I Haven’t A Single Smart Thing to Wear!

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I Haven’t A Single Smart Thing to Wear!

By Susan Nichols - 09/04/2015

It won’t be long now before that phrase becomes commonplace. Have you noticed how quickly the buzz around wearables is escalating? While researchers have of course been busy behind the scenes for some years, we have seemingly now arrived in a new reality wherein what was once considered futuristic simply is.

Among predictions, a reasonable average is that 50 billion devices will be connected by 2020. If the Internet of Things (IoT) means I can stop worrying about my teenage daughter burning through my data, then I’m all in! Oh, if only she could tap her sleeve to get free wireless…and email her homework assignment and text me that she’s out of almond milk.

We see smart watches and Fitbit and related products galore, but experts say the real gold is in apparel. In fact, last year, Gartner said that smart clothing has the fastest growth potential in wearables, predicting that sales potentially could rise to about $4.97 billion in 2020 from about $1 million in 2013. (A few market glitches including production obstacles and patent issues have Gartner now saying 2017 is more likely to be the breakout year and thus these numbers may be a bit high, but still….)

It’s true that initial applications have focused on sensor-infused athletic wear designed to provide biometric data — think Ralph Lauren’s recent Polotech™ smart shirt debut at the U.S. Open (and RL is one of the companies facing a patent issue) but that only proves  “non-sports”  brands can get in on the game, not to mention there are opportunities beyond sports. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, David Lauren said:  “We are setting up divisions within Ralph Lauren to focus on developing all kinds of products across all of our brands.”

While attending Sourcing at MAGIC last month, I sat in on several wearables seminars, and there also was a technology exhibit highlighting advancements, with DuPont as a sponsor showcasing its stretchable electronic inks.

A common refrain at the show and elsewhere is that smart fashion could become one of the biggest disrupters this industry has seen — and be sure of this: It will happen with us or without us.

Sandra Lopez, director of strategic alliance for fashion, Intel, says her firm is working to enable ecosystems to support the growth, noting that for something to be truly wearable, it has to align with fabric, design, sourcing, etc. “We think there is a massive opportunity for your industry … and we want to partner,” she said.

“Silicon Valley is about the technology integration,” Lopez added.“Oftentimes the fashion industry is so hesitant. But technology has always been part of fabric. The next revolution is, how do you take technology into fabric?” (Indeed, Intel has an innovation group collaborating with universities and other firms on the development of fabric with invisible technology.)

The U.S. Department of Commerce is paying close attention as well. Joshua Teitelbaum, deputy assistant secretary for Textiles, Consumer Goods & Materials, says the department is exploring technical barriers to overcome; policy issues (how could design and manufacturing in the United States be encouraged?); performance issues; and data concerns regarding ownership, privacy, security, etc.

No doubt the immediate opportunities that come to mind are in fitness enhancements, medical applications and defense and public safety, but the sky
is really the limit in terms of creativity. As one Sourcing at MAGIC speaker suggested: What if you walked by your favorite store and your loyalty points were automatically activated?

How to get started in this brave new world? Intel’s Lopez says to succeed a company must have technology as a strategic imperative, and she advises having a strong executive sponsor, coupled with partners and numerous contained pilots. Smart advice for a newly smart fashion industry.

Susan S. Nichols is publisher of Apparel.
She can be reached at [email protected]

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