This fashion month, designers are getting real about what type of technology flies with shoppers, especially in the realm of wearables.
Noticeably missing from their shows have been the VR headsets and LED-lit dresses that had become staples in seasons past. But that’s not to say designers have turned their backs on technology altogether. Those keeping with the theme have transitioned to undetectable tech, refreshingly created with the wearer, versus press coverage, in mind.
“What I’m seeing now is a lot more usable technology that’s not just, like, screaming, ‘Here I am! Look at me! I’m technology!’” said Billie Whitehouse, founder of connected apparel company WearableX. “Technology is becoming more like a button or a zipper, or nylon, or Velcro; they’re are all pieces of technology, they’re just not powered by a microprocessor.”
Among the examples to debut so far were two color-changing cocktail dresses at Julianna Bass’s New York Fashion Week show. Unlike other styles that similarly use thermochromatic heat to change appearance, Bass’s designs (created in partnership with New York–based tech company Loomia) are the first that are consumer-controlled, according to the designer. “Essentially, you’re getting two dresses in one,” she explained, on a call before her show. “It’s something that will actually make sense in your wardrobe.”
In London, streetwear brand TwentyFour15 showed a T-shirt and backpack that can be app-connected through a smartphone to feature animated designs, set to the wearer’s music.
One of Julianna Bass’s spring 2018 color-changing dresses, mid change
Designers announcing technology that makes it easy to shop their new collections has been more of a trend: Tommy Hilfiger, for one, launched a second AI-fueled chatbot, TMY.BOY (joining TMY.GRL), which acts as a personal stylist, and also a TommyNow Snap app, granting at-home viewers a VR version of the show. In addition, the app incorporates an image recognition tool, allowing users to effortlessly shop styles seen on the runway, in stores or in ads, on Tommy.com.
“Technology is being used more as really interesting machine learning and artificial intelligence. You’re not always seeing it, but it’s really powerful,” Whitehouse said.
As far visible technology, it’s been a tame showing, compared to the wide array oft eye roll–inducing technology in seasons past: There were the camera drones designers employed to hover over their runways (Prada in 2014, Rebecca Minkoff in 2015) and the VR headsets they loudly released in the name of post-show access. Many shows have been peppered with LED-lit styles (including Zac Posen for spring 2016) and Intel-powered pieces (Chromat’s responsive sports bras for spring 2016, Tome’s connected accessories for spring 2017, the list goes on). Often, they were made available to digital spectators via a 360-degree view.
“What we saw last year was everyone throwing an LED in all of the wrong places and calling it tech,” Whitehouse said. “I wasn’t really expecting to see more flashing lights [this season], because I don’t think that’s the way to push this industry forward.”
Zac Posen x Google LED dress for spring 2016 (Image via mashable.com)
Michael Reidbord, founder of fashion retail accelerator Fashion Tech Consortium, agreed, going on to say the reason over-the-top technology fell by the wayside is simple: It wasn’t any good. “You can’t trick the consumer for too many seasons,” he said, referring to gimmicks. “The market voted, and those things were a fail. Who wants to put a headset on or wear chunky wearable things?”
As he put it, people aren’t opposed to technology — younger people want technology — but it has to have value and be worthy of their time. “They’re willing to invest in things that provide them with a great experience, make them feel beautiful and make them feel empowered,” he said. “If it enhances an experience, it’s going to resonate.”
Designers are getting hip to that, finally designing for the human experience. Whitehouse called it a smart move. “Right now, we have a huge dependence on technology,” she said. “If we don’t design for that furor, we’re being ignorant.”
What’s more, designers who avoid it are putting their companies at risk. Many, including Reidbord, blame the recent, widespread store closures on retailers’ lack of innovation. (As of August 1, 6,300 store closures had been announced for 2017.) At this point, those succeeding are implementing technology across the board, from the design process to the point of sale.
Looking forward, the possibilities are endless — and large leaps are expected soon. In the months to come, Reidbord said fashion fans can expect to watch international fashion shows as though they are there, through “completely immersive” VR experiences. Bass expects tech-infused ready-to-wear designs with will catch on quickly and become normalized — consumers are ready for something other than smartwatches and avant-garde designs.
Whatever form technology takes, fashion can expect to see much more of it.
“There are always going to be emotional rollercoasters of how it is interpreted and integrated,” said Whitehouse. “but technology-and-fashion isn’t going anywhere. It’s a partnership that’s more like a long-term marriage than a short affair.”