It’s 1939. A TV news program, Pathetone Weekly, runs a segment to predict what the 21st century woman will wear. They call it Eve, Ad 2000!
One prediction in the show boldly conjectures that women will forgo skirts in favour of pants in the year 2000. Others foresee cantilever heels and glass wedding dresses.
But certain flights of fancy like a climate-controlled belt and a telephone suit — educated guesses that were cutting edge in the 30’s — come pretty close to heat-controlled jackets and mobile phones.
Cut to the present.
It’s almost 2016 A.D. Several technologists and designers predict that real clothes will start resembling science fiction. Again.
Our History with Predicting Fashion
Whether it’s the retro-futuristic style of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the outlandish, leading-edge clothes designed by Gareth Pugh or Intel’s robotic spider dress that defends your personal space, the influence of fashion on technology and vice versa is apparent in the steady rise of experimental themes in popular culture.
Take, for instance, the cult hit Back to the Future II.
The movie introduced its own version of futuristic fashion that was close enough to the clothing styles of the decade to be relatable(like Marty’s jacket), but novel in terms of technology. It was so impactful that there’s a pervasive feeling of disappointment today that hover boards and self-lacing shoes still haven’t materialized.
The common gripe is, ‘What, no flying cars yet? And we call this the future?’
This lies at the heart of our universal discontent (or wonder, depending on your perspective) that the future doesn’t play out exactly the way we think it will.
We’re an imaginative race. We tend to extrapolate the contemporary, pick elements we like from the past, throw in some combinatorial creativity and present a patchwork of recycled ideas as a vision of the future. A good example is Blade Runner’s ‘unique melange of 1940s styling, Japanese-inspired fashion, and punk-rock flash’.
As Will Gibson who writes for the Wall Street Journal observes,
“Historically, we’ve seldom been very good at envisioning the fashion that our real futures would eventually bring. Instead, we’ve accumulated a canon of futuristic tropes: very loose clothing (the toga), very tight clothing (Superman’s costume), sacred clothing (cassocks, surplices, habits), bilateral asymmetry and rigid architectural silhouettes.”
Predicting the future, even if it’s only a few decades ahead, depends on far too many factors for us to be reasonably accurate.
So while capes that move in response to a gaze, invisibility cloaks that bend light around an object and 3-D printed gowns that fit you to a tee are absolutely fascinating, it’s too early to tell if we’ll find them in our wardrobes in 20 years or if they’ll have an impact on the business of fashion.
These predictions and prototypes are important to push the boundaries of possibilities on their own terms, but will they ever make their way into a quaint 2-bedroom home owned by your average family?
Take a deeper look and you’ll understand why none of these cases can draw a reasonably reliable picture of how consumer fashion will evolve. There are two main disconnects between our ideas and reality because:
Designers extrapolate what’s avant-garde to suit future use cases.
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt by now, it’s that almost all intelligent predictions are just creative projections of the past and the present. They’re not meant to be accurate. In fact, they can’t be.
Right now, all we can tell about the future of consumer fashion is that we’re going to be playing a lot of ball with technology. But technology is still bent on making things utilitarian, while fashion wants to stay on the edge of contemporary chic or experimental grotesquerie. And that leads us to the next disconnect.
Fashion-tech can’t be about what designers and engineers want, it has to be about what customers need.
In the Tech x Fashion Talk hosted by Samsung, Carine Roitfeld, the editor-in-chief of CR Fashion Book and global fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar, pinned down why technology’s attempts at fashion aren’t selling like hotcakes,
“The problem with technology is, it’s a bit cold. It’s a bit sharp.”
And the head of industrial design at Samsung, in an interview after the panel, replied that it made him think about how tech could be ‘soft and warm’. He’s not alone.
When Technology Doesn’t Have to Look the Part
Fashion technology doesn’t have to be mechanical.
It’s part of the reason why Apple collaborated with Hermès to create leather straps for its smartwatches. And why Fitbit launched a new accessory, the eponymously named Tory Burch Fret, that has alternating leather bands paired with its signature metal fretwork.
