It’s Electric: Wearable Tech Goes Haute Couture

CuteCircuit specializes in garments that blink with color and light.

There’s no doubt that wearable technology is on the rise. From Google glass to smart watches, wearable gadgets are everywhere. Now, clothing designers are increasingly embracing this trend and creating striking fashion-forward pieces that are melding fashion and technology one stitch at a time.

When the late Alexander McQueen embraced digital prints in his 2010 spring collection, he popularized the fabric-printing technique, which is now a runway and retail store staple. And, last year when Vivienne Tam debuted her “propaganda print” dresses featuring QR barcodes that linked back to the designer’s Facebook when scanned, it was all the rage. But it’s not just the big named Tams and McQueens of the world that are making a fashion-tech splash. Smaller firms, such as British-brand CuteCircuit, are also making waves with their innovative clothes that are blurring the lines between tech and couture.

Led by the designing duo Ryan Genz and Francesca Rosella, CuteCircuit has designed “smart” dresses for celebrities, including Nicole Scherzinger’s 2012 Twitter dress which displayed tweets in real time via 2,000 LED lights. But, according to Rosella, the designers’ road to wearable tech wasn’t an easy one.

Pilot Suit, an exclusive design for Mercedes-Benz, is embroidered with 16000 bright white pixels.

“I first got the idea to design a gown using electroluminescent thread and a purse with GPS embedded,” says Rosella who got her start working at the legendary design house Valentino. “But, people looked at me like I was crazy!”

Frustrated, the CuteCircuit creative director enrolled in Italy’s Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (now defunct) where she says she learned how to apply tech ideas to fashion. “The Institute is where I learned to make smart fabrics with tiny electronics that make them not only interactive and expressive but soft and pleasant,” says Rosella.

It’s also where she met her business partner Genz. Together, the two have been pushing the wearable tech envelope with high-priced couture to affordable ready to wear pieces that are also increasing their brand’s and the industry’s bottom line.

Highlights from the CuteCircuit A/W 14/15 Show

According to Futuresource Consulting, the wearable tech industry reached $8 billion in sales last year and is expected to more than double that figure by 2017. Since 2009, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have seen a steady rise in design and utility patent applications. And experts feel this is just the beginning.

“The younger generation is much more comfortable with technology,” says Dr. Ajoy Sarkar, associate professor, textile development, and marketing department of the SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology. “And as the cost of materials start to go down, these wearable tech products will become much more accessible to the average consumer.”

But, Sarkar cautions that wearable tech firms need to foster a better balance between fashion and function as the industry moves forward. He feels that two key questions: “How comfortable is the wearer?” and “How do you take care of the garment?” should be addressed when designers develop innovative fashion ideas.

For CuteCircuit, these questions have already been answered. In fact, the interactive fashion house was recently awarded a patent for their washable electronic dresses. “It took us five years to get this patent approved,” says Rosella. “It’s exciting and we’re already working on a sportswear collection that will be much more affordable.”

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