NEW YORK CITY—On a recent Thursday evening, I ascended a metal staircase at Galvanize, a sleek event space on the western fringes of Manhattan’s epically trendy SoHo neighbourhood, and joined a crowd of my fellow New Yorkers. People stood in knots, sipping wine from plastic cups or nursing an imported beer; they were gathered for #Synthesis2017, an event organised by the startup Loomia, in partnership with Microsoft. The atmosphere was abuzz with civilized conversation, and the gentle beats of a soundtrack with a dreamy, South American flavour.
The preponderance of men (more than 70%, according to a quick and very unscientific calculation) might suggest to the casual observer that this attractive herd worked in one of two industries: tech or finance. There were a few sharp suits and ties, and a flash of a pricey watch here and there, but the unofficial uniform seemed to be jeans (dark wash or elegantly distressed) and a t-shirt or understated button-down, topped by a smart blazer. These were creatures with a foot in both worlds—tech business guys.
The first clue that this was not your typical networking event stood at the front of the room, beneath a sign that read “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.” A diaphanous garment, rendered in delicate pink, with black and indigo accents.
“I’m not sure the dress is fully charged,” said Janett Liriano, a little apologetically, when a visitor inquired. “But there’s a video.” With that, Liriano hurried away to talk to other attendees demanding her attention. Because though the men may have turned out in more significant number, the ladies in this room were Women in Charge—Liriano one of the foremost among them. A great example of a Woman in Tech, Liriano is the CEO of LOOMIA, a New York Fashion tech company aiming to transform our relationship with clothing utterly. And this event, Synthesis 2017, an evening of networking and education was, in part, Liriano’s brainchild.
The headlining topic of the evening was the blockchain—which has been hailed as a messiah of sorts, a new way of doing business that will free us from the iron grip of the powerful institutions that administer the day-to-day transactions that rule 21st-century life. Its advocates say that blockchain technology—essentially, a ledger of transactions that is housed not within one entity’s servers but is distributed and “owned” by each party, will, in a decade or so, totally upend life as we know it. Since the “chain” of transactions is written in indelible ink, as it were, no single party can alter it, or change the rules set out to govern the system. It’s a nascent technology, and admittedly, pretty difficult to grasp, but trust assured that a lot of smart people are very excited about it. “This is the future,” said one attendee. “I mean, this is like the Internet. The new Internet.”
After the requisite mingling, Liriano and Maddy Maxey, LOOMIA founder and Chief Technology Officer, began to herd everyone toward a small auditorium. Maxey, dressed in a graceful, empire-waist, midi-length dress that brought to mind a Renaissance tapestry, projects an air of understated yet unflappable warmth, and of total, unshakeable competence. She said a few words of welcome, and the presentations began.
First, Sol Lederer, LOOMIA’S blockchain lead, talked about the technology’s potential to transform communication. Next, Chris Dannen, founder and partner at Iterative Capital Management, delivered a rousing explainer on how to assess the viability of the countless startups that have sprouted up around blockchain and cryptocurrency. Then, Shawn Wilkinson, founder and chief strategy officer at STORJ, explained how his company is using blockchain technology to transform, you guessed it, storage. A volley of questions followed each talk, as did friendly arguments over the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the nom de code of Bitcoin and the blockchain’s anonymous creator.
But what does any of this have to do with clothes? A lot, according to the women who run LOOMIA. As Liriano said at the top of her presentation, it’s true that not everyone is immersed in the blockchain. At least, not yet. However, she said, there was something that every single person in the room did have in common. “Everyone here is wearing a textile,” she said. “Look around.”
LOOMIA’S primary pitch is this: clothing and textiles are everywhere. They are literally on us at almost all times. There’s not been a way to make cloth…well, smart. The technology that can collect data on how we move through the world lives in cold, hard things: watches, phones, bracelets. LOOMIA is integrating circuits into textiles themselves—a flexible electronic layer that can deliver nifty features like heat and light. Liriano held up a smart leather bootie in an attractive but subdued maroon. The only hint that this was a unique boot was a tiny LED light on the zipper. But with Loomia technology, a wearer can, primarily, use an iPhone app to make the boot toasty and warm—a feature that anyone who lives in cold climes but doesn’t want to dress like a hiker all winter long can surely appreciate.
