For Ashley Tyler, a designer and former director at Ralph Lauren, Nautica, and Levi’s, the premise seems so obvious. “When you think about it, it’s hard to believe it isn’t already out there,” she says of Sensilk‘s Fight Tech bra, which measures metrics such as heart rate, respiratory rate, and calories burned, and then offers actionable points on all. “Well, the technology is out there,” she corrects herself, handing me the Flight Tech prototype, which is as silky and as light as a camisole. “But it comes in a form that is thick, plastic, and clunky. This isn’t.”
Created by design engineer Donald Yang, an Oracle and Hewlett-Packard alum, Sensilk is biometric clothing aimed firmly at the red-hot female sportswear market. Yet unlike other personal health-monitoring options—Fitbits, smartwatches, and strap-on monitors placed around the chest or leg—Sensilk is using apparel as its platform, with its debut smart tech product a bottom-up design tailored to women.
It is a sea change from wearables’ usual approach, where look, size, and choice of materials seem to first consider men, and then get cosmetically tweaked for the ladies. Plus Sensilk is a rarity in that the vast majority of biometric clothing manufacturers only make men’s options currently.
Clothing is not a one-size-fits-all device, so fit and fabrication were Sensilk’s foremost challenges. “Women have more hills and valleys than men,” says Tyler, who designed the Flight Bra after mentoring Yang at famed incubator Highway 1. “So we really needed to nail down the fabric, as that affects wear and drape.” Good memory and support were priorities, as was a soft, malleable feel. The design needed to be modern to reflect the cutting-edge technology, but “I didn’t want to look like I was going out to a nightclub,” Tyler adds. The sensors also had to remain firmly near the heart despite the wearer’s activity; otherwise the readers wouldn’t be accurate.
Made of a moisture-wicking polyester, nylon, and spandex blend, the final design is “seamless, simple, and sensual,” Tyler says, and features breathable mesh panels and gently padded inserts. It comes in five sizes (XS-XL), a larger span than most other biometric clothes.
But most inspired is the proprietary SOAR soft sensor, comprising silver fiber woven into two bird-wing-like designs on the underside of the bra’s front elastic. The placement is unobtrusive, maximizes comfort, and allows the bra to “pick up tiny biometric signals in really crowded gyms, something most other biometric monitors can’t do,” Yang says.
A removable, battery-powered transmitter on the bra’s front records the signals. The data can be read on numerous fitness apps, as well as on Sensilk’s proprietary one that breaks down information by category or organizes it into a single top-level metric.
Sensilk isn’t the first biometric bra on the market. Textronics, which is now part of Adidas, introduced its heart-sensing NuMetrex 10 years ago (it became the basis of the sportswear giant’s current miCoach smart apparel line), and Under Armour has bras that can be used with a separate strap and heart-rate monitor.
But the difference is that these options make the tech platform king, with the garment inadvertently second. Sensilk, in comparison, puts them on equal footing.
“A lot of wearable tech is oriented around the engineering associated with those product,” says Hap Klopp, founder of outdoor clothing label The North Face, who is serving as a material and branding consultant to Sensilk. “But to reach women, you have to be equally attentive to fashion: fit, design, appropriateness, and current looks. That’s not such a big concern in the men’s market.
“Plus, for women, you need to frame the garment’s benefits,” he continues. “Men often only care that it innovates.”
Sensilk is also tackling the larger production-cycle problems that have stymied fashion-tech collaborations. “Apparel companies have long leads, with a lot of time between introductions,” says Klopp. “Electronic companies prefer rapid development with a quick journey to market. Putting them together is an ice-cream headache, if you will.”
Sensilk’s solution is to create an apparel supply chain that is as robust and adaptive as the electronics’ world’s is. It will allow for quicker style introductions and technology updates.
The Flight Tech bra is on preorder for $140, with delivery expected by the end of the month. The team is already working on a second version with adjustable straps, as well as a men’s biometric shirt.
“If you are an athlete trying to improve performance, you will put up with discomfort and Frankenstein-y things,” Klopp says about the other options on the market, which he likens more to medical devices than everyday wear. “But Sensilk has taken other side, allowing you to collect information without feeling like you are part of a lab experiment.”