At London Fashion Week last fall, Natalie Massenet, Net A Porter’s founder and chair of the British Fashion Council, made a declaration of hope that the fashion industry would adopt digital innovation into the fold. “Fashion and technology are great partners, ” she enthused, before christening London “the most tech-savvy fashion capital in the world.”
It would seem that big-name fashion designers were indeed making their presence seen and heard in the drive toward digital engagement, ever since London Fashion Week was live-streamed online in 2010 and democratized high-end fashion for all. User experience ruled, placing the public on a par with the privileged few that got to sit in the row. Ocean Outdoor collaborated with Hunter so that people could watch the show in various city centers, whilst Topshop and Twitter teamed up to broadcast key trends. Perhaps the most innovative and personalized approach came courtesy of Burberry and Twitter’s partnership, whereby any member of the public could tweet using the hashtag #Tweetcam to receive an individualized photo of the catwalk. Finally, it was possible for masses to partake in the the live hype of fashion shows, as they became more shoppable, watchable and accessible.
For catwalks soundtracked by the beep and buzz of personal communications devices, it would appear that the indomitable rise of digital technologies had conquered the hallowed ground of shiny catwalk spaces. But 2014, it transpired, was not the year of wearable tech that everyone was eagerly anticipating. Despite the electrically charged energy pulsing through the fashion scene, and the rich potential the public awaited, we’re now in a strange place when it comes to wearable tech. It’s no secret that scepticism has long since laced the fashion tech market. Cities like London, replete with digital start-ups and experimental, free-spirited attitudes to fashion, should in theory be ideal spots to cultivate new age intelligent clothing. Instead, we’re still tugging on the hemlines of change like stubborn toddlers, imploring the fashion industry to enhance our lives and connect us better as humans.
Last year, digital fashion pioneer Francis Bitoni acknowledged the teething problems the fashion industry was experiencing, when he claimed that the digital revolution was presenting “the biggest challenge for fashion brands.” The fashion industry had been slow on the uptake, Bitoni warned, but it would have to adapt fast in order to stay abreast of the slew of new developments hitting the sector. “It’s going to mean a shift in core values for many brands, ” he foreshadowed.
But just because fashion and technology remain uncomfortable bedfellows, does it necessarily mean they’re technically incompatible? Many designers form part of the consensus that technology has evolved to a point where it can be considered advanced enough to merge with fashion. In an interview with The Guardian, David Lauren, executive vice-president of Ralph Lauren said that “technology has evolved to a point where it can now be synthesized with clothing…the goal now is to merge it into all kinds of clothing.” But if the time truly is ripe for a new generation of high-end wearables, why haven’t we seen the evidence?
According to Brooke Roberts, a London-based knitwear designer and radiographer, the difficulties experienced by the luxury fashion realm and technology sector to assimilate can be attributed to the fact that they aren’t yet completely compatible.
“The fashion and technology realms aren’t properly integrated at the moment, ” Roberts explains. “Technology is slightly ahead of fashion developments, so until further progress has been made, the two won’t work properly together.”
Roma Vaccaro, editor of Fashionspaceship.com, agrees, adding that the scope of the wearables market must be flexible and susceptible to influence, if any of its inherent potential is to be realized.
“Technology has certainly defined itself as the industry of change over the past 10 to 15 years, but it must collaborate and allow itself to be moulded by fashion’s design know how and fashion using the wonders of technology to take its design to the next level, ” she says.
If fashion and technology are to truly become a harmonious partnership, then aesthetics must take the lead in the design process. London, one example of a urban space bursting with imaginative freedom and creative experimentation, has been relatively slow in recognizing that when it comes to intelligent fashion, and the success of wearable tech per se, style and originality must sit at the top of the agenda.
For too long, the public’s expectations for wearable tech have been met with rudimentary shaped, dowdily decorated garments that look a world away from the futuristic fashion of a new age. But whilst the mainstream fashion industry hasn’t delivered in the style stakes, independent designers have taken up the challenge with aplomb.
Thanks to the foresight and ingenuity of smaller creatives keeping abreast of modern developments, and remaining totally in control of the speed of their progress, overtaking the mainstream industry’s reluctance to synthesize their world with technology has resulted in some amazing creations.
Roberts’ eponymous fashion label was borne out of a moment of inspiration during a day’s work performing a CT scan. Struck by the beautiful patternation and complex texture of the brain, Roberts began to explore whether the images could be translated onto garments. Using a combination of cutting-edge programming and industrial knitting technology, her designs encapsulate the sophistication and beauty to be gained from fusing fashion and technology. Yet it’s the industry’s reluctance to accommodate an unconventional aesthetic that she believes is hindering its development.
