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The Brave New Future of High-Tech Fashion

This article was originally published for the Toronto Star on October 31, 2015. View the original here. 

If your clothes could talk, what would they say? Perhaps they’d tell you you’re tired, or that you haven’t had enough exercise today. What if they could help you navigate a new city, or tell the person next to you they’re standing too close?

A new wave of wearable technology is moving away from the wrist-based hardware we’ve seen (think FitBit and Apple Watch) and towards a future where electronics are seamlessly embedded into the fibres and fabrics of our clothing. This next wave of wearables won’t just gather information about our bodies, but will also interpret that data in expressive ways — such as a sweater that changes colour based on the wearer’s mood, or a collar that reveals patterns based on the wearer’s body temperature.

“Every new wave of computing has brought with it a new language,” says wearable technology writer and advocate Tom Emrich. Emrich was among a group of industry experts who spoke at Wear It Smart, a conference on Oct. 1 in Montreal that explored the future of fabrics.

Wearable Experiments Navigate Jacket

Navigate jackets created by New York-based Wearable Experiments help the wearer navigate cities by indicating when to turn left or right using subtle vibrations.

In his presentation, Emrich highlighted connected clothing that is pushing the limits of fashion, technology, and communication, such as the 3D-printed dress Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht created for Volkswagen that releases smoke based on the wearer’s breathing and proximity to others, and a series if city-specific, location enabled Navigate jackets created by New York-based Wearable Experiments that help the wearer navigate cities by indicating when to turn left or right using haptic feedback (subtle vibrations).

Smart garments fall within the wearable technology ecosystem and are a mainstay of the “Internet of things” — the move to digitize everything from our homes to our cars. Since clothing is familiar, it makes sense that it’s the medium we’re using to bridge the gap between our physical and digital worlds.

Anouk Wipprecht Smoke Dress

Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht created for the 3D printed dress that releases smoke based on the wearer’s breathing and proximity to others. (COURTESY OF ANOUK WIPPRECHT)

“Textiles are a flexible conduit for wearable technology,” says advanced textiles professor and author Marie O’Mahony, who also spoke at Wear It Smart. “Smart fabrics aren’t made of plastic or metal, like hardware. Instead, they’re something we can connect with emotionally.” O’Mahony explains that while high-performance and responsive fabrics aren’t new (for example, materials that wick moisture from the body or protect the skin from UV rays) what’s novel is technology’s ability to personalize clothing and bring it to life.

Although connected clothing may seem like the stuff of science fiction, a number of leading technology and apparel brands are joining forces to forge the future of fabrics: earlier this year, Google announced Project Jacquard, collaboration with Levi’s to weave gesture interactivity into textiles.

The fibres of your jeans would be made from the same touch-sensitive materials as the face of your smartphone, with embedded electronics and bluetooth connectivity, so that you could dim the lights in your home just by swiping your jeans.

ralph-lauren-polo-tech-shirt-1

Ralph Lauren’s Polo Tech shirt was created in collaboration with Montreal-based OMSignal. Silver fibres woven into the shirt capture biodata and interface with your iPhone to communicate the ABCs of biometrics: A is for activity and movement, B is for breathing, and C is for cardiac. (PHOTO COURTESY OF OMSIGNAL)

“Smart apparel is posed to change clothing the same way colour TV changed electronics. It will become a baseline expectation from consumers,” predicts Stephane Marceau, CEO and co-founder of OMSignal, a Montreal-based company that helps major brands develop smart apparel. OMSignal recently collaborated with Ralph Lauren to deliver the technology inside the Polo Tech shirt. The shirt is woven with silver fibres that interface with the wearer’s iPhone to provide real-time metrics such as heart rate and breathing depth.

In line with the Polo Tech shirt, smart apparel products available on the market today focus on health and wellness. By gathering biodata, our clothing can now monitor and measure our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Beyond holding up a data mirror, connected clothing also augments our bodies to enable new forms of communication with the world around us. For example, the adrenalin dress by Chromat, a technological take on the little black dress that stole the show at New York Fashion Week last month. This 3D-printed dress is equipped with carbon fibre wings that expand and contract based on the wearer’s breathing and adrenalin levels. Using sensors in the waist that relay biodata to wires controlling the wings, the dress mimics the fight or flight response of animals and insects that enlarge their appearance to intimidate potential threats.

While clothing has long communicated style, status, and even our role within the world, advancements in textiles and technology that mix data and design are moving us towards a brave new future of fashion where garments are not ready-to-wear or off-the-rack but instead truly unique expressions of our bodies and minds.

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