At the end of August, on a Sunday afternoon, I finally cracked open the September issue of Vogue. For those who don’t know, the September issue is a 904-page behemoth that serves as the fashion almanac and road map for fall and spring. Half an hour into methodically flipping through the glossy pages, I stopped. Nestled awkwardly in between a gold Cartier and Monica Rich Kosann charm bracelet was the Nike FuelBand photographed on a perfectly manicured hand. The words "rubberized fitness tracker" and "A-list's chicest accessory" are written in the same sentence.
For the past 8 years, my tongue-in-cheek answer to the quotidian question: “When will wearables go mainstream?” has either been "When wearables stop looking like costumes from Tron." or "When they debut in the September issue." So here we are.
The New Hot Neighborhood: Your Wrist
In this past year alone, we've seen the launch of a handful of wearable devices to track everything from our steps, calories, heart rate, posture, sleep and even stress. The competition for the limited real estate on our wrists is fierce. Competing products such as the Pebble and Sony Smart watch (and most recently Qualcomm announced the Qualcomm TOQ, launched at Uplinq) are being developed by individual inventors and large corporations alike. And just like the fashion industry, these wearable devices are so hot and on-trend that they are already being shamelessly knocked off; for example, the Chinese company Codoon's carbon copy of the Jawbone Up.
Not surprisingly, the Nike FuelBand and Jawbone Up have been photographed gracing the wrists of tennis super-star Serena Williams and health-conscious actress Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively. For those in the know, wearing an activity tracker signifies to others your techno-spiritual bent toward a path of self-awareness. In other words, the novelty of self-tracking touches on a fundamental human desire to understand and better ourselves.
The smart watch is the next wearable-tech trend vying to steal the spotlight from activity trackers—and perhaps even make them obsolete.
Unlike activity trackers, wristwatches have a rich heritage and are important signifiers for status. Particularly for men, the wristwatch you wear tells more about who you are and who you want to become than your fancy Italian shoes.
Replacing the Rolex
So knowing that, it’s hard to imagine the current smart watches (many of which are visually similar) replacing a beautiful, meticulously hand-crafted timepiece. A Timex, Casio or Rolex can be spotted from across the room. Without any distinction in craftsmanship or a brand's voice, products will be competing on features alone or, more likely, which smart watch becomes the most desirable platform for application development. Pebble's SDK, appropriately called the Pebblekit, will help spur the development of a rich ecosystem of apps for the smart watch. With its sports API, enabling the development of GPS-enabled fitness apps, Pebble may give fitness watch companies like Garmin a run for their money. Qualcomm likewise plans to open up APIs as the category develops.
Like the garments we wear, we want our devices to reflect who we are. As a result, a billion dollar market for accessories has surfaced to meet the needs for individuals to customize their gadgets. Smart watches too will fundamentally need to have this expressive quality that goes beyond a choice of a pink or turquoise colored band.
Through the Looking Glass
Perhaps the most hyped and criticized wearable technology is the Google Glass. In 2012, Glass made a fashionable debut at the Diane von Furstenberg runway show. Since then, Google has been emphatically recruiting the glitterati to embrace Glass. Prominent well-heeled forces like Nina Garcia, creative director of Marie Claire magazine, sneered at glass this year at SXSW, claiming she may consider wearing glass if Tom Ford would design a pair. It now appears that Garcia has had a change of heart and has announced that she will now be wearing Glass during New York Fashion Week. Even Anna Wintour has been courted, giving Google Glass a 12-page spread in the aforementioned issue of Vogue, depicting Glass in a dystopian new world with lifeless models looking off into the distant barren landscape. Are the fears of a technological panopticon overshadowing the potential good of Glass? Regardless of how you interpret the piece, clearly the fashion world is paying close attention to what is taking place in wearable technology.
As the fashion and technology industries begin to compete for the finite real estate of our body, the two seemingly disparate cultures must co-evolve together and evolve each other. A common vocabulary and value system must be forged along with authentic relationships and collaborations that go beyond marketing tactics.
We Are What We Wear
The technology industry must begin to appreciate that fashion is both material and immaterial. Fashion is loaded with signifiers that help us communicate who we are today but also we want to become tomorrow. It is this aspirational quality of fashion that is incredibly powerful, tapping into an emotional and vulnerable part of ourselves.
New technologies offer fashion designers the freedom to create clothing and shape silhouettes that couldn't have been made in the past. Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen uses 3D-printing technologies to print intricately-detailed architectural garments. Haute-tech fashion house Cute Circuit crafts hand-pleated silk chiffon party gowns with programmable illumination. While Swedish company Hövding’s innovation is to use technology to make the wearable—in this case a cycling helmet—invisible.
While we are still years away from Hussein Chalyan's shape-shifting dresses or Van Herpen’s laser-sintered couture, wearable technology has unarguably entered the mainstream and our culture's consciousness. And technology is disrupting fashion's role in our everyday life. Our future wardrobes will not only be better at protecting us, but will also provide us with more information, and ultimately insight, about our own bodies and behaviors to better understand who we are and the world we live in.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.