Wearable tech that’s fashion forward

From emotion-sensitive couture to customisable smart timepieces, a newly style-centric approach to wearable technology could yet prove its making, as Henry Farrar-Hockley reports

If the continuing miniaturisation of phones, cameras and computers is an inevitability, so too is the convergence of fashion and technology. At their best, both forms are intrinsically personal, outward-facing expressions of choice, attitude and status rooted in an absolute purpose. Furthermore, excepting human augmentation, we simply can’t get any closer to our gadgets than by physically integrating them into our day-to-day garments. In this regard wearable technology makes perfect sense.

New York research firm CB Insights estimates that investors have injected more than $1.4 billion into wearables startups over the past five years, with Cowen investment bank forecasting that the wearables category as a whole could attain a market value of $170 billion by 2020.

Yet the much vaunted new wave of wearable tech has yet to make as significant an impact as the touchscreen portables that became so ubiquitous after the late Steve Jobs of Apple promised “the internet in your pocket”.

While 70 per cent of consumers are already aware of wearables, only one in six currently use wearable technology, according to international consumer research company Nielsen’s latest Connected Life Report, while a study published earlier this month by L2Think Tank and Intel says only 2 per cent of us actually own a wearable device.

Is a lack of considered aesthetics really to blame for this shortfall? Perhaps. Nielsen’s report claims 62 per cent of those canvassed said they’d like to see wearables available in forms other than wristbands and watches, while 53 per cent preferred the idea of wearable devices that resemble jewellery.

NO STONE UNTURNED

Recent advances in connected technology are setting the tone for a more engaging raft of tech-enabled fashion accessories that promise a rewarding balance of form and function.

Kovert Designs is a British startup set to retail a new collection of smart jewellery seasonally from 2015. Each pendant, ring and bracelet features a modular design that allows a small degree of customisation, while the accompanying app allows you to set your chosen piece to vibrate solely when you receive communications from a pre-determined group of contacts, thus ensuring you’re only disturbed by priority e-mails or messages. It’s not just an item of jewellery then, but a digital filter that could go some way to liberating us from our portable screens.

“From an overall perspective it’s about… resetting the balance between our physical and digital lives,” says Kovert Design’s chief executive Kate Unsworth. “From a high-fashion perspective, we’re looking forward to living in a world where technology is more discreet. We want it to be like oxygen. Of course it’s hugely important and ever present, but it should be invisible too.”

The company is just one of many new facets entering the smart jewellery sector along with the likes of Ringly, Misfit and Q Designs. Together they promise a multitude of connected services from biometric data capture to charging phones and tablets on the move, and exhibit a design language that’s more readily compatible with our clothing than conventional sports fitness bands.

The Life Tech jacket has a removable shoulder-mounted wind turbine for charging electronic devices

When the long-awaited Apple Watch was announced this month, it represented a sea change for the Cupertino company. Over the past year, Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been raiding the fashion industry for some of its biggest influencers, employing Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts, Yves Saint Laurent chief Paul Deneve and Nike design director Ben Shaffer, along with product designer Marc Newson.

The result of these acquisitions has been an unusual new design model for the Apple Watch, allowing its customers the luxury of choice for the very first time, with a comprehensive range of sizes, finishes and materials from a basic stainless steel and silicon timepiece through to a lavish 18-karat rose-gold model with a matching clasp. Consumers will have to wait until early-2015 to see exactly how much this vision will cost, although a ballpark starting price of $349 has been set.

MATERIAL GAINS

The wearable textiles category has seen a much more gradual genesis thanks to the inherent difficulties of marrying circuit boards and power supplies with lightweight fabrics, but with the introduction of more adaptable fuel sources, retail-ready fashion is slowly beginning to materialise.

San Francisco-based designer Kristin Neidlinger is the inventor of the Sensoree GER Mood Sweater, a futuristic roll-neck that’s available for pre-order. Using four hand-mounted sensors that record galvanic skin response it is able to gauge your emotions before displaying them as one of five bold colours using LEDs embedded in the collar.

In the performance apparel sector, meanwhile, a collaboration between Britain’s Seymourpowell and Korean active-wear brand Kolon Sport has created the Life Tech jacket, which features the world’s first conductive polymer heating system that provides seven hours of 40 to 50-degree insulation. It also has a removable shoulder-mounted wind turbine for charging electronic devices.

“The Life Tech jacket is pioneering in its relevant and effective use of wearables,” says Seymourpowell associate design director Ian Whatley. “[It] uses the latest technology to meet the most essential of human needs, such as shelter, warmth and communication, in ways that conventional garments simply can’t achieve.”

Yet the most promising breakthrough in the confluence of wearable technology and fashion occurred at the outset of this year’s US Open Tennis Championships, where tournament outfitter Ralph Lauren announced the creation of its inaugural Polo Tech shirt.

A form-fitting athletic top developed in conjunction with Montreal-based OMsignal, it contains conductive silver-coated fibres woven into its antimicrobial, moisture-wicking material that accurately measure everything from heart beat to respiration, stress levels and the wearer’s energy output, relaying the metrics via Bluetooth to a synced smartphone. It is intended as the first in a line of technology-enhanced athletic and workaday dress shirts to be rolled out by the global fashion brand over the next year. Unfashionable wearables may just have been aced.