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How PVH is Preparing for the Future of Connected Apparel

By 2020, it’s estimated that 20 percent of all apparel will be electronically enabled. Given the fact that deadline is less than four years away and next to nothing people wear today could be considered “connected,” it seems impossible.

PVH Corp., the USA’s second largest importer of apparel, is doing its part to make that dream a reality.

The company, whose brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Izod and Speedo, recently formed Innovation Next, a division that’s committed to inciting advances at PVH. Barry McGeough, group vice president at Innovation Next, discussed connected apparel and wearable technology earlier this month during an episode of the podcast, 2 Babes Talk Supply Chain.

“Innovation departments can typically be think tanks or, worst case scenario, they’re where good ideas go to die,” McGeough explained. “We’re looking to be the most productive innovation department in the industry. We’re directly tied to the businesses. There are short-term goals and also long-term desires which makes us very topical, very connected to revenue, profit and driving ideas into the brands that give them their brand differentiation.”

When most people today hear the phrase “wearable technology,” they think of fitness trackers, but that doesn’t mean that a fifth of the world’s clothing will be tracking heart rates and counting steps by 2020. While there’s a clear desire to track the quantifiable self (sales of smart wearables globally are expected to balloon from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $19 billion in 2018), future innovations won’t necessarily be tied to fitness.

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“When you think about it, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to go to the gym every day, that would be an hour a day. What happens the other 23?” McGeough said.

Some start-ups have already looked past the fitness-tracking wristwear. Ringly, for instance, is a smartphone-linked ring that can light up or vibrate when the wearer receives a text or call, while Bellabeat Leaf can be worn as a bracelet, necklace or clip and can prompt someone to meditate when it senses stress levels rising.

“What moves from science-fiction to science fact is changing so quickly we can’t even believe it,” McGeough continued. “So the things that we talk about and think about sound fantastical but I’ve just listed two start-ups that are going to market now, shipping before Christmas, where you’re tracking your mood or using haptic technology to be able to interface with the things in your life that have nothing to do with working out.”

While McGeough didn’t reveal exactly what his team at PVH is working on, he did mention fiber innovation. That’s why the company joined the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA).

“That’s a very newly formed group, it’s being run out of MIT, but it also has a $15 million investment from the Department of Defense—and it’s also working with 32 other universities—and what they’ve envisioned, and what AFFOA is, is basically a network,” he explained. “It’s a network of people that are not only invested in making sure that fiber does something and of course the Department of Defense has a lot of skin in the game on that one. They want to make sure that people in the military are safe and their apparel does useful things for them in terms of communication or temperature thermoregulation. Those are different requirements than just tracking your heart rate. They need it to be a seamless experience and they need it to be relevant and functional.”

One such innovation could be related to power storage or kinetic power generation, as batteries become less toxic, softer and more flexible. But with the new world of wearables comes a wealth of challenges for the apparel industry, from front-loading investment and R&D to new certifications and manufacturing equipment to margin structures.

“If you think about an iPhone, it’s one SKU and you get millions and millions of sales. So for us, we have tens of thousands of SKUs and hundreds of millions of sales, so we’ll have to think about SKU productivity completely different,” McGeough said. “What’s the ROI when you have a large investment in consumer electronics if you want this to be more than just a marketing stunt?”

At the end of the day, people are expecting clothes to be as smart as their phones and the apparel industry needs to prepare and plan for the inevitability of it.

“There’s a whole ethos in Silicon Valley about failing fast and failing often and it’s something that we’re just learning about now. In the apparel industry, ideas are brought to us on such a regular basis, through vendors and suppliers and partners, we can sort of pick and choose and be as good as we need to be,” he said. “And the problem is that right now with our market being as competitive as it is, and with the change that we see in the market model across the board, we can’t be as good as everyone else. We have to be better.”