Wearable technology has yet to prove itself as a fashion practice. With little to no examples to name of successful wearables on the apparel market, it’s safe to say wearable technology is still the odd one out in our fashion industry. If it will ever be able to fit it our apparel market remains the question, and my hope is it never will. Here’s some things I learned from working in a wearable tech design studio.
It’s exactly the reasons of it’s inability to ‘succeed’, that makes wearable technology even more innovative than meets the eye. Not being able to participate in the existing fashion industry, is forcing wearable tech designers to reinvent all the aspects of what it means to be a fashion designer. Looking beyond the outspoken aesthetics of the nice fashion practice, we find a complete different work structure, one that is more sustainable and is far more ethical than our current, troubled fashion industry.
Our current fashion industry, is the second most polluting system in the world. Countless designers journalists, human right organisations and environmental organisations have raised awareness to how our current fashion system results in over-exhausted resources and polluting overproduction. It seems to have no forceful effect on the industry, leaving our fashion system unchanged and ignorant and unable to adapt to the future.
The first reason why wearable technology ‘fails’ or better said, succeeds at not participating in the fashion system is it’s inability to keep up speed. The design process of wearables requires collaboration between different experts from various disciplines. It doesn’t only take a few fittings to perfect a design, but it requires thorough testing and you’re faced with more complicated challenges in material choices and assembly. Needless to say, the design process is longer in comparison to the making of a normal garment. Producing two collections, or even more per year is an unachievable goal for wearable technology designers.
In broader perspective, this means wearable tech designers do not fit the revenue model they aimed to follow to build their label. Though, while working on wearable tech collections, a new type of revenue introduces itself to the designer. In example I collaborated on the creation of the Wearable Solar Collection, by Pauline van Dongen. The creation of one singular design would take months to complete. Solar experts collaborated on improving their solar strips for textile application. While the designers collaborated with engineers to create flexible and stretchable circuits, testing and researching different materials and constructions. Many different experts from design and technology background would be involved to make that one perfect end product.
Unforeseen effect of this was, the making proces itself became a product. Completing a tech driven, material innovative design proces, was a process many others wanted to know about. The involved experts started to get invited to do lectures, workshops, contribute to educational publications, feature in tv shows and documentaries, exhibit during seminars or in innovation exhibitions. The knowledge of the making proces became the main revenu of the design. And so, we redefined what is meant to make a collection. A collection came to mean “a series of material explorations, experiments, interviews, user tests and a finished piece that demonstrate a design innovation”.
The second reason why wearable technology fails or better said, succeeds at not participating in the fashion system, is it’s failing success of creating products that speak to the masses. Through it’s functionalities the aesthetics of wearable technology are ofter too outspoken to meet the taste of most of us. Also as the design is aimed to be worn by certain type of wearer or in a specific moment, it often only limited social context for it to be accepted and perceived as ‘normal’. With it’s specific intentions and look, the product’s is not suited to be sold to a mass audience.
In example, one of the projects I collaborated on, working in wearable tech, is the development of Vigour; a wearable for elderly people. Vigour is a cardigan that integrates sensors that track body movement during rehabilitation processes, designed by Martijn ten Bhömer, Pauline van Dongen and Oscar Tomico. It enables geriatric patients, physiotherapists and family to gain more insight in the exercises and progress of the wearer and supports active ageing. Having a very specific user and thus consumer in mind. The product does not suit the fashion industry.
From a different perspective, it succeeded in finding a new type of consumer. What happened after the launch of the design, was that it wasn’t the aimed at consumer of elderly but the health organisations working with elderly, wanted to buy the product. It uncovered a new market for commercial opportunities for the design label. It wasn’t necessarily a fashion market, but a cross-over market in between fashion and health. A market that doesn’t thrive on a trend logic system, but on social engagement and health improvement.
So while the industry was focused on the failing attempts of wearable technology to bring wearables to the masses as a fashion product, we missed its actual biggest innovation. It’s innovating our understanding of what a collection can be, and how it doesn’t have to be an surplus of garments. It’s learning us there is a different market to pursue when you slow down your design proces. A market that invest in your knowledge other than your material commodities. It’s showing us a scenario for a more sustainable understanding of the fashion collection. Wearable tech designers as well are renewing their label’s target market, by creating designs for a specific user instead of a mass audience. They implement a design strategy that speaks to organisations and industries that formerly did not have acquaintances in fashion. Organisations, who find added value in their designs for those who need it for reasons beyond a trend-logic and materialistic nature.
To conclude, what the fashion industry can learn from wearable tech designers, is that, it is possible to transform the business structure of fashion labels. There are many more ways for fashion designers to create a successful business and create profit from their work without participating in our fast paced, trend logic, fashion system. We might question the ability of wearable tech designers to innovate our garments, but they are for sure taking the lead in innovating business models in fashion, that are more sustainable and ethical than any other label in the industry.