Smart Fabrics Technology, Don’t Believe The Hype (Just Yet)

Earlier this year, at the Wearable Technology Show in London, I met Jan Zimmermann, head of textile innovation with Swiss textile company Forster Rohner. Part of a hundred year old family-run business, Forster Rohner is famous in the fashion world for producing exclusive embroidery for luxury brands, like Prada, Chanel and Viktor & Rolf. In 2012, the company decided to push e-textiles in the fashion market. Jan Zimmermann was appointed head of this business unit and developed some highly innovative designs with fashion designers, which include the gorgeous LED-collection for Akris, a light-emitting body for Triumph’s lingerie label Valisère and self heating jackets for Bogner.

Forster Rohner e-broidery
Forster Rohner e-broidery

“We Have to Disappoint Our Clients”

Zimmermann gets a lot of requests for e-textiles, especially for energy generating textiles: “We believe the whole energy harvesting thing is highly overrated by some people because they falsely believe that you can actually generate a lot of energy with it. Putting a curtain with 10 square meters of solar cells behind a window, not perfectly aligned to the sun, generates less energy than a mobile-phone-size solar charger on the roof. Solar cells need the right configuration. We believe that for a long, long time, most apps will still require a battery of some type.”

We believe the whole energy harvesting thing is highly overrated by some people because they falsely believe that you can actually generate a lot of energy with it.”

At the show in London I also met analyst James Hayward from consultancy IDTechEx. Operating globally, IDTechEx does market research and trend forecasting for its clients. Offering strategic advice on – amongst others – wearables and smart textiles, IDTechEx also organizes conferences and technology shows for the B2B market as well. On conductive clothes flooding the market, Hayward shared, “Energy harvesting is a great topic that we’ve been covering for many years. However, a lot of it has really lost the hype. The promises were bigger than what companies could deliver on. If you do the basic maths on how much you can get from technologies used today – which are tribo, solar, piezo and kinetic – and you map that against the typical power consumption of a phone: it’s not going to happen for several years. Universities in Korea do a lot of research on it, they are very good at this, and the main thing they look at now is multimode harvesting, for which combine different types of energy harvesting.”

Cute Circuit 's LED Technology MFA Dress
Cute Circuit ‘s LED Technology MFA Dress

Thirty-year-old LED technology dominates

The biggest successes with e-textiles in fashion are currently done with LEDs. The London design duo Cute Circuit has been working for more than ten years with this technology and are the go-to brand leading the way. Making stunningly intricate displays on a wide variety of clothes and accessories Hayward comments, “Cute Circuit wants mature technology and at the moment the only thing matures enough for fashion is embroidering LED’s. That was very eye-opening for me, because they are very experienced in fashion tech, but by our standards, the technology they are using for sequence LED’s is thirty years old, if not more. So there’s the real challenge. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]If you want to use technology in the fashion world you cannot have any unreliability[/inlinetweet]. Some high-end examples that we’ve seen, like flexible displays in clothing, got line-outs and bad pixels. Anything like that cannot be put on the catwalk.”

No more cutting and stitching

Besides the technical limitations of e-textile, there’s the problem of manufacturing clothes with it. For one, you can’t cut or stitch it in a conventional way. On this Zimmermann explained, “Especially, you can’t change your mind when working with e-textiles! That’s very confusing for people in the fashion space. They are used to a role of fabric: they cut it, they make a piece and if they don’t like it, they cut a new piece, or sow it a little different. You can’t do that with e-textile. The whole design process is completely different.

Conductive Jellyfish by TAI Studio
Embroidery workshop organized by pixalache Helsinki and lead by Ramyah Gowrishankar and Kati Hyyppä

The thing is, when it comes to working with e-textiles, it will require a different design and production method that are currently only available on some fashion schools’ programs. On this, Matt Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency in London who works closely with London College of Fashion students with an interest in fashion tech shared with “There are still enormous challenges to overcome. Design students need access to technology and then an understanding of what to do with it when they get it.  The projects that we lead in e-textiles and smart materials require a hugely varied skill set: Coding, engineering and science. These are vastly different from a traditional design background. So we are very fortunate at London College of Fashion to operate a lab (The Digital Anthropology Lab) where students can interact with research and development and work alongside technicians to assist in their learning.”

Smart Textiles
Head of Fashion Innovation Lab with London College of Fashion, Matt Drinkwater

Zimmermann doesn’t focus on the fashion industry for pushing Forster Rohner’s e-textiles:”We believe that ten years from now, fashion will more or less be the same as it is today. Fashion is of course fast moving and highly innovative in a sense, but this is a very narrow sense. Using this technology in a fashion completely changes the fundamentals of how fashion is done. It’s very difficult for an industry to adopt this.” Zimmermann is instead curious about what would happen if fashion tech designers would be embraced by the fashion industry: “I am curious to see what will happen if the young designers that work with technology, like Anouk Wipprecht or Pauline van Dongen, are put in charge of fashion brands as creative directors.”

When you take a closer look, you could argue that the textile industry is extremely fragmented. There are weaving companies that have some knowledge of e-textiles, and there are embroidery companies that have some knowledge, but there aren’t any full-service suppliers yet. That’s why Forster Rohner creates networks: “We know the people who can do certain things. We know who will be the best party for our client’s questions. We believe that these connections are very important for this market. “The more successful stories are out there for e-textiles, the better it will be for the whole industry.”

The smart suit

Maybe we’re expecting too much too soon, when it comes to the merge of fashion with  tech. But that’s in the account of marketeers as well. They want to make us believe that we are not far from ordering a ‘smart’ suit on Savile Row. On this, James Hayward shared that he has seen technology marketeers moving too fast in their campaigns: “Sometimes a product is given to a marketing team who will then run away with it and then the tech-guys see the marketing back and think ‘well….it can’t actually do that…’. It was the same with Google Glass. They got a bit carried away by it and pushed it too commercial, but it wasn’t a commercial product yet. It shouldn’t have gone down that line.”

So, for the next years, a ‘smart suit’ will still equal ‘a very good looking suit’. They’ve been making those on Savile Row since the 18th century. If you’re willing to spend, they’ll make you a bespoke one with a special pocket for your smartphone and another pocket for the external battery!

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SOURCEImage Cerdits: Cute Circuit, Forster Rohner AG