But in addition to delivering specific functionality, the LOOMIA circuits can also collect a wide variety of data: temperature, touch, locale. Liriano gave the example of a leather jacket that records how many times it’s worn in a year, when and where it’s worn most, notes heat distribution, and which portions receive the most wear. Brands have no way of collecting these sorts of data right now. Imagine if you could sell these data, obtained by your LOOMIA-enabled smart clothing, back to the companies that are desperate for this kind of information about their products?
Currently, Liriano said, “after the point of sale, brands don’t get much feedback that’s meaningful.” Once clothing leaves the store (or vast distribution centre if, like this reporter, you spend far too much time shopping on the Internet), brands have no way of getting any useful data on what happens to said garment. Online surveys don’t cut it.
And this is where the blockchain comes in. The data LOOMIA’s technology can collect would not be owned by LOOMIA, and contained in a data centre somewhere. Instead, it would be managed by a blockchain protocol, encrypted, chopped into pieces, and spread across a network of devices—not stored all in one spot, under the (sometimes woefully ineffective) security protocols of a large company. In other words, the data would be owned by no one and everyone, all at the same time. Which, LOOMIA posits, would put the power in an individual consumer’s hands: You get to choose what kind of data you want to sell, if at all.
And LOOMIA is betting that brands will pay a pretty penny for this kind of direct-from-the-consumer data. Though some of the technological connective tissue is still in the works, the company’s current iteration of their flexible circuit, known as the LOOMIA Electronic Layer, or LEL, can make it through 150 trips through the washer and dryer, with all its lighting, heating, and sensing functionality intact.
“High-end customers are never going to understand the advantage of tech-based fashion if you don’t sell it to them in a way that makes sense—and in a way that will benefit them,” -Juliana Bass
Liriano also showed the promised video of the dress. Or rather, it’s sister. Dreamy images filled the screens: a lithe, dark-haired model in an off-the-shoulder white dress, with a central panel that changed like magic before your very eyes, shifting from a faded indigo to white, and then back again. The audience (or at least the ladies therein) was audibly impressed. It was undeniably beautiful.
Once attendees had exited the auditorium and returned to the wine, beer and conversation, designer Julianna Bass, an NY Fashion Week veteran and creator of the magical dress, explained that she’d gone looking for a new kind of wearable tech when she lived in Berlin. Fashion tech was big, but she wanted something that would stand apart from the crowd—not for its flash, but for its subtlety and functionality.
“We wanted to dig deeper. And LOOMIA got that,” Bass said. “High-end customers are never going to understand the advantage of tech-based fashion if you don’t sell it to them in a way that makes sense—and in a way that will benefit them,” she said.
Bass’s colour-changing dresses, powered by LOOMIA technology, appeared on the runway earlier this year, as part of her Spring Summer 2018 collection. But they’re just a start, she said. What if, when you spilt something on your dress, you could, with a flick of your wrist, change the colour to mask the spill? Bass also gave the example of sustainability—two dresses in one, thanks to the colour-shifting fabric.
The technology relies on heat, so it can’t be used on an entire garment at this point (that would just be too hot on the body, Bass said), but that is the goal—and LOOMIA is evolving its technology to meet these needs, she added.
The potential for fashion tech from an aesthetic perspective was undoubtedly exciting, but the other buzzy watchword of the evening was…data.
The ability to understand, on a large scale, how humans interact with the clothes on their backs offers myriad possibilities to consumers and brands alike.
Carole Sabas, a brand strategist who spent years as an editor-at-large for French Vogue, was visibly enthusiastic about what LOOMIA is doing. “Janett and Maddy, they are really at the crossroads of everything,” she said.