Ringly, the startup for smart jewelry, is taking it one step further and is working with designer and gemologist Annie Van Harlingen to create chic, functional rings that don’t look anything like wearables.
Ringly’s CEO, Christina Mercando, believes that her product is first a fashion accessory and, only second, a wearable. And you have to admit, while functionality is nice to have, screens don’t look great on a cocktail ring.
When Elle magazine asked her about Ringly’s origins, she replied:
“It was always about wanting to make beautiful things. It was never, ‘How can we make technology beautiful?’ I wanted to make beautiful things and put technology intothem. And I think that’s very different from the way a lot of technology companies work, because they start with the technology first and then design around it.”
Wearable creators are starting to realize that tech in fashion needs to appeal to people’s sense of style, especially if it comes with a luxury price tag. And as long as tech stays gelid and grey, it’s not going to permeate a culture where the ability to stand out and express individuality is increasingly being prized over mass-produced efficiency.
From Clothes to Shopping Environments
The experience of acquisition (a.k.a shopping) is as visceral to us as the experience of ownership.
In retail, big chains like Staples and Nordstrom are racing to personalize offers with geo-fencing apps that send alerts with coupons when customers enter a store.
But at the vanguard, brands are experimenting with augmented reality for better in-store experiences. Like Rebecca Minkoff and her brother Uri, who have launched a range of high-end, connected retail stores with smart walls and magic mirrors.
Uri Minkoff in an interview with CNBC, says,
“Our customer is a millenial. She’s an online digital native. She’s never known anything different. And so, it’s our goal to keep in touch with her and all of her devices, to see how she consumes information and how she shops. We want to be right there with her when she’s discovering new things.”
New Zealand clothing retailer AS Colour has incorporated a digital stylistinto their shop window that analyzes the colors of the clothes someone is wearing and suggests a better match.
The Dezeen watch store lets people try on virtual watches by putting on a wrist band and holding it up to a camera. E-Commerce is not far behind with several stores allowing customers to capture photos in real-time and virtually ‘try on’ their products.
Shopping experiences are taking a front seat in the race to capture people’s attention. And fashion businesses are catching on to fact that good user experience, and not just visual grandeur, is the perfect differentiator.
The Road Ahead is Paved with Context
Fashion-tech is going through a paradigm shift that puts the focus on anticipating and satisfying the emotions, desires and needs of the individual. We can see this happening across industries too. Most modern businesses are already leaning heavily towards emotion-based marketing, better user experience in design and personalization.
But the real diamond in the rough is context. And true context can only be achieved by delving into the next frontier of technology: artificial intelligence and machine learning.
AI brings with it its own string of complexities. The problem is not just creating AI that works (which is difficult enough on its own). It’s weaving it into the fabric of everyday life and into products that already exist. But we’ll get there. We’re already on our way.
For instance, take something as common as eCommerce. There are a sea of choices everywhere. Ads are rampant. There are endless rows of clothes, accessories, shoes and bags that materialize with a swipe and a tap. Trends change in a flash.
However, the possibilities for intuitive, intelligent eCommerce are mind-boggling. Computer vision, deep learning and personalization are enabling the study of unique tastes. This helps designers and businesses see individuals, instead of impersonal ‘segments’. And the visual nature of the industry and the endless diversity of personal styles make it a great place for AI to make a perceptible difference.
In a nutshell, focusing on user experience and context are opening up enormously fascinating possibilities in fashion that will be as familiar and commonplace to us in a few years, as online shopping is today.
What if an app can be the perfect personal stylist — monitoring your wardrobe and suggesting items based on your calendar appointments, weather predictions and discounts on complementary pieces from your favourite store?
What if an item of clothing can track activity and record biometrics based on recent movement(hiking) or location(the hospital)? Or if fashion accessories double up as smart devices that don’t need a physical interface for user interactions? Could you wave to buy a product you just remembered?
When we talk about disruptive technology, this is it. Fashion, science, technology and business are threads that constantly cross each other to create patterns that evolve. But one thing is certain.
The future of fashion? It’s you.