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Industry experts have been talking of smart fabrics/wearables for a while now. But with the covid-19 threat likely to be around for a while, can we see changes that could be demand-driven/consumer-driven?

Wearables have very limited reach
The fashion industry is at the cusp of dramatic change. As technology is set to emerge as a differentiating factor in the days to come, how is the Smart fabrics and wearables market expected to shape up? Fibre2Fashion spoke to some techexperts.


Smart fabrics and wearables are still on the fringe of the apparel market. Our industry continues to explore and experiment, but I believe we are several years away from seeing either technology become common on most apparel.

There are challenges with both technologies that the industry is trying to overcome. First, there’s the issue of scalability and compatibility across garments and brands. For a technology to get any type of scale, it would need to be a platform to which multiple brands subscribe, so consumers can have a seamless experience, regardless of the clothing brand they are wearing. Second, there’s the simple issue of powering wearable devices. Technology incorporated into garments cannot inhibit the fit, function or wearability of the garment, and today’s technologies are still too bulky for most consumers. Third, the technology needs to withstand the life of the garment, and that typically means surviving washes. While technology is certainly advancing, we’re not quite there yet.

I contend that, before we see smart fabrics or wearables in the market, we will see technology that focuses on functionality incorporated into garments. Incorporating passive sensing technology that measures things like heart rate and temperature and connects to a separate wearable is an area of exploration. Antibacterial or anti-viral coatings that protect an individual’s health may become a reality. Or fabrics that respond to body temperature to actively and noticeably, heat or cool are within the realm of possibility.

So, for the time being, I see wearables having very limited reach—maybe in areas like professional sports.

Innovation within the fabric sector continues and wearables development is taking place globally but has been driven mostly by the needs of first responders, the medical industry, and heavy industry/manufacturing. The fashion part of wearables has been limited and not necessarily scalable.

I’m not a big fan of wearables. Indeed, those types of solutions have always been technology push rather than demand pull. I don’t see much happening in this area in the near future. Considering smart fabrics where technology is rather “behind” the garment, they might have higher chance of success.

We will see big shifts in consumption and mindsets which will require a complete rethinking of the current business models and way brands manager their relationships with various stakeholders. The current crisis will drive many companies to reflect on their perceptions of smart technologies and wearables. The massive level of inventory that the industry is keeping now, will give a big boost to sustainability and will increase the intensity of those voices calling on the fashion industry to slow. Smart fabrics for many consumers, is not only an aspect of taste or an exercising of the digital identity, but a driving force of eco responsibility.

Consumers that shop for luxury fashion are very often already using high-end technology in nearly all other aspects of their lives, so this is not such a leap for luxury brands but also a way to engage wider audiences to stay relevant and reach new customers.

Adoption of any new technology is a slow burn unless prompted by an unforeseen business challenge. Innovators who account for just 2.5 per cent of the target customers will always be willing to try something new. But the larger, and therefore more profitable set of consumers, are value-driven. Hence, the success of any innovation depends on the trade-off between price and benefit.

I’ve always been interested in, and excited by, potential applications of smart fabrics and wearables. Prior to SupplyCompass I worked in consumer research and innovation within sportswear, researching and testing the appeal of customisation, personalisation and wearables with consumers. What we noticed back then is that smart fabrics and wearables really only appealed to a very specific consumer of technical sportswear. The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated trends, particularly in the digital space, so it will be interesting to see how wearables and smart fabrics grow in popularity and application. Hopefully with investment and further innovation, they can become more affordable. For us right now, it’s not a focus as we work primarily with fashion brands in the mid to premium segment, with the majority of fabrics sourced in organic cotton, rPET, linen and leather. An application for us that will be exciting is when we can look to smart fabrics to add traceability and visibility across the value chain. In terms of the shift towards demand driven, this change is already happening. We are seeing brands exploring smaller collections, testing with digital renders of products, and experimenting with new business models such as MTO [made to order].

The customer is the king so we believe that the market should always be demand-driven or consumer-driven. The ultimate goal for our company is to enable industry 4.0 which is the on-demand service for the apparel business and we believe the on-demand service could be applied to not only the luxury end of the market but also the mass market. With all the advanced technologies blooming in the market, the digitisation of the garments, fabric, and body could cut the design and development costs enormously.

Fashion designers could now use 3D fashion design software to design and generate 3D garments that are rendered true-to-life. With the concept of crowdfunding, fashion designers could launch their designs before production; decide on an e-commerce or social media platform to launch their designs before manufacturing a single piece of garment. Let the customers interact, make comments, share, and then pre-order everything. The same process could be applied to mid-price brands, premium brands or luxury brands could also enable customisation with the 3D garment designs.

Published on: 20/06/2020

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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