snodgrass. That means design teams must talk to suppliers early, selecting parts that not only have the right functionality and fit for a given design, but that they also are available at the right time and in quantities for the required scale. For products that are largely aimed at global markets, regulatory and compatibility issues loom. Products must meet standards not just for one geographic region but for the world at large as well.

“The conversation we have is, while it might be introduced in Paris or New York, it needs to be distributed globally,” Flex’s Sargent says. “While it needs to wow the fashion world, it needs to work in the rest of the world.”

“We’ve noticed in the fashion area a lot of designers have come to manufacturers like Flex and said, ‘What do you have with tech that I can essentially cover with fashion?’” Sakai says. “Essentially what we did was the complete opposite. We had to invent this piece, which is essentially going to be the first in market to go inside of what my vision and design was.”

Beyond the logistical and structural gymnastics at play, there’s a much simpler, but no less crucial, question: What’s the business case?

“[Designers] want to change their image and show that they’re on the cutting edge,” says Walter Chefitz, who served as design director for jewelry company David Yurman and is now chief creative officer at Viawear, maker of a smart bracelet aimed at fashion-conscious working moms.

After three years developing their first product, Chefitz and Viawear Founder and CEO Ben Isaacson say they’re fielding an increasing number of inquiries from major retailers that want to white-label their technology.

Fashion Ware

But how incorporating new technology—from smart jewelry to bags capable of functioning as Internet hot spots—will drive revenue growth is, as yet, unanswered. Certainly, expectations around margins will shift and change. It’s the entirely new business models that insiders like Kindred are trying to figure out.

Subscriptions are one route. With constant connectivity powered by the Internet of Things, Kindred envisions a future in which fashion brands can deploy jewelry whose colors automatically change to reflect, say, Pantone’s Color of the Year, or a handbag with straps that wirelessly update in new, on-trend patterns each season.

“What we’re talking about is the potential to have the ability for fashion brands to sell subscriptions to their products. I’m talking about a subscription where the material or output changes over time,” she says.

We’re moving from a 1.0 world to a 2.0 world. It’s really going to be the next generation of devices that’s going to make this mainstream, says Vu.

Constant connection between fashion businesses and their customers may be highly desirable for a plethora of reasons—customer loyalty and data collection among them—but that pending shift will no doubt ripple outward and prompt additional restructuring of customer service teams, return policies, and product cycles.

“That’s a blessing and a curse,” says Chefitz. With the software applications and compatible IoT devices designed from the ground up to work within fashion accessories and, eventually, clothing itself, he says, “you’re going to be in constant contact with your customer. The curse, of course, is that your sale isn’t done, and you have all this work that you have to continue to do.”

New business models may be much easier notions to stomach and implement among startups, whose lean teams and lack of shareholders leave them nimbler than their larger, older counterparts. But even with fully backed crowdfunding campaigns and, for the lucky few, meaningful infusions of venture capital cash, many startups in the wearable technology space fail to make the leap from prototype to point of sale. Anecdotally speaking, Kindred, as she does a quick mental recap of the Kickstarter campaigns she’s supported in the past year, says she’s received a grand total of one product out of nine that should have arrived by now.

That rate of follow-through underscores what anyone who’s tried to integrate fashion and technology already well knows: Establishing a collaborative team—or aiming to merge two cultures that have until very recently lived quite happily apart—is not the point. Rather, it’s how that integration itself will take place on a granular, day-to-day level.

“Technology is becoming such a part of our lives, more and more it will be normal to wear smart accessories and fashion,” says von Furstenberg.

To that end, new approaches to generating innovation are popping up all the time. At Marchon Eyewear, Muller mans the company’s design-focused New York outfit The SHOP, an innovation lab created by parent company VSP Global to ensure its eyewear contains technology in line with future consumer needs. The innovation lab’s other half is in Sacramento. It’s devoted to developing and testing the hardware and software powering prototypes such as Project Genesis, a pair of frames announced this spring that tracks activity using sensor technology housed within the temple.

