At the conclusion of Zac Posen’s 2015 New York Fashion Week show, the final model of the night came strutting out in what at first glance looked like a sleek black baby doll dress.
As she continued down the runway, crowd-goers soon saw that it was adorned with colorful undulating LED lights blinking in a rhythmic pattern. The mesmerizing design was by textile engineer Maddy Maxey, founder of The Crated, in partnership with Google’s Made with Code program, an initiative that supports young women in computer sciences.
Maxey’s goal, along with a slew of burgeoning smart fabric startups, is to make these types of garments more than just flash-in-the-pan. These companies are focused on partnering with retailers to identify how fabrics can unobtrusively integrate wires, batteries and lights to do things like regulate body temperature, detect illness or track emotions beyond the traditional notion of “smart” athletic wear.
However, figuring out how to scale advanced textiles that use electrical elements or battery-powered technology is an ongoing challenge. Especially when most consumers have a fairly basic relationship with fabric: They get dressed in the morning in preparation for the elements, perhaps selecting a moisture-wicking shirt before a run or a thermal jacket to stave off the cold. But for smart fabrics designers, these everyday textiles have the potential to do much, much more.
“From the moment you were born when someone wrapped you in a blanket, you start having an innate understanding of textiles ” said Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, a professor of industrial design at the Pratt Institute. “[Fabrics are] so innate that once they become ‘smart’ it’s something everybody will be able to embrace without a learning curve.”
An interdisciplinary effort
Before Pailes-Friedman founded the Intelligent Materials Applied Research and Innovation Lab at Pratt, she was a technical designer for Nike, Fila and Champion. Beginning her career among the largest athletic retailers in the world showed her the benefits and restrictions of being buoyed by vast resources and strict bureaucracy.
“You get a little spoiled when you work for a big company because there’s a lot of money and backing for developing fabric that will be used in numerous products and at large volumes,” she said.
Now free from corporate constraints, she’s in an environment more ripe for experimentation and innovation. But she said the ability for emerging companies to fund these projects (much less actually bring them to market) is significantly limiting. She emphasized that part of what makes funding for smart textiles crucial is their ability to have an impact on a wide spectrum of markets and demographics, both in the public and private sector.
“The early adopters are going to be people who use their clothing for specific purposes,” she said, referring to individuals in highly specific conditions, like members of the military and high performance athletes. “Then it trickles down until it reaches a broader base.”
In an effort to unite technical fabric experts across disciplines, Dr. Yoel Fink at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America earlier this year. The organization serves as a consortium of startups, tech companies, retailers, academics and government organizations focused on ways to bridge the gap between conception and actualization.
AFFOA, funded and sponsored by the U.S. government, officially launched on April 1st and includes 89 founding partner organizations (including New Balance and Nike) with the goal of giving America a competitive edge in the textile space. Eric Spackey, CMO of AFFOA, said preliminary use cases will likely include identifying ways to create highly functional military apparel, but will also integrate topics like marketing emerging fabrics for retailers.
Spackey compared the fabric revolution that AFFOA aims to spark to the advancements of the mobile phone — transforming from the boxy contraptions of the 1990s to the sleek, lightweight iPhones of modern day.
“This is the future. We’re looking at fabric that could emit light or respond to a certain frequency, or a knitted sock that could detect illness like deep vein thrombosis,” Spackey said. “It’s not science fiction. It’s actually very real.”
Janett Martinez — director of operations at The Crated, who works alongside Maxey and is in the process of joining AFFOA– said uniting the public and private spheres is not without its difficulties, largely due to issues over proprietary information.
However, if done effectively, she said, AFFOA could be a helpful resource for brands looking for ways to get involved with advanced smart fabrics. It could also enhance the existing efforts of companies like Athleta, Kit and Ace and Nanotex, the latter of which developed technology that is spill, stain, water and wrinkle resistant.
“If a brand, let’s say Levi’s, wants to make a smart garment, they have to hustle pretty hard to see who can produce something they can use,” she said. “There’s a lot of coordinating with a brand that maybe doesn’t have the expertise. AFFOA wants to simplify that.”
Overcoming lack of infrastructure
At The Crated, Maxey is focused on developing functional fabrics that enhance the lives of its wearers, including jackets that internally moderate heat during the winter and biometric garments for everyone from factory workers to premature infants.
The biggest challenge of bringing these items to market is that there is no existing supply chain for clothing that requires extensive wiring and technical infrastructure, Martinez said.
“We know what’s possible, but can we have it now and then can we make 100,000 of the same thing? We can make a one-off project but can this be produced at scale?” Martinez said. “A lot of these garments don’t really make it past press because they’re not designed for manufacturing.”
For designers, some of the problems lie with the technology itself, said Billie Whitehouse, founder of Wearable Experiments. One of her early prototypes was a jacket that used LED lights and vibrations to lead users to a destination without consulting a GPS.
However, the internal technology for the jacket was linked to Google Maps, which in 2013 was still working out some kinks of its own. While larger production of the jacket stalled, Whitehouse moved on to other projects, including a line of yoga pants that corrects form and a sports jersey that simulates moves of a game the wearer is watching.
As the industry continues to identify ways to bring these products to retailers, Whitehouse said gallery showcases have been particularly beneficial for designers to demonstrate the full range of their products.
“There’s something really beautiful that’s happening in the gallery space, and blending what we think about retail and how we have an experience,” she said. “It plays with all five senses and that’s the way you sell these products. Whether it’s physical or digital, you have to start creating intrigue. It’s done with multimedia, styles and designs.”
Bringing smart fabrics to the masses
Despite recent efforts, the influx of hyped-up smart fabric designs has mostly remained just that — hype.
But Pailes-Friedman said this follows the trend of many technologies that preceded today’s smart fabrics, including the rise of Lycra to add stretch to denim in the 1960s. What started as a silly proposition soon became a hit in the women’s luxury market before hitting the mainstream. Nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find a pair of jeans, for both men and women, without Lycra.
“That was a huge revolution to go to stretch. It took many years for this to permeate the market,” she said. “Now everything has it.”
Once infrastructure is secure, it boils down to a combination of popular culture, critical mass and functionality for the trends to take off, Pailes-Friedman said. Whitehouse added that what’s particularly fascinating for the consumer is the ability to personalize and track experiences through a piece of clothing.
“It’s building a new form of communication using the skin as an interface,” she said. “It’s empowering data in a way that’s never been done before, and making that data really personal.”