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Designing for devices: Tomorrow's tech-friendly fashion

Our tech requirements are stressing today's fashion. Fortunately, a new generation of designers is looking to the future of tech-capable clothing.

Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, "Just remember, you can't climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets." Most women would answer, "That is, assuming you do have pockets." It has become harder than ever to carry around mobile devices comfortably, especially as smartphone screens have grown to 5 inches or more. And it is not just your phones. What do you do with your earbuds, your power banks, and, well, your wallet?

Take heart: Things are changing. A whole new generation of innovative manufacturers is working hard to create clothing for women (and men) that is fashionable, practical, and capable of accommodating our smartphones, headphones, and other day-to-day technology. Plus, some of the new styles are incorporating the technology into the fabric itself.

Pockets preferred

One of the first companies to try to fit fashion to tech was Scottevest, which was founded 18 years ago. "I formed it to solve my own problem," explains co-founder Scott Jordan. "I had a Discman, a PalmPilot, all the cords, and the headset that went with it. I was a gadget guy and thought there had to be a number of other folks out there like me."

Scottevest is still out there, selling jackets, vests, shirts, pants, and dresses that feature masses of pockets for whatever you want to stash, including tablets, wallets, keys, headsets—almost anything you could think of. Special inner pockets for phones let you see the display and use its touch capability without removing the device (it's a bit awkward, though, for face recognition, as Jordan admits). There are through-pockets to guide headset cords from your phone to your collar. There is even a jacket with 29 pockets, one of which can handle a 15-in. laptop.

"It really takes engineering," says Jordan, "dealing with weight for all sorts of issues that clothing manufacturers are not used to."

Eleanor Turner, co-founder and chief creative officer of clothing manufacturer Argent, agrees. "We really wanted to engineer this heavy object to be able to sit in a pocket inside the garment without affecting the look and feel and fit of the garment," she explains of her line of women's business clothing. "We had to figure out where to place [the phone] so it wouldn't create drag lines on the outside of the garment and where the balance was so that the weight of the phone could be supported by the construction of the garment."

Argent was created when Turner and Sali Christeson, co-founder and CEO, decided enough was enough. "Sali told me stories about how she was running from meeting to meeting with a laptop and a coffee and a water and pens and her notebook," remembers Turner. She decided that it had to be possible to engineer solutions so that women could "focus on the more important things like [their] career and taking a seat at the table confidently and stylishly." Like Scottevest, Argent not only provides pockets in its tech-friendly clothing but adds extra functionality: Its blazers include pocket bags made from microfiber so that wearers can clean their displays and eye glasses on the go.

In fact, so many designers are now trying to solve the issue of how to accommodate clothing to today's technology that there is an organization for them. Called Women of Wearables, it was created to connect and support women (and men) who work in wearable and fashion tech, as well as augmented reality, virtual reality, and Internet of Things. Started as a meet-up group in London, the community has grown and now boasts more than 10,000 members in 20 countries.

"Fashion is still very old fashioned," says Marija Butkovic, a founder and CEO of Women of Wearables. "It's adopting changes, especially technology changes, very slowly—but it's happening. Technology has penetrated into every aspect of our lives. It is just a matter of time until fashion will have to adopt technology."

Tech in textiles

While some clothing manufacturers are trying to accommodate their fashions to today's technologies, others are focused on incorporating tomorrow's tech directly into our clothing.

One of the first major clothing retailers to offer smart fabrics to the consumer is Levi's, which is currently selling its Commuter X Jacquard By Google jacket. The jacket uses Jacquard Threads, which were developed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects division. According to Google, these threads mingle extremely thin conductive metal alloys with a variety of fibers. Combined with sensors and other embedded electronics, clothing created with Jacquard material can enable wearers to, for example, take a phone call by simply stroking their left cuff—something that could make life simpler for bike riders and others who may not have a hand available.

That's assuming your Bluetooth cuff attachment is powered up. Reviews have been lukewarm, and while the ingeniousness and stylishness of the Commuter X has been generally applauded, few of those who have worn it for any length of time say that the tech is useful enough to be worth the price—at least for now.

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Scottevest's Jordan is not a fan of smart fabrics. "You can attach a device to clothing readily," he says. "You don't need to embed them into the clothing. I don't want to have to charge my jacket." He also points out that clothing could wear out well before the technology does.

Butkovic disagrees. "I am a firm believer that in the future, we will move away from all the devices that we have to carry either in our hands or around our wrists or necks," she says. "That's why I'm a big fan of smart textiles—because you already wear something, right? And then if you could integrate technology into that piece of clothing without noticing that you're wearing a piece of technology, that's great." She believes that one of the reasons there still hasn't been mass adoption of wearables is "because you constantly have to remind yourself to put them on."

She herself is part of the movement toward smart clothing. In 2015, Butkovic brought out the Kisha Smart Umbrella, which uses Bluetooth to notify you if you leave your umbrella behind.

A variety of startups are hoping to make tech-enabled fashion a daily part of our lives. Some are simply fun. The Hug Shirt, introduced by CuteCircuit back in 2002, has embedded sensors that hook into a mobile app via Bluetooth and try to recreate the sensation of touch to the wearer. Emel and Aris has created a line of smart coats that use a flexible inert polymer within their lining (powered by a small lithium-ion battery) to keep you warm when the temperature drops.

There are also companies designing and marketing clothing that use smart fabrics and sensors to enhance the quality of life for people with health issues or disabilities. For example, a student at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering is working on smart socks that can enable doctors to help remotely located patients with foot and ankle injuries. A U.K. company called Proximity Care sells a button that alerts caregivers if a young child or a person with dementia wanders too far. And BrightSign is working on developing gloves that can translate sign language into text and speech in real time.

All that said, we are only at the beginning of the integration of clothing and tech. Most of today’s textiles and fashions that incorporate sensors, batteries, and Bluetooth are either expensive or not quite ready for prime time. However, the incorporation of larger pockets and other accommodations is a very positive start, and it may not be very long before our clothing communicates more than simply our fashion sense.

(Images courtesy of Scottevest and Argent)

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.