There are also programs like Wearable World Labs, which gathers classes of entrepreneurs from different startups together in offices dubbed the “innovation hangar” at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Participants spend 15 weeks in meetings and learning sessions meant to connect those in the very early stages of their businesses with mentors, training, press contacts, and possible investors.

At Flex, there is Lab IX, in which 24 startups are hard at work hammering out scalable solutions to big-picture ideas ranging from soil monitoring to brain sensing using an array of possibilities born of the Internet of Things. Teams exchange a small equity stake for the chance to tap into Flex’s deep well of expertise in design, hardware engineering, and mass production. It’s an incubator-accelerator hybrid set up to get worthy products past the pain points many companies encounter as they move from concept to consumer, or sketch to scale.

From her perch within academia, Winters sees much opportunity for designers to work directly with labs and manufacturers in the future. While it makes all the logical sense in the world to bring a designer in early, it’s a huge change in the way fashion has operated for the last hundred years.

Says Winters, “Right now kids go to fashion school and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be like the next Ralph Lauren,’ or they’re going to be this single designer as an entity, not working with anybody else and having their vision totally to themselves. I don’t see it happening like that. I see it, in five years, people working together and developing products, so you won’t necessarily be a fashion designer. It’ll be like, say, a materials designer or a materiologist. They’ll be new words.”

Eventually, though, for fashion and technology to progress as co-forces in the future of connected devices, there will need to be new use cases and a better understanding of the kind of wearable technology that, once discovered, people will fundamentally rely on. This is a need facing not just fashionable wearables, but all devices. Someday, after the early days and after experimentation has run its course, wearable technology will need to find its killer app, a product or function as integral to daily life as the lightbulb, the telephone, the airplane, or television—things that have made life before their arrival now seem ludicrously difficult to comprehend.

We are not there yet. What consumers will embrace as a product, that thing they cannot live without, is still very much a mystery. On the heels of an emotion-driven design age most often credited to Apple and the legacy of Steve Jobs, designers like Winters suspect the answer lies in delivering a solution that not only stirs human emotion, but enhances or facilitates its delivery.

“It’s about creating something that has a more emotive capability, but it’s not necessarily about showing what your emotion is or hiding your emotion. I can’t pinpoint what that is at the moment,” Winters admits.

Predicting how far out the state of the current wearable landscape is from a can’t-live-without solution is exceedingly difficult.

“What we’re having right now is a challenge of imagination, not a challenge of technology. We have an enormous amount [of tech]. There’s more than we can figure out what to do with for the next 20 years, but right now, we don’t know how it can be useful. We don’t know how to package it so that people are going to want it,” Kindred says.

So this is where we are: First get the technology into people’s hands, onto their wrists, into their daily lives. Then figure out what to do with it. That dominant line of thought follows Silicon Valley’s love affair with iteration. Put forth a minimum viable product, see what people do with it, and then redirect and perfect it accordingly. Rinse and repeat.

If it’s clear that good design can help bring products to the people, then what constitutes good design? While the answers can be as varied as fashion brands themselves, a key theme at play for makers of wearable technology today is a bet on invisibility.

“My goal was, I wanted this to be something that you never even knew that there was tech inside,” explains Chefitz of Viawear’s bracelet, which circles the wrist in leather fastened with a jewel-like bauble. Where earlier products may have paraded their tech capabilities on large screens or blithely overestimated the mainstream public’s tolerance for LED light displays, wearable technology’s next wave is more likely to resemble the items we already own.

That’s exactly what’s happening these days at Marchon Eyewear, where Muller strives to make the company’s high-tech Project Genesis prototype look indistinguishable from other frames—a far cry from the futuristic and overtly techy appearance of the collection she helped design for Diane von Furstenberg and Google Glass.

Work on the project did not mean simply incorporating new hardware into an existing frame. Instead, it was a feat that called for entirely new design processes. To start, says Muller, “we had to unlearn some of the rules of how you make eyewear.”

That meant developing a new process for molding the arms of the frames and housing the necessary tech at the temple. To Muller, the look of the frames holds equal sway with functionality—and for obvious reasons.

