In wearables, design needs to come before tech, says Levi’s

The wearables industry is expected to double in market value to $27bn+ by 2022, according to CCS Insight. But for Paul Dillinger, VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, consumers will only fully invest in these tech accessories if they look good once turned off.

“We aren’t building a product just for the technology”, he said at a conversation during the Fashinnovation conference in NYC this week. “This has to be a technology integrated with things that you already want to wear because even if the technology isn’t engaging, people still want to wear their Levi’s jean jacket,” he later told TheCurrent Daily.

He was joined on stage by Ivan Poupyrev, Google’s Head of Advanced Technology and Projects, who worked with the denim brand on the original Project Jacquard jacket, which uses a sensor on the cuff to control music, screen phone calls, and even receive notifications from Uber or Lyft. Google famously thought tech-first when it designed its now defunct Google Glass, but it (naturally) believes trial and error is part of the process: “You put the product in the market, learn from mistakes, and do it again.” According to Poupyrev, however, unlike the Glass, there was a strong focus on the physical appearance of the smart jacket, wherein technology came in to simply extend its functions.

Now, instead of creating a product from scratch, Google is focusing on working with established brands in the industry, who can teach the tech giant a thing or two about what fashion customers want. “We realized that if you want to change the nature of apparel, as a connected and intelligent garment, you need to work with someone who has expertise in making apparel,” said Poupyrev. “Not just a prototype, but someone who understands how to scale all the way from the design to the supply chain and marketing. That was a shift  in thinking in the company as well.”

The Levi’s Commuter x Google Jacquard jacket
The Levi’s Commuter x Google Jacquard jacket

Since Levi’s is one of the world’s biggest brands in denim, a partnership with the brand was an important strategic decision. While the classic Levi’s jacket retails at $150 or less, the smart model retails at $350. For Dillinger, customers who chose the premium alternative should expect the technology to continue to evolve with time.

In 2017, six months after it was first introduced to the market, it received a series of updates, such as enabling it to work with Uber and Lyft. Just before Christmas, it added a functionality where the jacket sent the user a pin drop notification in case the owner left it behind. “That was a new value that no one was expecting for it or paid for it,” he said. “That promise of sustained improvement puts the purchase in the context of a lifetime, instead of a moment.”

Just like a smartphone, the jacket keeps improving. But unlike a shiny new iPhone, a Levi’s jacket customer is looking for design that is timeless and not forced into obsolescence. “You can talk about improvements of a phone, but eventually that phone won’t be the one you want to have any more. This garment, this jean jacket, stays in perpetuity, so the value will continue to go up”, added Dillinger.

For all its innovation, this is still an early attempt at a mass-market smart denim jacket. But as the technology becomes more deeply integrated into people’s lives, the wearable category may well begin to move beyond its early adopters.

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