Comment counts: Fashion must lead technology in the wearables space

The next generation of designers will be the ones who bring wearable technology to the fore, writes Tito Chowdhury of FashioNXT, but we have work to do to help get them there.

wearables

The Apple Watch featuring the Hermès strap is one example of technology and fashion working together, but it didn’t go far enough, says Tito Chowdhury

Up until last year, much of the personal technology industry was holding its breath for the Apple Watch to open up the wearables ecosystem. Perhaps predictably, it failed. Sales of this “me too” product remain significantly below market projection for an Apple device, app development has been weak, but most importantly, the rectangular computer-on-the-wrist look, despite some high-fashion brand collaborations, are fundamentally uninspiring to many.

As a result, the industry is spinning on its head after hitting this huge wall. The name of that wall is the human body, and importantly, the human psyche of what we’ll put on them: fashion.

Technology and fashion, anthropologically, are two very different animals; so are technologists and fashion designers. Technology thrives on mass adoption and scale-ability; fashion thrives on exclusivity and aspiration. Fashion designers have been fine-tuning their craft for tens of thousands of years, technologists barely a hundred or two (and for personal technology that time period is just a few decades). When it comes to what people desire, fashion designers have got it down; technologists often don’t deal with people at all.

Therefore, when it comes to wearable technology, fashion has to take the lead.

But why is it this simple one liner isn’t getting put into practice? The answer lies in the aforementioned anthropological reason – old habit dies hard, or should I say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Technology companies are still making billions through existing business practices and from enterprise clients, making it less motivating for them to go through the steep learning curve of making the necessary changes for the consumer. The old guard of computing technologists from the PC/Laptop era, or of late industrial designers of the cellphone era, aren’t going to concede their leadership positions to the newcomers from the fashion industry unless they have to.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than with Apple, which was the most proactive in hiring high profile fashion influencers, including former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. Yet, when Apple sponsored the biggest technology-inspired event to date by the fashion industry, the 2016 MET Gala for the Costume Institute’s Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, exhibition, Apple put industrial design-era Sir Jonny Ives front and centre, not Ahrendts. Yes, Ives is the design lead, and Ahrendts is retail, but what face of Apple would the fashion industry likely get more inspired by? It’s an obvious choice, as even pointed out by Vanessa Friedman at The New York Times.

Other major companies trying to participate in the wearables world are truthfully still barely dipping their toes, rather than plunging into it. And the fashion industry doesn’t reward those who don’t take a leap of faith.

So what’s to be done? Wearable technology has to create a paradigm shift in the qualitative difference it brings to clothing, and it will require a fundamentally different thought process of the designers of the clothing to materialise such vision. In short, the change has to be lead not by technology, but by fashion.

This will require current leaders in the fashion-technology space to get in the trenches and work with the next generation of designers; enabling them to flourish with the art of the possible. At FashioNXT, we started such a program three years ago in collaboration with numerous leaders in that industry. Intel’s venture lead Mark Francis, Samsung’s design lead Howard Nuk, Nike’s global design director Matt Rhoades, and Digital Trends’ executive editor Jeremy Kaplan, all joined hands with us to launch a wearable tech fashion competition.

The aim of FashioNXT is to bring technology to the attention of fashion influencers, providing the critical audience and critique that wearable technology needs. One success story is Q Bracelets, an iPhone-charging piece of jewellery that was a finalist in 2014, and has continued on to have successful market adoption since. In 2015, the competition saw further excitement from the industry as Google Wearable’s creative director Shiho Fukuhara joined the panel, and submissions to the competition skyrocketed – from 11 countries across four continents. This year’s competition is still open for designers and wearable brands to apply until September 8, 2016.

The fact of the matter is, people will be wearing smart clothing and accessories as the norm, not by exception, in the future. What we can do in the meantime, is help shape what that landscape looks like by connecting the dots between relevant parties.

Tito Chowdhury is an Intel engineer turned fashion experience executive who runs FashioNXT, a platform that creates access to fashion experience for the world in innovative ways. Its annual fashion show documenting what’s next in the industry, runs from October 5-8, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. 

Comment Counts is a series of opinion pieces from experts within the industry. Do you have something to say? Get in touch via info@fashionandmash.com.