Why are there so few business ventures designed to combine fashion and wearable devices? Some experts point to technological issues, while other commentators argue that the sector as a whole is lagging behind in the innovation stakes.

Fashion and Wearable Technology: Elusive Synergies?

A report compiled following a recent survey among US consumers, entitled US Vertical Insights: Consumer Electronics: Smart Wearable Devices’, by market research company NPD Group, revealed that 56% of the women and 50% of the men polled believe that the future of information and communication technology lies in wearable devices. However, a majority of the respondents also indicated that they were not prepared to change the way they dress in order to adapt to wearables, which are often heavy and not always very attractive.

So it seems that wearables need to evolve somewhat if they are to fit in with fashion. And while there are high expectations of synergies between fashion and technology, many obstacles remain. Although there have been some notable attempts to incorporate wearables into fashionable clothing – e.g. Intel’s ’Spider Dress’, the ‘Twitter dress’ by London-based fashion company CuteCircuit, the smart T-shirt  designed by Austrian startup Utope, among other projects – very few manage to turn their inventions into a viable business.

Intel and designer Anouk Wipprecht have together created the Spider Dress, which is equipped with sensors and robotic arms

Technological requirements

The first obstacles when trying to embed clothing items with electronics are all about the requirements and limits of technology. Demands from designers and end-consumers may block the implementation of certain solutions. The simple fact is that clothing must be able to get wet and be washed at a high temperature, without the risk of electrocuting its wearer. But connected objects tend not to conform to these requirements. In addition, these devices are powered by batteries, which are difficult to incorporate into clothing. Progress is being made, but it is still difficult to find a light, flexible, washable battery at an affordable price.

Some experts argue that the solution lies in a discrete unit that can be taken out and re-inserted whenever the needs arises: this is the idea behind Intel’s small connected button which it has named Curie. Other providers, including Dephotex, (Development of Photovoltaic Textiles), a young company that emerged from an EU-supported collaborative research project, is working to produce textiles with photovoltaic properties as a way of getting round the battery problem.

Elsewhere, research seems to have got rather bogged down, Bradley Quinn, an expert in the use of new technologies in the fashion world, explained in an interview with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. ‟There are advances in nanotechnology, but these are being funded much more by aerospace and medical health, so it’s slower to come into the clothing industry,” he pointed out.

Does the fashion sector have difficulty with tech innovation?

If we look at all the innovative projects aiming to forge links between wearable electronics and fashionable apparel, all the products on offer appear to be designed for niche markets. There is an EU-funded project called the Wearable Health Care System (WEALTHY), which is aimed at people with heart conditions, the ‘Twitter dress’ is clearly targeted at well-off consumers or intended for use at ad hoc events. These initiatives never seem to make it as far as the mass ready-to-wear market. Does this mean that the fashion sector is afraid of embracing innovation wholeheartedly? This view was put forward in a report from the Swedish School of Textiles, entitled ‘Smart Textiles and Wearable Technology – A study of smart textiles in fashion and clothing’. Its author, Lena Berglin, feels that there is a gap between the efforts being expended on research into new technologies for clothing and any desire for a real commercial venture. Considerable effort goes to niche solutions and one-off events, but fashion houses and businesses nevertheless appear hesitant about getting into mass market connected clothing.

The range of ventures linking fashion and wearable electronics listed by Lena Berglin: medical applications top the list.

Meanwhile it is mainly the health and well-being sectors that are driving tech innovation in clothing. Wearable technology designed for the healthcare and sports fields leads the way among the products listed by Berglin in her report. So it remains to be seen whether tech innovation in the fashion business will follow hard on the heels of the progress being made in wearable electronics in the fitness and healthcare industries.


By Guillaume Scifo