Imagine it’s winter. Imagine it’s snowing. Imagine – knowing that you’re already running late for work – you step outside the comfort of your centrally heated home, and into the freezing air. Where the icy wind stings your skin, and the sub-zero temperatures instantly set your teeth chattering, no matter how tightly you wrap your coat around you.
But what if that coat was heated? What if, instead of piling on more layers than a millefeuille, all you needed to do to keep warm was flip an ‘On’ switch?
These are the questions that spurred Rana Nakhal Solset, founder of Emel + Aris, to develop the Smart Coat – the world’s first high-end, self-heating overcoat. Launched on Kickstarter earlier this year, it seamlessly mixes trailblazing technology with the finest Italian Loro Piana fabrics and a Savile Row cut. In other words, it’s a game-changer, a giant step forward for what’s increasingly referred to as the wearables market – that nebulous term that covers everything from fitness trackers to smart textiles.
The Smart Coat’s concept is simple. A light and inert polymer (buried in the coat’s lining) uses power from a small pocket-sized battery (concealed within an interior chest pocket) to produce far infrared heat that spreads across the body, heating the wearer’s muscles and increasing their blood flow so that they feel toasty all over.
The coat is safe, features three different heat settings including low (1), medium (2) and high (3), and although not yet through its first production run, has wooed some 250 backers into parting with their hard-earned to get their hands on one come autumn.
Despite not being the world’s first heated garments – Solset is working with a manufacturer who’s been tinkering with the technology for over 30 years – Emel + Aris Smart Coats (the brand is launching with two for men and two for women) are the first of their kind in that they are pieces of wearable tech which are actually, well, wearable.
Sure, recent years have seen wrist-based devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers get a lot sexier, so much so that CCS Insight expects $7 billion worth of them to ship in the next six months. But when it comes to more conspicuous fashion pieces (like T-shirts or jackets instead of accessories), it seems form is invariably forced to take a back seat to function.
It’s partly to do with the technology available. “The sensors used in wearables used to be so large – I remember once being shown one at CES that was the size of a pager,” says Rachel Arthur, digital innovation strategist and founder of fashionandmash.com. “But they’ve shrunk to the point where now we have sensors like the Intel Curie, which is smaller than the size of a button.”
Batteries have slimmed down too, a development that’s enabled Solset to make her Smart Coat a reality, without the awkward bulk. “A few years ago, you would’ve needed to walk around with something like a 2kg battery to heat our coat, but batteries are getting smaller and smaller,” she says.
It’s not just advancements in tech that are helping make wearables more stylish, but the popularisation of the idea that wearables should be stylish. “There have been shifts on the tech side,” says Arthur, referring to the tech industry’s somewhat rude awakening that overly conspicuous (hello, Google Glass) or downright ugly wearables won’t sell well. “As a result, companies are bringing people in to think about the user experience, and integrating design from the beginning instead of just bolting it on at the end.”
Take, for example, the new Jacquard-enabled Levi’s Commuter jacket, the result of a hook-up between search engine giant Google’s Advanced Technology and Products Group (ATAP) and the iconic stateside denim brand. Although ostensibly an ordinary Levi’s Commuter trucker jacket, there’s more than meets the eye – the jacket is fitted with a sensor in the left cuff, allowing its wearer to easily answer calls, skip songs and adjust the volume with a mere swipe or tap. Which is, when cycling alongside an artic truck, a damn sight easier than fiddling with the screen of your smartphone.
No, it won’t do your ironing for you, and there aren’t currently any plans to make it shoot laser beams. But it’s groundbreaking nonetheless.
Why? Because it looks good. It looks good because, despite the fact that it’s technologically enhanced, it doesn’t advertise it. All its gadgetry is contained in a subtle, unassuming button-sized sensor and the fabric of the jacket itself.
That’s what makes this jacket innovative – thanks to Project Jacquard (a Google-pioneered innovation in textile technology), Levi’s is able to weave interactivity into its garments using conventional fabrics on standard, industrial looms.
