With the impending arrival of the much-hyped Apple Watch this spring, wearable technology is increasingly infiltrating the mainstream. But even if you're not convinced that there's a role for tech in your personal style, there's no question that it's starting to colour fashion in myriad ways. Bradley Quinn is a British journalist, author and fashion strategist who spends a lot of time pondering fashion's future and advising brands on how to prepare for what's ahead. Author of several books, including Techno Fashion and Textile Futures: Fashion, Design and Technology, Quinn was in Toronto recently to speak at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where I sat down with him to talk about some of the advances that may be in store for forward-thinking fashionistas.
There's so much looking to the past in fashion these days that one might wonder if we're as technologically advanced as we ought to be.
Technologically, it's never looked better. For many years, I've been hearing people say that wearable tech's time has come. But now I really believe that it has, and it's not just me saying it. The media's starting to say it, and manufacturers are backing it up. You've got research labs and academic institutions that are really engineering the way for it, and you've got some very pioneering and visionary people who are getting right into the centre of the mix and starting to shake things up.
But are the masses really getting on board?
Well, "wristable" mobile devices and the sort of biometric technology that we see coming out in sportswear now are not really something that would appeal to the masses anyway. So in fashion terms, we think of those people wearing them as early adopters – the people who are more likely to wear the cutting-edge clothing, the people who are first to get into the shops and buy the radical styles that come out. Those people are very important to brands, because they get it first, so they're often trendsetters. They're normally happier to spend a bit more money and where they go, the rest of the industry will follow.
But in terms of technological innovations in fabrication, I would have thought we'd be further ahead. Why do we still have to send clothes to the dry cleaners? Why do clothes still wrinkle when we don't want them to?
Nanotechnology could take care of that. There are advances in nanotechnology, but these are being funded much more by aerospace and medical health, so it's slower to come into the clothing industry. Now, from my point of view, I started tracking this industry in 1996, at a time when we talked about wearable computing, and it was so unsexy. It was about big clunky machine-type things that were strapped onto the arm or mounted onto the head. So even though some of us may be frustrated thinking that fashion should be advancing more quickly, compared to what it was 20 years ago, we've come a long way.
I remember a few years ago at a Hussein Chalayan show, the designer was playing with remote control clothing – dresses that transformed before our eyes. Why didn't we see that sort of experiment continue?
Well, what I've seen in recent years that's really promising is this biometric technology – the way that sensors can actually be woven into a garment or placed into it strategically so that they monitor things like heartbeat, respiration or amount of perspiration that's released. It can really give the wearer an idea of how they are getting to their fitness goals. And this technology is unbelievable – even washable. So imagine being a health- or weight-conscious individual and in whatever you're wearing to the office during the day, you've got this biometric technology seamlessly integrated into it. You don't even know it's there. But you can look at the app, because it's transmitting signals to the app, and you can see how close you're getting to your fitness goals, how many calories you're burning and potentially how many calories you've just eaten. Or maybe it's detecting or monitoring a potentially dangerous health problem.
So you're saying the technology is there and now it's just a matter of this being put into some kind of mass production?
It's not just a matter of that. The industry has a lot of challenges to solve first. So the technology is there and we know how to make it work and there is what I would call a latent demand for it. I'm saying it's latent because this is technology that has applications in every man or woman's life, but most people don't know about it. But the challenges the industry is facing and trying to overcome as quickly as it can is all of this wearable technology, just like your mobile phone, needs a power source. And no one wants to walk around with a clunky battery pack strapped on, right? But, as I said, this is starting to advance. I've actually seen batteries that are soft, flexible, sewable, washable and wearable.
How far in the future are you predicting that some of this "smart fashion" will be readily available?
When it comes to wearable technology, I'm very confident it will be mainstream and adopted by most fashion consumers long before 2045. I would say that by the end of next year, biometric technology in sportswear is really going to have a presence. Right now, it is being worn by individuals monitoring their own fitness reports. But in another three years, the technology will have improved dramatically and you'll have groups of people communicating with each other [through it], forming communities, and potentially they will be performing their exercise routines at different locations but will be able to share their vital signs and fitness reports with each other so that their group can achieve a mutual fitness goal.
What about clothing designers as we know them? How quick do you think they're going to be to embrace some of this new technology?
Well, one brand, a small label called Cute Circuit based in London, has evolved over a 10-year period, from creating something called a Galaxy dress that was made with LEDs that lit up and changed colour. And that dress was just kind of strapped onto a mannequin, and there were long trailing cables that went into the wall to give it power. This is the brand that, a few years ago, did that amazing red carpet dress for Katy Perry with the integrated LEDs and the chiffon that changed colours. They had done clothing for musicians and performers, and two years ago they launched a collection at New York fashion week. So they really did bring wearable tech to the catwalk. They made history.
What do you see as the potential for fashion down the road?
The truth of fashion is that it empowers us to be our best selves, to be more than we can be and arguably more than we can be without it. And fashion has been doing that for a long time – like the corset sculpting women into an idealized shape. Wearable technology can do things like that today. Compression technology can maintain an idealized form, but being able to wear data and retrieve it at your fingertips through your clothes makes you more intelligent, right? When it has integrated communication technology, it makes you more accessible, and it makes you more aware of what's going on in real time. When you've got devices that are communicating with your children and sort of keeping an eye on them, it's making you a better parent, and when you've got technology helping your fitness goals, your physical performance is improving all the time.
This interview has been condensed and edited.