High Fashion Meets Maker Manufacturing

The line between fashion and technology is blurring. What does this mean for future innovations?

Fashion has always been a form of communication and self-expression, a quick visual signal of one’s tastes, allegiances and socioeconomic position. During the next decade, personal fashion and personal computing will begin to blur, offering us a new way to think about what today we call “devices.”

Whereas today’s personal devices help us communicate primarily through their connection to networks and software, the next generation of devices will allow us to communicate through their form factors as well.

The colors, textures and capacities of clothing, jewelry and shoes, enhanced with digital powers, will be new modes of communication in and of themselves. Today’s wearables are mostly focused inward, on our relationship with ourselves, notes Rachel Hinman, a leading thinker on the intersection of tech and fashion.

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Fashion has always been a form of communication and self-expression.

Health trackers help us understand our bodies in new ways and improve performance. Smart clothing lights us up and keeps us safer at night as we ride our bikes or heats our torso, hands and feet on a cold day. Smart shoes deliver buzzes to point out the right path through a city.

But the real promise of smart wearables is precisely what has made mobile phones so powerful: their ability to connect us to others and to share our inner worlds. We’ll need to rethink our technology user interface paradigms, devices and brands, redesigning them to enable self-expression.

There will be a lot to learn from the world of the atelier, with its exquisite attention to the rapid cycles of give-and-take between branded designs and the street.

How fashion and tech will look more alike than different

Fashion and technology production cycles have traditionally been at polar ends of the manufacturing and consumption spectrum. Fashion is about originality and change, with studios producing two distinct collections every year. New designs seen on a runway become “fast-fashion.”

They can be copied, manufactured and distributed around the world in a matter of weeks. Their low cost and frequent updates drive rapid consumption cycles of “disposable” stylish products.

Our personal devices, on the other hand, take years to develop. Their “new looks” come out no more than once a year and often contain only the tiniest variations. And they remain among the most expensive personal items we own.

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The world of 2025 is likely to include smart fashion.

With changes in the way that electronics are being developed, however, the world of 2025 is likely to include smart fashion that evolves just as quickly as today’s ordinary clothes and accessories.

It starts with the rise of what IFTF calls “social manufacturing,” which is the ability of small groups of people to quickly bring an idea to the shelf by using crowdfunding, local maker spaces, online learning resources and services that link entrepreneurs to design and manufacturing in China.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in electronics. Apple and Samsung now dominate the phone market, but new entrants are popping up daily to create the kinds of edgy, connected accessories that will define the wearable category going forward — products like the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset didn’t come out of corporate R&D labs.

While the big companies release smart watches that look more or less like mini computers on your wrist, it will be smaller start-ups, sometimes in partnership with fashion brands, that will build the new world of fashion wearables.

How China will become a platform for smart-fashion experimentation

Part of the story of the growing hardware renaissance is that more Western entrepreneurs are going directly to China. For the first time they are able to tap into super-fast Chinese design and new small-batch manufacturing capacities – perhaps even more importantly, into what inventor and hacker Bunnie Huang calls China’s “network view” of IP and ownership.

In the world of hardware start-ups, he writes, “Chinese entrepreneurs [have] had relatively unfettered access to cutting-edge technology, enabling start-ups to innovate while bootstrapping. Meanwhile, Western entrepreneurs often find themselves trapped in a spiderweb of IP frameworks, spending more money on lawyers than on tooling.”

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We may see many more experiments that bring together advanced garments and personal electronics.

Chinese engineers’ access to technology is what allowed them to mix and match, driving the growth of low-end Chinese mobile phones that competed with Apple on the high end and ultimately destroyed Nokia and Motorola in the space of a few years. Now imagine this concept applied to the world of smart objects.

Of course China is not just the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, it is also the world’s largest apparel maker, making more than 40 percent of US apparel imports in 2014. Thus we may see many more experiments that bring together advanced garment manufacturing and personal electronics manufacturing.

All of this activity will be fueled by China’s own need to innovate, driven by rising wages and slower economic growth. In city halls and corporate boardrooms around the world, economic growth is becoming linked with new strategies to support creativity and imagination.

China is making bold moves in this regard, though it is too early to know exactly how they will play out. Earlier this year, the Chinese State Council announced its “mass innovation” policy and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang personally visited a “maker space” in Shenzhen.

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We can already see the outlines of an unprecedented, cross-border network of Chinese and Western know-how.

A new Fashion Technology Industry Accelerator (FTIA) initiative was launched in Shenzhen in June 2015. A partnership between Shenzhen’s Industrial Design Profession Association (SIDA) and the Council of Fashion Designers of Shenzhen, it aims to become the leading “fashion IoT platform in China,” says FTIA co-founder David Chu.

A bridge between China and the West

We can already see the outlines of an unprecedented, cross-border network of Chinese and Western know-how, capital and creativity that could fuel innovative smart fashion, IoT and personal computing products.

Local manufacturing efforts such as New York-based Maker’s Row, an online marketplace that connects American manufacturers and entrepreneurs so that they don’t have to go abroad, could begin to play a bigger role in smart fashion experiments.

But for the next decade at least, China will remain a go-to source for wearable electronics due to its position as the world’s largest manufacturer of both electronics and garments and because of its dynamic design, materials and entrepreneurial communities. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on the Institute for the Future’s Future Now blog and was republished with permission.

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Lyn Jeffery is an IFTF Distinguished Fellow and contributes to the Ten-Year Forecast program, Tech Futures Lab, Health Futures Lab, and the Workable Futures Initiative.

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