Models adorned in dresses of LED lights walked down a runway as drones flew overhead at the inaugural “Silicon Valley Fashion Week?!” in October, where 30 brands debuted fashion-forward tech products to a packed house of about 500 attendees each day.
The over-the-top display of wearable tech was intentional, a tongue-in-cheek nod to consumers and industry veterans who are still hesitant to accept that the union of technology and fashion can be harmonious. However, as more women-led wearables companies emerge, the market’s available gadgets are transitioning from clunky, cumbersome wristbands to more design-savvy devices, and consumers are taking note.
From the onset, wearable technology was largely made by men, for men, said Ramon Llamas, research manager of wearables at International Data Corporation. When technology like Google Glass first hit the market, developers prioritized usability, giving little thought to practicality and aesthetics.
“What companies were trying to do is create a platform that appeals to the lowest common denominator, which isn’t so much style and design, it’s really functionality,” he said. “They were trying to get the market to understand and see what the wearable would do.”
However, this is beginning to change. According to Billie Whitehouse, founder of Wearable Experiments, the wearable market is expanding to all consumers because it’s moving past oversimplification. She added: “We need more computational thinking — designers who understand some of the constraints, but aren’t limited by the constraints.”
Still, smarter aesthetics and marketing are translating to usage: Emarketer data shows that by next year, more women will use wearables than men, at 34.1 percent compared to 33.9 percent respectively. Rachel Saunders, director of insights and strategy at Cassandra, said the key to getting more women to use wearables is to have more women designing them. She said women-led companies including Vinaya, led by Kate Unsworth, “offer tech-enabled jewelry that’s both functional and style-forward, and none of it screams, ‘I work in Silicon Valley.’”
Beyond design, Llamas said the key to the success of emerging wearable companies has been avoiding gendered marketing gimmicks to target women. Those used by industries in the past have included the infamous pink Bic For Her pens launched earlier this year and Animee, a beer made by Molson Coors in 2011 that came in a pink hue in an effort to draw female consumers.
“Thank God we’re getting away from the age-old adage in the marketing world of ‘You want to attract women, here’s what you do: You pink it and you shrink it,’” Llamas said. “Can anything be more condescending?”
Whitehouse echoed Llamas and said while the technology industry has moved past patronizing marketing to women, the larger issue is still developing products that are specifically designed with consumer preferences in mind.
“The ‘pink it and shrink’ model exists and has been obvious in this space — take bright pink activewear products,” she said. “But to me, that isn’t necessarily a gender-specific problem, that’s a design problem and not knowing who your customer is and then designing for that customer.”
Women-led companies understand women, which is what inspired Marija Butkovic to create Women of Wearables earlier this year, along with fellow co-founder Michelle Hua. The organization supports women working in wearable tech, virtual reality and augmented reality through providing a mentorship network, as well as events and workshops.
Butkovic — who also created the the Kisha Smart Umbrella, a connected umbrella that operates with an app to provide push notifications when it’s raining and locates the item if it goes missing — said when she moved from Croatia to London in 2014, she was shocked to discover how few women were were working in the fashion tech industry.
When she met Hua this past March, the two discussed the dearth of women in wearable technology and began to devise a plan — thus Women of Wearables was born. Butkovic said she anticipates the future of wearables for both genders to place an emphasis on practicality. “When you build wearable tech products, think about problems that you’re trying to solve. Does this really help your customer to solve his or her problem?”
The pairing of technology and fashion demonstrates an effort to make wearables more user-friendly, she said. While many fashion brands have been slow to adapt to digital efforts, their forays into wearables have helped make the devices marketable to women who aren’t looking for flashy gimmicks.
“I always say that fashion is old-fashioned,” Butkovic said. “Fashion brands are not very apt to experiment with technology. They want to play it safe. A lot of companies developing wearable technologies today are more agile. They will risk, and they will build something that is different.”
But placing women at the helm of these companies is not the definitive answer, said Vero Lincoln, senior digital and social media strategist at The Community. “While our generation is moving towards a more gender-neutral society, which is an amazing step towards equality, we still face a genuine gender bias problem,” she said. “The bottom line is that, as long as society places different expectations on men and women, there will be opportunities for brands to create gender-specific wearables.”