Connected Couture

  • Model Karolina Kurkova wears a smart gown, created by IBM and Marchesa, to the opening of “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” at the Met Museum's Costume Institute Benefit Gala in New York. Photograph by EVAN AGOSTINI © AP Images/Invision
  • The Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket With Jacquard by Google uses conductive fabric to send instructions to a paired smartphone to perform tasks like taking a call by double-tapping one’s wrist. Photographs courtesy Google and Levi’s
  • The Nadi X yoga pants from Wearable X have woven-in technology, with sensors around the hips, knees and ankles that provide gentle vibrations for easier yoga. Photograph courtesy Billie Whitehouse (Wearable X)

With technology becoming smaller, smarter and more integrated, wearing it as apparel and accessories has become the hottest fashion trend.

A couture gown that changes color based on the mood of the people viewing it. A diaper that uses a sensor to tell parents when it needs to be changed. Once the stuff of science fiction novels, these products are now a reality. A rush of new technologies has made the fashion industry the hottest hub of tech gadgets around.

According to Forbes magazine, as of 2016, 10 billion pieces of fashion, including apparel, accessories and footwear, were being individually digitally connected.

Take, for instance, the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket With Jacquard by Google. The technology is woven into its sleeve. The conductive fabric sends instructions to a paired smartphone to perform tasks like pausing a song or taking a call by double-tapping one’s wrist. The jacket can be washed up to 10 times, and costs $350 (approximately Rs. 22,500). Indian shoppers can purchase this online on the Levi’s website.

“What’s great about the Jacquard jacket is that they [Levi’s and Google] have been able to manufacture the garment so that it is widely available,” says Julie Sylvester, a producer of the Sports and FitnessTech Summit and FashionWare show at Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the world’s largest technology trade shows. “A company called Wearable X created a jacket [NAVIGATE] that had a GPS [Global Positioning System] function similar to Jacquard that gave you directions by sending haptic signals from sensors that connected to an app on your phone.”

Rest Devices, a Boston-based start-up, offers smart clothing for babies. Its Mimo Baby Sleep Tracker onesie includes sensors to measure a baby’s respiration, pressure, moisture and temperature. It also tracks whether the baby is asleep and its sleeping position. The data is ultimately transmitted into the cloud, from where it can be viewed on any mobile device by parents or caregivers.

Connected fashion also reaches up to the highest echelons of designer couture.

“Intel has supported many designers—from CuteCircuit to Anouk Wipprecht’s robotic Spider Dress,” says Sylvester. While CuteCircuit creates fashion wearable technology collections, designer and innovator Wipprecht works in the field of “FashionTech,” combining fashion, technology and interaction design. “IBM Watson [artificial intelligence platform] was featured at the [2016] Met Gala with a dress that reacted to online conversations about it in real-time throughout the night. The dress tapped into Twitter and changed color according to five moods,” she adds.

IBM reached out to couture design house Marchesa to create the dress just five weeks before the gala, the fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which is considered one of America’s most important annual fashion events. It passed tweets about the dress through a Watson tone analyzer and, then, a computer in the gown’s waist changed the dress’ color using light-emitting diode (LED) lights, based on live reactions to it.

In addition, California-based packaging materials leader Avery Dennison has partnered with EVRYTHNG, an Internet of Things smart products platform, to work with partners, including Nike, to make digitally-connected products. Consumers will be able to connect with these products on their smartphones in unprecedented ways. For example, users will be able to locate a missing sock using their phone, ask their silk blouse how to wash it or repurchase a pair of slacks.

Luxury handbag designer Rebecca Minkoff too has partnered with Avery Dennison and EVRYTHNG to launch a smart bag that allows customers to receive style recommendations, get private styling sessions and shop online. Minkoff has long embraced technology. Her flagship store in New York City is famed for its connected wall and interactive mirrors. She even offers handbags which include smartphone chargers. 

Technologically enhanced wearables are hardly a new concept. In the 17th century, a Chinese abacus ring enabled people to perform math literally on their fingers. “The nice thing was it didn’t have problems with battery life,” says Sylvester.

Rudimentary watches were beginning to be worn around the same time in Europe, and quickly became both a useful tool and an indicator of one’s luxurious lifestyle, just like with today’s Apple Watch.

“In the last 10 years, with chips getting smaller, there has been a surge in ‘wearable’ innovation. The most viable options are devices that don’t look like technology, but could be something that you might normally wear that just happens to have technology in it,” says Sylvester.

The current demand is for “devices that are attractive, have longer battery life and aren’t bulky or heavy to carry around or wear. Washability and longer battery life excite consumers. The electronics that are built into clothing themselves make washing difficult and complicated. But, I believe, there are a few companies working on solutions to this problem,” she adds.

“As for battery life, as sophisticated as our wearable devices and clothing are, most of them still need some kind of battery to function,” says Sylvester. “The advances in battery technology have been slow, but there has been a renewed focus on finding new ways and new materials to keep devices working—renewable and kinetic energy as well as just finding different materials for the batteries themselves, making them less bulky and more stable.”

Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.