Chromat, the luxury swim and sportswear brand, is playing the long game when it comes to wearable technology.
Founded in 2010 by Becca McCharen, a University of Virginia School of Architecture graduate, Chromat calls itself a fashion tech company; its tagline is “Structural experiments for the human body.” McCharen and her team have partnered with tech companies like Intel, Body Labs, Fitbit, StretchSense and Niteminds to create collections of garments that have been 3D printed, shape shifting, laser shooting and self ventilating.
And while it has debuted techie capsule collections at its fashion shows in New York since 2012, those garments haven’t been for sale; they were prototypes, shown alongside the brand’s ready-to-wear swim and sport collections on the runway.
“I love combining the fashion and tech mediums, and I love seeing it developed more,” said McCharen. “I want garments that can act as tools for the body, and respond to the body. That’s the end goal. But scale is a huge barrier.”
Chromat’s business is divided between the wearable technology that McCharen tests in prototypes, and the garments that customers can actually wear. The brand’s swimsuits, leggings, jackets and sports bras sell online for about $300 per piece. Designs have been worn on stage by Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, featured in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video, and seen on models in the pages of Vogue and The New York Times. For now, these pieces, made with a proprietary technical fabric, are limited to baseline “smart” properties like wicking, compression and stretchier fit.
Chromat’s most recent collection, “Lumina,” on the SS17 runway.
More advanced wearable technologies and smart fabrics have largely been limited to one-off designs, like the prototypes that Chromat builds to show what tech could do to its clothing, if it could get there. Chromat has created sports bras that open ventilation flaps when body temperature rises, “cage” dresses that expand to reveal a protective layer when adrenaline spikes, and undergarments with lasers that mimic brain activity. Marchesa recently designed a dress with IBM Watson for the Met Gala red carpet that lit up in response to social media sentiment. Zac Posen debuted an LED-dress on the runway that was made with technical engineering company The Crated. Each design was a standalone project, and neither Posen nor Marchesa’s designers have plans to create more wearable tech garments.
“Fashion is about variation, we all want to wear different things. But technology is about standardization,” said Sandra Lopez, Intel’s fashion technologist. “So how do you deliver experiences to a mass audience?”
Intel’s Curie chip, an inch-long module that can be embedded into garments as a data sensor, has the ability to make clothing responsive to things like body temperature, blood pressure and movements. Chromat used the chip in its Spring 2016 collection in a series of dresses that could customize their shape to the wearer’s environment. While the chip is a small addition to a piece of clothing, McCharen said that, as a piece of hardware, it’s still too foreign for the masses.
It can also get tangled in costly bureaucracy. While working with Intel, McCharen and her team learned that a piece of clothing bearing the Curie chip would have to be registered with the FCC as a consumer electronic, a process that costs up to $50,000.
While working to tackle reactive fabrics, Chromat is also focused on customized fit. As a swim and athletic brand, precise fit is key to driving conversion, according to McCharen, so the brand worked with Body Labs, a company that uses 3D scanning and artificial intelligence to inform the design process about sizing. The technology combines body measurements, AI and average size data of a customer base in order to make 3D models of people and clothing. According to Jon Cilley, Body Labs’ director of marketing, the goal is to help apparel companies be more efficient by helping them produce a smarter range of sizes.
Chromat also used Body Labs’ 3D printing technology to print garments for its most recent runway collection that precisely fit models’ bodies, including one model, Mela Murder, who is pregnant. While predictive sizing software can be scaled using consumer data, there’s still restrictions on what can be 3D printed.
“The barrier right now isn’t understanding what your customers look like, it’s, at a large scale, the manufacturing process,” said Cilley. “When 3D printed garments can have the same quality at a lower cost, we’ll see it take off. But we’re not there.”
While Chromat can’t offer the progressive garments being made in its labs to all of its customers, it’s going to continue placing itself at the forefront of technical apparel.
“It’s going to take a lot of money,” said McCharen. “There’s still a long way to go, but what matters for us is that Chromat is able to be part of the conversation. I want to design things that make the body perform better.”