“Fashion is an established industry with its own distinct set of aesthetics boundaries, and I think it’s quite difficult at present to introduce technology to that sphere, ” Roberts explains. “There’s a way to go before wearable tech can evolve from its current industrial, digitalized look, to something more non-traditional. We’ve attached a rigid aesthetic to wearable technology, but there’s greater scope for innovation that’s yet to be explored.”
CuteCircuit is one of London’s wearable tech exports that you might just have heard of. The fashion brand began with headquarters in Shoreditch and has grown to become a global leader in interactive fashion. Its forward-thinking haute couture and accessories are the creations of creative director Francesca Rosella and CEO Ryan Genz, whose designs have been featured on the red carpet worldwide (remember Katy Perry’s 2010 Met Ball dress?).
Founded more than a decade ago, CuteCircuit were arguably one of the first brands to successfully merge the worlds of fashion, design and telecommunication, after prioritizing the nature of clothes as tools for self expression. “Garments are the natural interface between the wearer and the environment that surrounds them”, designers Rosella and Genz explain. “Our garments are a second skin that connects us to people and places in a more emotionally engaging manner. The future of fashion is as a dynamic surface for personal expression.”
Other up-and-coming designers, such as structural experiments company CHROMATby Becca McCharen and 3D printed fashion designer Danit Peleg, are testimony to the scale of beauty that can be achieved when technology and science occupy the infrastructure of fashion design. That style hasn’t been compromised at the expense of the latest technology is plain to see from one glance at Peleg’s Instagram, which exhibits finely spun maxi skirts, latticed crop tops, architectural shifts and the most exquisite new-age LBD. These are pieces that you’d proudly pass down to the next generation and could rightly be heralded an heirloom.
Vaccaro believes there’s a world of difference in how “consumers approach something they use as a communication device and something they personally decide to wear on themselves.” If one were looking for an aesthetic representation of the wonders to be achieved from wearable tech, these are the kinds of designers you’d turn to first. As Vaccaro emphasizes, clothes “ultimately make a statement about who you are.”
Designers such as Roberts, Peleg and McCharen prove that careful consideration, meticulous planning and boundless creativity is what’s needed when bridging the gulf that exists between fashion and technology. 3D printing has been around for a while, for instance, but combined with Peleg’s ingenuity, creative vision and painstaking craftsmanship, the designers of tomorrow have shown that there’s no need for the needlessly gimmicky designs of yesteryear.
The truth is that luxury brands have been slow to make technology an integral part of their design process. Whilst some design houses may still be feeling the waters when it come to assimilating new technologies into their traditional fashion methodologies, Vaccaro emphasizes that the success of wearable tech hinges upon “how new technology can be involved in the design stage, before a brand can roll this out in a practical and efficient way.”
Roberts agrees. “Wearable tech needs to stand up both in terms of quality and aesthetic; desirable, beautiful products that enhance your quality of life and provided memorable experiences. At the moment, tech is aligned with gadgetry and is all too often perceived as the go-to for health and fitness enthusiasts, meaning you have to appropriate your behavior to the wearable.”
As we can observe from the ever-growing success of brands such as CuteCircuit, when technology is implemented as a primary consideration in the design process, fashion will fly. This line of thought may be a choice for fashion houses at present, but it will become mandatory before long. “We believe that in the future, functionality will become embedded into our clothes, ” say Rosella and Genz.
As wearable tech continues to press forward, brands will have to start seeing fashion and technology as a package deal, not an either-or situation in which investment and focus is asymmetrically split. The industry must start to take into account fashion lifestyles, as well as the experiences, emotions, needs and desires of its users. The new design talent that has emerged in recent times had shown that positive collaboration between fashion and technology is possible; something that Roberts believes will continue to grow, not just as the wearables market evolves, but also as a necessary means of creative expression for those working in science, tech or engineering industries.
“As the wearable tech market evolves, there’ll be more opportunities arising for collaboration between the worlds of science and the arts, ” she says.
“From what I’ve seen, individuals working in tech are actively looking for opportunities to creatively express themselves. We’ll also see more discussion in education around the ways science and the arts can be meshed together for millennials.”
The future of wearable tech lies in breaking free from the traditional confines that separated fashion and technology; namely an outdated structure unaccustomed to accommodating both sectors. Brands must continue to remain focused on user experience as a point of developed interaction with its consumer; but so too remain invested in that consumer’s life, long after a tweet is sent, or a video is streamed. The wearable tech audience in-waiting want beauty, storytelling, and a sustained relationship with their clothing. The age where original design and innovative technology can go hand-in-hand is upon us; but designers must be willing to embrace it.