Making Clothing Part of the Internet of Things

Where fashion and technology meet

A guest post by Andy Hobsbawm 

Fashion is, by its very nature, fleeting. While trends come and go with the seasons, this year has shown that fashion’s relationship with technology is unlikely to ever fade. The intersection of these two spheres continues to attract an extraordinary amount of attention from designers, investors and consumers alike.

The 2016 Met Ball – one of the most important events in the global fashion calendar – was titled ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an age of technology’ and explored how technological advances are shaping fashion. But while visions of the near future can be exciting and inspiring, the fashion community’s biggest failing to date has been to flirt with and fixate on the daring possibilities of what might soon be possible rather than look at what innovations relevant to the average consumer can be realistically delivered at scale right now.

Karl Lagerfeld opened the launch of his spring/summer 2017 collection for Chanel at Paris Fashion Week with ‘CocoBots’. While full of theatrical flair, most consumers would be forgiven for thinking “But what’s the point?” 3D printed shoes and set designs inspired by data centres help to bring an element of techno intrigue to the catwalk but don’t help create pathways for that same technology to reach high street stores. Fashion has the power to combine the aspirational with the essential, so should be able to drive technology into the mainstream. Everyone gets dressed every day – at least on week days – and fashion is driven by the ‘next big thing’. So, while in a decade, consumers may all be leasing cars rather than buying them and some may possibly be aided by robot butlers, everyone will still be buying clothes.

21st century fashion 

Fashion houses are already responding to consumers’ demand for instant access in the digital age. In September 2016, when Burberry staged its London Fashion Week show, it ensured its collection could be bought and worn immediately, bucking the traditional lag time of several months. Major labels such as Tom Ford, Paul Smith and Tommy Hilfiger are following suit, moving away from using fashion shows as a teaser for clothes that may or may not be available to buy somewhere down the line.

Yet technological integration offers fashion brands the opportunity to do more than just ‘do digital’ with an Instagram channel or ecommerce site. They can be digital in the same way as Tesla and Uber are for transportation, Airbnb is for travel and Amazon and Google are with their data ecosystems. Fashion can now be digital at its very core, allowing companies to extract the full value of digital data, digital relationships, digital applications and services through the clothes themselves.

Fashion brands are starting to realise that ‘connected’ clothing is no longer just a concept and that Internet of Things (IoT) technology can already be applied in ways that enhance customers’ experience of their products. This is achieved by giving each physical item a unique digital identity in the cloud, allowing them to tap into real-time software capabilities, applications and analytics by making dresses, outerwear and shoes part of the ecosystem of the web.

Born to be different 

EVRYTHNG is an IoT smart products platform that, last year, closed a deal with Fortune 500® packaging materials leader Avery Dennison that will enable clothing and footwear to be ‘born digital’. For both consumers and brands, the benefits of such connected products are far-reaching. Being born digital enables brands to achieve new levels of retail service personalisation. Customers can scan their garments to receive style tips, outfit recommendations and loyalty rewards based on what’s in their wardrobes.

Wearing a certain item of smart clothing could even act as a ticket or pass for an exclusive event. This has already been demonstrated in a collaboration with New York menswear brand Rochambeau, EVRYTHNG and Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS). The partnership produced an exclusive fall/winter run of connected jackets (Brightbmbr.nyc) that offer consumers access to exclusive dining, art, retail and fashion experiences – including a ticket for Rochambeau’s spring/summer 2017 New York Fashion Week show. As Rochambeau co-founder and designer Laurence Chandler put it, “The world we pull our inspiration from, that leads to our design, can now be experienced by the purchaser of one of our products. It’s like a day in our life, experienced through wearing our garment.”

A better business model 

Personalisation aside, connected clothing cements brand authenticity, with garments’ digital identities proving to customers that they have bought the real thing, not an elaborate fake. Similarly, making clothing born digital allows brands to be more transparent about the origins of materials and the manufacturing processes used. This transparency can add real value to a brand, especially now that consumers have become increasingly conscious of the ethical and sustainability issues relating to the products they buy.

Unique digital identities attributed to each item make it possible to monitor garment re-use and recycling, aiding environmentally friendly disposal methods. And clothing born digital should also be less susceptible to fraud and theft, since it’s easier for brands to detect misdirected shipments and to identify, intercept and rectify fraudulent attempts to sell products. It’s important to inspire people with realistic, viable possibilities. Bringing products to market can be such a complex process that it can be helpful for brands to dramatise what success looks like – namely, a product that has its own digital life, a one-to-one relationship with its owner, and that is a data- and insight generating connected asset.

On top of this, every forward-thinking fashion brand and retailer is trying to integrate the experience of their physical stores with their digital services, all powered by intelligent data platforms to personalise shopping and product ownership. Adding digital identities to garments creates a valuable new data signal to use for purchase validation, for loyalty programmes or for programmatic re-targeting campaigns. These all create new channels for direct consumer engagement which, in turn, heralds a brand new future for the way products are made, shipped, sold, enjoyed and responsibly disposed of.

A conversation through clothes 

By making apparel smarter and enabling products to connect with other applications and services within the owner’s digital life, brands can create new consumer experiences, bring their values to life through consumer/product interactions and garner new insights to help them optimise their product operations with real-time analytics. By becoming more intelligent, more interactive, more characterful and more personal, brands can provide relevant, hyper-individualised, and ‘in-the moment’ mobile content, triggering unique digital experiences and services for each person through each product.

This means that goods will become their own channel for media communications and interface for service delivery, enabling brands to connect with all consumers, regardless of where they purchase. Digital connectivity means products can provide previously unknowable insights about how they are experienced in the world. As the Rochambeau case study has shown, the future is already here – it’s just waiting to be more evenly distributed by brands taking a leadership role in a digitally transformed world.

Ultimately, the future of fashion lies in having digital material literally stitched in the very fabric of a garment, from the very start of the design process. Born digital clothes destined to be worn globally can now be digitised at source. There’s no need to wait for embedded, washable electronics to become cheap enough for mass market manufacturing. The strategy of embedding a smartphone readable software identity into products using proven, cost-effective technologies that already exist is making born digital clothing a reality today.

– Andy Hobsbawm is co-founder and CMO at EVRYTHNG, an IoT smart products platform company.