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Wearable Tech: One, the other, or neither?

Image via  theConnectivist

Image via theConnectivist

The smart phone, now that they are owned by most of the world’s cell phone users, has begun to reveal it’s limitations as we grow accustomed to seeing more and more devices trying to attach themselves to us for a hands free, forever connected way of life. The smart phone developed in us the expectation of constant access to information, contacts, and media. But as technology allows for smaller and lighter design and services become streamlined, a hand held device seems inconvenient and detached from the fluidity of our motions during certain activities. This opens a door for some exciting possibilities of devices that become elegantly interwoven with our lives. Therein also lies the greatest hurdle.

 

Elegant technology does not always yield elegant design. We can accept the industrial nature of our cell phones, tablets and computers because they are products of industrial design. Apple, as an obvious example, is known to lead when it comes to beautiful encasements for their technology. But when we start to translate that approach to something that is intended to integrate seamlessly into the way we present ourselves, the industrial nature of the objects we are seeing seems suddenly hard and robotic, representative of the false predictions of design of the future that most designers, in fashion as well as industrial design, miscalculated.

 

Even collaborations with fashion designers have led to little improvement in the sector. I attribute this to a lack on understanding on both sides. The engineers don’t understand the aesthetics, and the designers don’t understand the technology. So how can they create a harmonious design? Take the USB bracelets for example. Not only are they aesthetically juvenile (perfect for high-schoolers or college students who tend to lose things), but the technology does not engage with the wearer or his/her surroundings. By not applying sophisticated design or forward thinking applications of wearable tech, it misses the mark from both directions.

 

But it’s not all on the tech companies anymore; now fashion designers are in on it, too. And think of Google Glass: check mark next to valuable capabilities, but its promotion in line with fashion week only made the suggestion of mainstreaming the cyborg design seem that much more ridiculous.

 

Regarding the collaboration between the Opening Ceremony duo and Intel, there is little reason to expect a great leap forward, except that the pair of designers have been known to be able to make ‘ugly’ = ‘cool’. My cynicism, it seems, is equal to that of the tech savvy, who seem to consider wearables too focused on wearability and less on their technological value. In the case of the USB bracelets I think we’d find ourselves arguing the same point from opposite sides. Wearables’ predicament: When you try to please everyone, sometimes you don’t please anyone.

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The Tech Stigma

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the development of fashion in an ethical way. Lamenting the stigma surrounding the idea of better business practices–like the idea that ‘eco’ fashion can’t be luxury–and considering mostly the idea of humanitarianism. How can businesses ensure their practices are causing no harm to the people involved? How can business actively play a role in improving conditions of people in the world? One way is more passive, one more active; both would improve the current state of things.

I’ve looked at businesses like TOMS and thought, how can I do that with a luxury product? Surely everyone needs a coat the same way everyone needs shoes. But the built in margin is not as generous as for footwear. But I’ll spend more time on this and the logistical obstacles another time.

What came to mind today was that all the time I have been spending thinking about the ‘eco’ stigma was distracting me from an issue that is directly in front of me and more relevant to my own business development. It is in fact, Starkweather’s raison d’être: The disconnect between fashion and technology.

The aesthetic categorization of anything referencing the future or technology has limited the exploration of fashion brands into the realm of science. The same way there is a subculture of Green fashion designers trying to make a difference in the world but aren’t taken seriously in the luxury mainstream, there is a fringe group of designers who explore technological practices to orient themselves towards the future. But they too alienate themselves into a niche that is largely considered un-wearable. The sculptural, electronic, color changing, fill-in-the-blank garments are often looked at as ‘art’ pieces- and even then, appeal only to a certain aesthetic. Which happens not to be mine, and thus not Starkweather.

And so to be positioned somewhere between Design and Technology poses two problems: one of communication and one of aesthetics. To fulfill the aesthetic demands of the brand’s positioning means being creative about the functional qualities so they are almost hidden. And to communicate about the intentions of the brand means balancing existing ideas of fashion, future, and technology, and the vision for Starkweather’s development.

This is a very fine line that I blame largely on conventional vocabulary. When I say “Outerwear” people’s minds create an image of down jackets and ski slopes or Gore-Tex and the forest. So I wanted to find another word. But found that it took several to say what I meant. Which, in the end, is outerwear. It is our association with the word that is the problem. The same way our association with the idea of future fashions is problematic.

There are some really smart people out there working on garments that can turn people superhuman. Garments that help you swim faster, sustain death-defying levels of heat, and allow us to walk in space! But you will never hear the word fashion associated with these accomplishments. Because their priority cannot be lookin’ good. Their priority has to be the function. Think about it. In some cases, someone’s life may depend on it.

Even concerning mass consumption, our athletic wear already boasts the qualities of sweat wicking, body temp regulation, and UV protection. Not to mention, it’s really comfortable. It’s designed for motion. The ergonomics leave much to be desired from what we are accustomed to wearing outside of the gym. I’ve even said if I had my way I’d live in my Under Armour gear. But for most of my activities that would be terribly inappropriate.

So why is it considered appropriate to wear the outerwear equivalent to the places you would never wear your gym clothes? Because you can take it off right away? What about the fact that your outerwear is the dominant element of your outfit. It is your first impression.

And so as fashion becomes more function oriented, how will designers keep at the forefront of technology?

This designer is asking the questions now, and working on the answers for tomorrow.

Another seed for thought: Will adaptation towards high function be necessary for designers to maintain their independence? Or is the future of fashion for designers to be hired away from major houses to become creative directors for the likes of Space X?  

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