Will Wearable Tech Ever Be Fashionable?

Levi's and Google have partnered together—but will their product take off?

After a long wait, and some setbacks, Levi’s and Google have finally debuted their wearable tech partnership—the Levi’s Commuter trucker jacket made with Google’s Project Jacquard technology—at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. Though the jacket will not be available for sale until September, members of the press were finally able to get a first look at the wearable technology, and understand how it will operate.

The jacket has a patch on the sleeve that allows the wearer to control and get notifications from a mobile device (such as the ability to change a song, or be aware of an incoming message) without having to actually check his phone. If that sounds familiar…yes. It’s basically what most smart watches do, which is to say, not much.

In an interview with the Business of Fashion, Levi’s head of global product innovation Paul Dillinger, and Google’s Ivan Poupyrev discussed how at the moment, the jacket (like the rest of Levi’s Commuter line) is targeted at bike riders, who would benefit from not having to look at their mobile devices while riding.

One pro is that the jacket doesn’t look particularly out of the ordinary, which was one of the downfalls of Google Glass (remember that flop?), and smartwatches. In fact, it’s a classic denim style. This is a smart decision for winning over consumers at such a high price point. Both fashion and tech are industries known for rendering their own products obsolete quickly after introducing them. It would be understandable if customers were weary of wanting to jump on the next big fashion/tech thing before the product’s necessity in modern life has been proven. The jacket will retail for $350, which is less than $100 more expensive than the cheapest version of the Apple watch (it’s biggest competitor), but more than three times as expensive as a regular Levi’s unisex trucker jacket, which retails for about $98. Even Levi’s more expensive Commuter line has a trucker jacket for half the price, at $148. It’s a steep incline for the few bike riders who have yet to figure out how to curate a playlist in advance of their ride so they don’t have to deal with shuffling through music they don’t like.

It should be noted that Google has figured out a way to create the high-tech fabric in existing looms, arguably conquering half the production battle. It certainly leaves things open for further development.

“One of the genius components of this technology is that Google worked diligently to engineer it so that it could be worked into the existing supply chain. This is not an invented supply chain, this is the apparel supply chain,” Dillinger told BoF, also saying:

“When everything can do something, there’s no one thing that has to do everything. What if everything in your life could do important things? That’s where we see the potential. It crystallizes why we got excited about this—the idea that a garment can suddenly do more than it has ever done before. It’s important to introduce people to the idea of a really engaging, delightful experience.”

That last line is particularly interesting, as it assumes that fashion isn’t already an engaging experience. The act of dressing oneself—even for those who don’t “follow” fashion—is an inherently personal one.

Think of what people do with technology. We curate our social media profiles to project a view of ourselves we want people to see. We cover our phones in cases, we change the backgrounds on our screens, and plaster our laptops with stickers. We want to dress our tech items the way we dress ourselves. Many innovators and tech people would do well to consider how people use clothing to craft their identities, how clothes make us feel, and the role fashion plays in society.

As it stands, the idea of technology being woven into fabric is still an impressive one. But Google (much like Apple, which partnered with Hermès to make high-fashion bands for its watches), is still thinking in terms of making tech items fashionable. Perhaps a middle ground for both industries would be to figure out ways to make fashionable “it” items technologically advanced. 

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