While at Munich Fabric Start, I had the opportunity to conversate with various people and I noticed a common theme, the lack of communication between traditional fashion industries, and wearable technology innovators. The thing is long-standing fashion houses have yet to embrace technology implementation into their age-old designs. They typically claim that their heritage doesn’t support it. Maybe they feel adding technology to their collections would be too far outside their brand identity, and they’d lose their core clients.
Even if they do allow one or two devices within a collection, it’s never new enough for the wearable tech space to care. Likewise, wearables innovators are so far ahead of the fashion houses of the 20th century; they aren’t looking back. Doris Hofmann, a freelance designer under her brand Design Mob who I met at the Keyhouse, on her frustration with these big brands, said it best when she said, “Communication between innovators and these brands are stuck in a Snow White slumber.”
Unaffected, the sustainability, alternative materials, and technology spaces have continued to merge. Maybe mainstream fashion houses are beginning to feel guilty about the amount of environmental degradation brought on by their obsession with fast fashion, so they group these spaces and cast them off collectively. I see alternative material innovators, like MycoTex, actually being the closest replacement for fast fashion brands. The idea behind MycoTex is to replace our traditional fabrics with mycelium-based textiles, which of course do not last forever. Opposite of the slow fashion movement, the idea is to integrate more sustainable materials with fast fashion consumer behaviour, whereas most other sustainable brands are trying to change consumer behaviour. The concept of using mycelium will most likely seem absurd to many large corporations, but the actual return on investment would be very high if they could wrap their brains around the idea.
“If a company doesn’t have a department for innovation, who is in charge of this topic? Chances are, nobody!”
I don’t want to point the finger at these mega brands for their lack of trust in the startups creating new ways to think about fashion. For every successful startup, there is much more that have lost their way. Any investment needs a great deal of return to be produced, and there must be some amount of proven results from the beginning of any partnership. So the majority of European fashion investors are not looking for wearable tech designers. But the fact is, many luxury brands are greying, and losing touch with the reality of the state of fashion.
In America, Ralph Lauren is trying to remain relevant by promoting sportswear, and relaunching their “preppy chic” look, which hasn’t changed since women started wearing pants. Their new iteration of the Ricky handbag featuring an LED light and USB cord for charging debuted in 2014. We haven’t seen much in the way of technology on the retail level since. (In fact, they still want us to rave about it nearly four years later.) However, they do supply USA’s Olympic team with some pretty cool tech-infused, overly patriotic gear, but sadly they never provide an iteration at the retail level. Hofmann also noted this point by adding, “If a company doesn’t have a department for innovation, who is in charge of this topic? Chances are, nobody!”
As China continues to hold their leadership in technology, as well as recently taking the spotlight away from the U.S. on efforts to “green” their industries, we are now seeing much more funding into fashion labels. (Any wearable tech designer looking for funding should be connecting with Chinese investors, instead of troubling themselves with the Europeans who have their noses in the air.) Maybe the Chinese are just so used to having the best technologies, with cutting-edge innovations always exploding out of Shenzhen like popcorn kernels over an open fire, that they wouldn’t bat an eye at tracking your health with your bra or embedding a chip under your skin.
In the end, we as innovators must take it upon ourselves to bridge the gap between the traditional fashion mindsets and alternative materials researchers. Wearables are more central between both schools of thought and have a better chance at impacting the fashion industry as a whole. More channels of communication need to be implemented between these industries for sustainability ever to become mainstream. Only through cooperation, will we be able to shift fast fashion to use alternative materials that are better for the environment. Less demonising of fashion is necessary to do this. Of course, as a long-time promoter of sustainability and an environmentalist, it’s hard for me to write this perspective. I believe it is partly the cause of the lack of connection between wearable startups and the deep pockets of the fashion industry.
When any industry is divided, it will never be as successful as it could be. For the sake of the Earth, we just don’t have the time to get stuck in the politics of these industries. Our days here are numbered, and it’s up to everyone in the technology space to facilitate this communication for everyone’s success. Only with collaboration will we create lasting change, to impact generations to come.