Welcome to the dawn of the digital fashion age
BY NICOLE KIDD
Last year was the year of wearable technology; and in particular, the year of the Apple Watch. Next up: smart clothing. From the ‘cognitive dress’ that broadcasts your emotional colours to conducting fabrics, Samsung has a division which at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas launched no fewer than eight such tech-inspired fashion items. Marking its first foray into the ultimate wearable computer, Samsung Fashion C&T seeks to be perfectly suited to weave affordable fashion with mobile ambient intelligence; clothing that people would actually wear and find useful in their lives.
Wearables are the latest stage in the evolution of personal computing, which is always on. Ever smaller, smarter and more personal. Though Samsung released its Galaxy Gear in 2013, the launch of the Apple Watch in April last year truly sparked a healthy competition among the first movers in the wearables field: Fitbit, Pebble, Sony and Tag Heuer. Today, more than one in ten of U.S. consumers own a wearable with three out of four being wrist wearable devices and fitness bands claims Kantar Worldwide ComTech in a report on the very subject. Whereas consumers may still be hesitant to partake in the smartwatch arms race, tech players are hoping to entice beyond the wrist by branching into everyday fashion. Motivated to carve out a niche in the lucrative global textile and garment industry, currently worth nearly $3,000 trillion; wherein, according to Statista, the U.S. apparel market is expected to grow to $285 billion till 2025. Rather than focusing on a limited number of wrists of some performance-obsessed gym rats, demand of wearables will increase when integrated with what people are donning on a daily basis. The objective is to deliver a piece of garment that can provide a smart solution to even the most sedate, tech-uninitiated consumer. Perhaps one day even the staunchest opponent of wearable gadgets will welcome a useful biometric signal from a jumper that currently cannot be washed at forty degrees.
Focusing beyond the gym, Samsung recently kicked off with what almost felt like a coming-out party of its C&T Fashion Division, formerly called Cheil Industries. At the rather noisy CES2016 exhibition hall, the South Korean company unveiled its tech-powered fashion. Visitors at IFA last year might have caught a glimpse of what Samsung labels the ‘Humanfit’. Just like Lockheed Martin has Skunkworks, Samsung also has a secret incubator. Dubbed C-Lab, employees can dabble with creative ideas, some of which have resulted in the first product batch of fashionable wearables, presented at CES 2016. For example, there was the eco-friendly clutch called SOL with hexagon-shaped solar panels that charge a portable battery or a Samsung Galaxy smart phone within four hours. And a newly introduced backpack for the plugged-in high fashion nomad.
And then there was Near Field Communication. In a smart suit, an NFC tag is embedded in an enlarged button on the jacket sleeve, allowing for an automatic unlocking and connecting through apps on Samsung smartphones in do-not-disturb, office or driving modes, and wearers can also exchange business cards digitally. Designed by Samsung’s men’s apparel brand Rogatis and first introduced in 2013, the 4.0 smart suit line has been sold for three autumns in Korea for 500$ and will soon be offered for an affordable 300 to 500$ in the U.S. And what about the Body Compass 2.0? Samsung showed off a set of rather normal looking exercise clothes that can track movement and muscle contractions. Both tank top and athletic pants share bottle-cap sized metal nubs, hiding a processor and a battery which powers six sensors underneath the fabric to track fitness levels like heart rate, respiration and body fat levels. Of course, Body Compass has an accompanying app which provides real-time analysis and feedback on workouts: Correcting your form and alerting you when you’ve rested too long. It can even detect the very exercise being performed and count the number of repetitions. Feedback is then given through one’s smart phone and soon you’ll be able to share information with your smartwatch.
Similarly to the button-sized Curie from pioneer Intel, found in select athletic performance wear popular among snowboarders and BMX bikers, Samsung Electronics’ Bio-Processor is an advanced chip, specifically designed for the health-oriented wearables market. Expect to see more smart apparel with such built-in processors. There is however one downside: They are currently not machine-washable and therefore require cleaning by hand. The products mentioned earlier are distinct in that they are representatives of a smart line-up, making clear that Samsung has changed its strategy. The smart suit, for example, is complemented by a smart belt and smart athletic wearables that look and feel like regular apparel. But this ‘normal’ appearance with built-in smarts also serves the marketing departments of Samsung, Intel, Nike and Levi and the likes, as they aggregate an unprecedented treasure trove of new behavioural insights about its consumers.
Some of these large players also met up in April in Seoul to discuss the Future of Luxury. Among the speakers was the 42 year-old, new CEO of Samsung’s previously struggling Fashion Group, Lee Seo-hyun, who had followed an invitation from fashion editor Suzy Menkes and founder of the Condé Nast International Luxury Conference. “Traditional luxury goods customers used to be baby boomers, but today they are the Millennials, and that means a shift to a digital generation,” she said, citing virtual reality, speedy connections like 5G and artificial intelligence as areas for serious consideration. “They are more independent, but at the same time hyper-connected, which has forced fashion companies to change their marketing. Another change is the emergence of Asia as the largest market for luxury goods. The industry is looking east for growth, so I believe we are at exciting crossroads.” This mother of four and daughter of Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee is intimately aware that smartphones are now commoditised, even in developing countries. And Samsung feels compelled to pursue the ultimate wearable – smart clothing – that goes beyond high-fashion one-offs as seen at the MetGala in May where IBM Watson and Marchesa teamed up to don a so-called cognitive dress on supermodel Karolina Kurkova. The dress was a data-driven garment with embedded LED lights that changed colours in real time, shifting with the social media mood of users.
It’s anyone’s guess what Samsung’s next moves might be but they have cast a wide net to be part of global fashion future weavings via its Fashion Group, Creative Lab, the Samsung “Fashion Design Fund” and through Samsung’s Art and Design Institute. All of these corporate entities are instrumental in nurturing the next generation of fashion and software designers to thread the needle of lucrative everyday fashion offerings at the exciting intersection of wearable technology and smart fashion that will acquire even more information from smart textiles that can sense and react to environmental conditions or stimuli from mechanical, thermal, chemical, electrical or magnetic sources. For the Samsung Fashion Group, it’s not about gadgets, it’s about creating smart apparel that is aesthetically pleasing to consumers and provide functionalities that are both meaningful and seamlessly integrated with users’ daily lives.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2016. Picture credit © Samsung C&T Fashion Group