Wearable Technology Goes Couture

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Sept. 5 2014 1:37 PM

Wearable Technology Goes Couture

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Her necklace might be from the future.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

This article originally appeared in Inc.

All those Clydesdale struts down runways this coming week will be measured by more than just the approving nods they earn from certain magazine editors and boutique buyers, because this is the year wearable tech goes couture. Or at least makes a concerted attempt.

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A dozen or more wearable companies—among them Intel, Fitbit, and Google Glass—are forging partnerships with fashion brands to earn time on the runways at New York Fashion Week, which begins today and runs through September 11. Similar companies aim for fashion week visibility through novel marketing moves, such as appearing in models' Instagram feeds. It's the next generation of the 2012 Google Glass-Diane von Furstenberg partnership, which saw bespectacled models on the runways, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin seated in the front row of the Lincoln Center show.

Perhaps the mainstream collision of fashion and tech is overdue. If you visited a classroom at New York's FIT, or a graduate student showcase at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program over the past few years, you'd have seen prototypes of LED-powered skirts and dresses, hats and other headwear—even backpacks!—and bracelets and rings equipped with cameras, trackers, and other chip-powered embellishments.

Already the runways have seen wearable technologies that sync with one's smartphone--but that don't necessarily fit into the "quantified self" movement of biometric tracking. They're more for peacocking than fitness monitoring. A London fashion house, CuteCircuit, designs light-up dresses, skirts, and jackets for women, which can be controlled through an iPhone app. (You may have seen such glowing garments on Katy Perry or U2.)  The company's show is one of the very first of this year's fashion week, and you can expect plenty of buzz.

According to a study by tech-research firm IDC, nearly 20 million wearable devices will be shipped worldwide in 2014. That number is expected to climb to more than 100 million in four years' time. That's a lot of awkward plastic-y armbands. But if the fashion world has anything to say about it, that look might get a lot more graceful. 

Marie Claire creative director Nina Garcia called wearing a fitness tracker "a badge of honor, whether you're healthy or not," in the Wall Street Journal recently. And just last week, tech and fashion debuted a combined effort at the U.S. Open tennis championships. The product: A Ralph Lauren sports shirt, with knitted-in sensors that can read the wearer's heartbeat and respiration. It looks—on the surface, like a fitted black crew-neck shirt. Upon close inspection, a band of thicker fabric mid-torso is apparent, and it houses a Bluetooth transmitter, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope by OMSignal, a biometric-tracker company. 

Much of Silicon-Valley tech's toeing the runways this year is not so much about standing out as about blending in.

"Wearables need to take account for varying tastes, not least between genders," Nick Spencer with ABI Research told the Washington Post. "One size, or even design form—touch-screen designs, for example—doesn't fit all as it does to a much larger degree in consumer electronics. Designers need to play a key role here."

BaubleBar's co-founder put it less subtly in an interview with the New York Times: "There's a reason we all make fun of someone wearing a Bluetooth or a BlackBerry holster. Is it useful? Of course it is. Do I look like a tool? Yeah. I'm not going to wear it."

We've already seen fitness-tracker bracelets go from tech-gaudy to approach wearability in non-gym settings. Nike this year released the FuelBand SE with embellishments nodding to aesthetics, rather than athletics: gold, rose gold, and silver. The Basis watch—beloved by techies, but frankly clunky-looking—debuted a leather strap and slightly more stylish chrome frame this year. It's called Carbon Steel. The Misfit Shine—a sleep and fitness tracker—is being marketed as not just a workout companion, fit to clip onto a swimsuit or basketball kicks, but also as a sleek accessory: Pin it to your tux or don it as a pendant on a necklace with that gown. (It comes in not just black and silver, but also an array of colors one might find in an Anthropologie catalog, such as "coral," "wine," and "sea glass.")

What we'll see on the runways this year is a bit of embellishment on these themes. Fitbit, the Jolly Rancher-sized fitness tracker that's worn as either a bracelet or a clip-on, has been collaborating with luxury brand Tory Burch. Together, they have created a small golden cage for the Fitbit that doubles as a pendant for a necklace, and a similar Fitbit cage for the wrist, in the form of a hinged metal bracelet, which retails for $195. (A silicone bracelet, available in pink or blue, is $38.) Look out for these on models at Tory Burch's September 9 show.

Not all these wearables are for measuring one's heart-rate and daily footsteps. A fascinating collaboration between Intel and noted New York-based fashion brand Opening Ceremony, along with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Barneys, is resulting in a device that appears inspired by Dynasty colliding with Sherlock Holmes. From the outside, it's a large, stone-encrusted metal cuff. Open it up, and it reveals a curved display, useful for "communications purposes," according to Ayse Ildeniz, Intel's head of business development and strategy for its New Devices Group. 

If that sounds cryptic, it is: Intel is debuting the bracelet on the runway of the Opening Ceremony show at Fashion Week, but it isn't releasing the exact purpose of the bracelet-shaped communications device yet. However, Ildeniz told Inc. that it may be most useful for reading one's social-news feeds and being "in touch with your loved ones." The device uses radio waves to communicate, so it requires no smartphone pairing. It already has a name, though: Mica, an acronym for "my intelligent communications accessory."

Ildeniz said for Intel, the partnership with fashion brands was a significant learning experience, one in which Intel let the designers lead, in order to focus on not just the technology, but also what consumers actually want from an aesthetic perspective.

"If we are to make wearables available to not just a few people, but to hundreds of millions of people, our philosophy is that the fashion industry needs to be in the drivers seat, not technology," she said.

Google Glass has been working with massive eyewear-maker Luxottica to design more mainstream-looking face computers. And Google's relationship with Diane von Furstenberg is deepening: It launched a collection called "DVF | Made for Glass" that includes five styles sold on website Net-a-Porter for roughly $1,500 to $1,800 each.

Far off the runway—but with auspicious timing—is Apple. The company made Sept. 9 its official launch date, for what's widely expected to be a new iPhone and also its hotly-anticipated smart watch. That date, of course, lands the event right in the middle of fashion week, albeit at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California. (Critics speculate that what's been dubbed the "iWatch" may actually be more of a fashion accessory for the iPhone that provides extra health and fitness information to its wearer.)

Perhaps closest to something women might buy due to a perfect mix of its aesthetic appeal and technological usefulness is a Rebecca Minkoff bracelet that's debuting this week. It's one of several accessories the brand is announcing that will double as USB caves and cell-phone notification accessories. They're also relatively affordable: $40 to $120.

Still, these are no Harry Winston-level jewels. (Although, in fairness, a French jewelry designer who's worked with both Harry Winston and Louis Vuitton worked also on an attractive—and sparkly!—bracelet for tracking sun exposure, by tech company Netatmo.) While we'll see plenty of Tory Burch, Intel, and Fitbit armbands on the runways, and in fashion-magazine pages, it may still be years before a biometric device truly becomes a fashion statement—if it ever does. 

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a senior writer at Inc. Follow her on Twitter.

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