“It’s the only object that’s manufactured that sits in the middle of people’s faces,” she says. Misfit’s Vu presents a similar, if not as extreme, perspective when he says, “The technology either needs to be beautiful or invisible. In the long run, there’s not much space in between.”

With technology seamlessly integrated into a design or beautifully on display, there’s the reality that we just aren’t sure yet how humans will react to objects that can suddenly do many more things than meet the eye.

Take smart textiles, for example. Yes, as intriguing and exciting as it is on an intellectual level that fabric could function as an activity tracker or wireless charging device or connected component networked into the Internet of Things, it’s unclear whether people actually want their clothes to function in that way and, even if they do, whether they’ll pay the premium that it will cost over a cheaper, non-tech garment that looks exactly the same.

Of course, there will be products that win—and win big as the future unfolds. When those consumer-friendly products hook the masses with a combination of excellent design and useful technology, they will bring untold conveniences, efficiencies, and shortcuts to human lives.

As for fashion’s role in getting there, on a basic level, Vu says, “what fashion can do is make these products culturally relevant, and once they become culturally relevant, people will be like, ‘Oh, I’ll try this out.’”

But there’s also the idea that the most widely adopted wearables, which are likely to be those that look fashionable enough to filter into the lives of millions, will actually matter for reasons that extend far beyond cultural relevance and self-improvement of individuals.

Embedded in consumers’ daily lives, wearables that achieve the leap from novelty to necessity status stand to become immeasurably valuable—and not just to the people wearing them or the people making them, argues Snodgrass.

“We’re about to change and advance human technologies of self-awareness,” he says. With the data amassed from wearable devices collected from humans and human interactions via the Internet of Things, Snodgrass foresees the potential for seismic cultural changes in health care, diet, and lifestyle choices. From there, the virtuous cycle of feedback that leads to better, more informed choices could have reverberations that upend socioeconomic norms and unleash new human modes of communication.

Glass Ware

One of those is an area that fascinates Chefitz and Isaacson. While Viawear is ostensibly producing a notification bracelet that lets women know when someone important is trying to reach them via phone call or text, there’s a bigger picture they see.

Thus far, “our brains haven’t been used very well for sensory communications, and we’re only at the very early stages of developing meaning from vibration and color,” Isaacson says. Taken a decade or more into the future, what has begun as notification tech could become new tools for humans to share information without proximity, voices, or vision.

In the nearer term, Chefitz notes how technology is changing the potential impact a designer can have on other people’s lives. Sure, striking an emotional chord with aesthetics is rewarding, but the notion that a piece of jewelry might be the device that alerts a parent to a phone call from a sick child’s school or, in the extreme, manages to save a life—well, that’s really something.

“It’s giving a lot more meaning to what I’m doing every day,” he says. “When I create function that’s embedded in that jewelry, I have a chance to make a difference.” It’s a sunshine-filled sentiment that is nevertheless sincerely echoed by many makers behind the first wave of wearable tech products.

At Marchon Eyewear, Muller is optimistic about the social value that can come from creating a pair of frames that a wearer will not only put on because she needs to, but also because she looks in the mirror and likes what she sees. But while many in the wearable industry are thinking big about what it could all mean for humanity and the future, Muller has a specific, more immediate aim.

“Really our end goal is about wellness and being able to enrich and personalize traditional medicine,” she says.

Consider that donning glasses is typically a lengthy proposition in one’s life. For Muller, it’s an accessory she’s worn every day for the last 15 years. Just think, she says from the innovation lab in New York’s Garment District, all those years, all the information her body could reveal about itself and what it could mean.

Says Muller: “I’m looking at the moon shot. If we could be adding five years to someone’s lifespan, that’s really the goal.”

To read Flex President of Innovation and New Ventures Jeannine Sargent's thoughts on the future of high tech fashion, see her Q&A. For more on wearable tech, read Vita Fede designer Cynthia Sakai's ideas on merging fashion and technology.