The global fashion industry is worth about US $1.2 trillion. The $2 billion sales of wearable technology in 2015 is expected to grow 17-fold by 2020. A sustained alliance between the two could make for a revenue behemoth, but the fashion-tech union has so far struggled to achieve mainstream success.
Flashy pieces of wearable tech have graced runways in the last few years, from a skirt made of Lumia phones to LED-laden dresses controlled by the wearer’s brain signals. Catwalk show-stoppers, however, rarely transition well into retail.
Fitness trackers and smartwatches currently make up the bulk of the wearables market, with virtual reality devices predicted to catch up in the next four years. The Apple Watch Hermès may very well be one of the more successful fashion-tech collaborations, but it comes with a price tag of US $1,100-1,500. In addition, analysts are projecting a 25 percent decline in Apple Watch sales only a year after its launch.
To break into an industry that is inherently about aesthetics, wearable tech must be as stylish as it is functional. Criticisms against the Apple Watch illustrate this point. Two months after its release, the watch was branded by a New York Times reviewer as “a tech accessory pretending to be a fashion accessory.” A more recent consumer survey said 16 percent of owners found it “ugly.”
Wearables’ image problem stems from a disconnect between technology engineers and fashion experts. A study conducted by University of Missouri researchers showed that engineers were more focused on maximizing the technological capabilities of a gadget while designers were aiming for optimum comfort and aesthetic quality. Communication breakdowns between the two disciplines often hindered a more cohesive integration.
As fast fashion -- a growing trend among major retailers -- drives down prices and speeds up supply chains, it gets harder for wearables to become competitive. A 2016 survey of American consumers revealed that 63 percent of respondents found wearable devices too expensive. People may have gotten used to shelling out good money for smartphones, but most are skeptical about buying a US $295 shirt, even if it claims to track your breathing and heart rate.
One reason for the high prices of wearables is the costly sensor technology, which enables devices to measure your vital signs and physical activities. Sensors have become 200 times cheaper in the last two decades, but most are still not affordable enough to significantly bring down prices of wearable tech. While outsourcing and economies of scale may work for other components, technological innovation is the only effective way so far to make sensors cheaper.
For fashion-tech products to go mainstream, supply chains will also have to evolve. According to Matthew Drinkwater, head of UK-based Fashion Innovation Agency, a major barrier to the mass manufacture of wearable tech is that the supply chain “just does not exist,” or at least not on a scale comparable to current retail production levels. Apart from sourcing cheaper components, manufacturers will have to upgrade their facilities as well as the technical skills of their workforce. Such changes require substantial investments and lengthy timelines for implementation.
Despite apparent obstacles, continuing research efforts and collaborations give fashion and wearable tech a promising future. Last year, Google and Levi’s launched Project Jacquard to produce interactive garments that can send commands to your smartphone. More recently, the U.S. Defense Department announced a five-year, US $317 million partnership among universities, manufacturers, and startups to develop the production of high-tech fibers and textiles.
A convergence of two vastly different industries is bound to hit more than a few snags and, like any good relationship, needs effort and commitment for it to work out in the long term.
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