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  • 08.15.11

Smart Couture: Wearable Tech Finds Its Fit

Enough with the cumbersome wires, lights, and battery packs. The new wave of wearable technology prizes style, comfort, and utility.

“Wearable technology.” The phrase is almost as cumbersome as the thing it describes, evoking goofy images of sci-fi from the ’80s: the Ghostbusters’ proton pack, those ridiculous glasses in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There’s a sense in which wearable technology fits within the most esoteric realms of haute couture: so hideous it’s hip, and so hip it’s hideous. Whatever motivates its makers, one thing is certain: Wearable technology has long seemed incredibly impractical.

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Until now. Increasingly, members of the wearable tech community are beginning to think of ways their creations can not only be eye-popping but how they can also be useful. And in the process, they might just stumble on a sizable, untapped market.

Take, for instance, the work of Alex Vessels & Mindy Tchieu. A little while back, the two of them, students at NYU’s Tisch ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program), had a problem. They were both casual cyclists in New York, but like many casual cyclists in New York, they feared for their lives. They were tempted to wear reflective safety vests, as some do, but this being New York, they weren’t willing to make such a sartorial concession. Figuring there surely had to be a company that had solved this problem by making stylish garments with reflective material embedded in them, they searched for one. They couldn’t find one, and thus We-Flashy was born.

At least 181 visitors to We-Flashy’s Kickstarter page agreed with Vessels, having propelled We-Flashy well over its $6,500 funding goal, funding it with $10,616 in June. We-Flashy’s designs, which incorporate a retroreflective material integrated into the fabric of the shirt, will light up like daylight if a car’s headlights catch them. Most importantly (again, to New Yorkers, and other cyclists in fashion-forward cities), they’re not ugly. In fact, they’re downright stylish. Rather than aligning the material in dull strips, as on those traffic cop vests, Vessels and Tchieu have made elegant, off-kilter designs: there’s the houndstooth, a classic textile pattern, or a unicorn tessellation design, or a nautical one, with horizontal stripes.

Stores as far afield as New Zealand have contacted We-Flashy to ask about their price list. Suffice it to say they’re selling better than another Vessels project, ciabatta shoes.

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A pair of projects used wearable technology to convey an environmental message. “Warning Signs,” by Sue Ngo and Nien Lam, were simple garments with stitched-on organs that change color and pattern when exposed to carbon monoxide. A work called “8” by Hana Newman went even further. It envisions a future that is so polluted, the wealthy will choose to walk around in protective oxygen bubbles–and will want to look stylish while they do it.

[For an in-depth look at Hana Newman’s “8,” head over to Co.Design]

When I asked Newman about the future of wearable technology, she looked around the room. “I think the future of wearable tech is that it’s less about awareness, or about collecting data. It’s about activating people to make changes, to make choices.” Much as any artist is protective of their own work, for everyone’s sake Newman hopes our future isn’t populated with ladies wearing fine dresses like “8,” but rather dresses like these developed at the University of Sheffield, which contain catalytic converters purifying the air around them.

Though “8” was fundamentally a work of conceptual art, Newman has worked on more practical projects as well, helping design the garment that participants will wear in a Columbia University study on indoor air quality, for instance. The hope is to make a garment that, like We-Flashy’s, is stylish and comfortable enough that children participating in the study will wear them religiously for a five-day period. Previous iterations of the study had used an ugly vest that, predictably, the kids sloughed off.

And that, in the end, epitomizes the frontier that wearable technology is now crossing. It sounds almost idiotic to say it, but for wearable technology to really take off, it must be wearable; that is to say, stylish, lightweight, and “flashy” only when a car is approaching. If wearable technology finally arrives, it will be because the creative minds behind it finally made it unlike the proton packs or futuristic glasses whose images currently dominate the mind. We don’t want to wear computers. We want to wear clothes.

[Images: Geekdown.com, various artists]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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