“Conductive thread has been around for a while,” says Arthur. “But what Google ATAP Jacquard has managed to do is integrate the weaving of conductive thread with existing manufacturing, without the need to set up a completely new factory and supply chain, and that’s where the innovation is in this project.”
As innovative as the technology of Jacquard is, though, partnering with a brand like Levi’s to debut it is equally shrewd. After all, Google’s prowess in the tech arena is undisputed, but its fashion appeal? Debatable.
“It’s a question of expertise,” says Clare Varga of global trend-forecasting agency WGSN. “Just as fashion brands might not have the technology and infrastructure to make wearable tech a reality, tech brands often lack the ability to make wearables fashionable.”
So, while Google’s technology is undoubtedly cutting-edge, without a classically handsome Levi’s Commuter jacket to weave it into, it risks falling flat.
The importance of balancing technological function with straight-up fashion appeal is something other wearables companies are fast waking up to.
Take Fitbit, for example, the company which made its name on wrist-based activity trackers that count steps walked, monitor your heart rate and measure the quality of your sleep. Spurred on by the success of its collaboration with womenswear brand Tory Burch – a move Tim Rosa, Fitbit’s VP of global marketing said proved “incredibly successful, with the pre-order of the first accessory selling out within just a few hours” – the brand unveiled a second hook-up with New York label Public School in February this year, for which design duo Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne produced five gender-neutral takes on Fitbit’s Alta model.
Unlike some of the obtrusive, LED-littered sci-fi props that have emerged in the wearables space so far, these actually look good. They’re slim, made from fine metals and perfectly complement Public School’s monochrome, low-key luxe vibe.
Elsewhere, Apple has also turned to luxury to help boost sales. Perhaps not content with the initial commercial reception of its smartwatch, the Cupertino-based brand has enlisted Parisian fashion house Hermès to create the Apple Watch Hermès collection: a series of smartwatches which feature an etching of the Hermès signature on their stainless steel case, and come wrapped in the finest leather straps.
With prices starting at £1,150 – more than twice the price of an entry-level Apple Watch – it’s questionable whether the extra outlay is worth it for what is essentially a lovely leather strap. What’s not questionable though, is that the price hike is much easier to swallow with the name of a 179-year-old luxury label behind it.
But if, as these collabs suggest, the opportunity for wearables to become truly fashionable lies within luxury, why then aren’t more luxury brands slipping into their lab coats and developing tech themselves?
“Luxury brands simply don’t have the R&D investment,” says Arthur. Unlike performance- and sportswear heavyweights like Nike and Under Armour, many top-tier labels simply can’t justify sinking money into wearables when they a) don’t already have the necessary infrastructure in-house (technical expertise, machinery etc.), and b) have carefully cultivated their reputation on product that prioritises aesthetics above else.
“Luxury brands can’t risk their names, and what they’ve built, by [pursuing] wearable tech in a big way,” explains Emel + Aris founder Solset. “Considering they’re still playing a lot of catch-up in areas like social media, wearable tech remains a big risk.”
But so long as luxury – arguably the market which sets the tone for the rest of the fashion industry through the trickle-down effect – isn’t making advances in smart apparel, it falls on tech companies, sportswear giants and start-ups like Emel and Aris to make wearable tech that’s as aesthetically pleasing as it is intelligent.
“For me, it’s about the clothes, it’s about something beautiful, and the tech just comes as a bonus, something that makes my life better,” says Solset. “Our idea with Emel + Aris is to first create a luxurious, beautiful product, and the tech comes second, only when it’s purposeful.”
That, then, perhaps best describes where wearable tech is headed – clothes as we know and love them, but better. “It’s not about the aesthetics of the technology – it’s about making a beautiful product for the sake of it, but one which has added technological properties,” says Rachel Arthur.
Think about it: you’re standing in a store, deciding which of two T-shirts to take home. They look the same, they cost the same, the only difference is that one tracks your heart rate, changes colour to suit your outfit, is made from self-repairing fabric and is built in such a way that it can tell you when it’s dirty enough to be washed.
It’s a no-brainer. But as Arthur says, “we’re just not quite there yet.”