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Wearable Tech Needs Fashion Fix to Survive and Thrive

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It’s time to make wearable technology that’s worth wearing.

That was the main message out of Wednesday morning’s plenaries at Wear Conference (May 24-26) in Boston, as speakers from Manufacture NY, Third Wave Fashion, CuteCircuit and OmSignal took to the floor to discuss the challenges and opportunities of integrating fashion and technology.

“The fashion and technology industries are at odds with each other,” declared Dr. Amanda Parkes, chief of technology and research at Brooklyn-based Manufacture NY, noting that emotion has a lot to do with the disconnect between the two. “In fashion, emotion is the killer application. [Most wearables on the market are] not tapping into all of the things that are amazing about why people want to wear fashion and make fashion. It’s about expression, identity and desire and we need to be thinking more holistically across these.”

Liza Kindred, founder of Third Wave Fashion, a global fashion think tank, echoed this sentiment: “There’s not a shared language between fashion and technology.”

She added, “We have this obsession with the future but our idea of what the future will look like hasn’t changed in forever.”

Similarly, the idea of what a wearable should look like has mostly stayed the same, too, she said: screens, garments that light up, gadgets that want to be interacted with constantly.

“No more tech for tech’s sake,” she pleaded. “In order for mass adoption, for wearable technology to work, the technology has to disappear.”

She called for less novelty, more of a focus on creating things with actual utility (like fabrics that charge, that prevent mosquito bites) and built to last.

“Make something that the world actually needs,” she said.

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“You have to nail fashion before technology,” Stéphane Marceau, co-founder and chief executive of OmSignal, agreed, highlighting that while the majority of wearable technology is consumed by women, it’s offered in a male aesthetic. That’s why OmSignal interviewed a wealth of active women when it was developing its first biometric-tracking smart bra, the OmBra.

“Women think very differently about their training, workouts and fitness than men do,” Marceau said, adding, “It took us 1,683 prototypes to get to the point where we started to work with the manufacturer on design for manufacture. After each prototype we tested every layer of the sandwich, we interviewed consumers, we got feedback on aesthetics. It was a very programmatic way of developing the product.”

The result: a maximum-support, high performance, adjustable smart bra that wirelessly records real-time biometrics like heart rate and calories burned and deliver the data straight to the user’s phone.

According to Parkes, that kind of approach to development is paramount to the future of wearable technology.

“If you are developing a product that is apparel-integrated, start right way with the apparel development from the beginning,” she stressed.

Marceau continued, “We do think the hardware is going to disappear eventually and it’s going to be all apparel.”

But there’s more to fashionable wearable tech than meets the eye.

Francesca Rosella, creative director of interactive clothing company CuteCircuit, pointed out that it could help the fashion industry become more sustainable.

“We want to change the eco system not only of how the garment is made but how it’s consumed,” she said, adding, “What if the consumer could buy one garment and download digital files that could change the garment’s appearance? It’s not about selling one wearable that gives you one experience, it’s more about the eco system and platform so you can have a number of garments in one.”