April 12, 2024

Apparel Creations Workshop

Crafting Fashion Trends

Data-Driven Denim: Biotech’s Fashion Sense

4 min read

“Fashion is like eating. You shouldn’t stick to the same menu” — Kenzo Takada

Biotechnology is reshaping the world of fashion, melding science with aesthetics to redefine what our clothes can do. Far beyond just style, these innovations promise to revolutionize sustainability, health and well-being. Yet, the burgeoning field of smart clothing faces a paradox: despite its immense potential, consumer enthusiasm seems tepid. Why? A recent study suggests a clash with the ubiquity of smartphones and wearable tech, which already offer proven stability and functionality. But the story doesn’t end there. Researchers are diligently unraveling the threads of factors influencing the acceptance and resistance to smart clothing.

Imagine a future where your jeans are more than just denim. Textiles and fabrics are embedded with microchips and Bluetooth capabilities, transforming them into your personal data hubs. Your favorite pair of pants could track wear and wash frequency, offering a peek into garment longevity — a boon for both the eco-conscious consumer and forward-thinking manufacturers. And while your pants won’t saunter off by themselves, they might nudge you when it’s laundry time. Or envision a day when your wardrobe safeguards you against fashion faux pas, with built-in sensors alerting you to mismatched outfits or unseemly stains.

The real game-changer lies in the medical potential of smart apparel. The convergence of wearable technology, textile innovation, and medical research is poised to demo clothing that goes beyond mere fashion. We’re already familiar with compression garments used in flights to combat deep vein thrombosis. Now, picture post-surgery attire designed not just for comfort but to expedite healing, reduce swelling, and enhance blood flow. Or a T-shirt, perhaps snagged from a merch booth at a music festival such as Austin City Limits, that monitors your hydration levels, reminding you to drink water between those sun-drenched dance sessions.

And then there are my favorite, “smart pants,” which could revolutionize physical therapy and rehabilitation. Embedded sensors could monitor movement and muscle activity, offering real-time feedback for exercise and recovery. These pants might even correct posture or provide therapeutic vibrations for stress relief, a boon for anyone from office workers to athletes. 

High-tech shoes could come with sensors to track health metrics like steps and calories, invaluable for active professionals such as musicians who spend long hours on their feet. They can analyze posture and gait, aiding in physical well-being, crucial for performers who require endurance and physical stability during shows. Beyond health, smart shoes can offer interactive features tailored for musicians, like controlling music playback or effects with foot gestures during performances, merging health benefits with professional utility in a stylish, innovative package. Review articles published in scientific journals have reviewed such interactive and integrative capabilities.

The Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for Influencers, Innovators and Creatives. Do I qualify?

Before we don our futuristic attire, though, there are hurdles to clear. One hurdle is our own behavior in instances where individuals can use technology to perpetuate abuse, breaches of security and nonconsensual “play.” Another important consideration is the diversity of the end user. This includes, but is not limited to, considerations regarding different bodies, physical quantities, abilities, gender, race, culture and practices in terms norms for social interactions as well as challenges around what is appropriate in terms of gestures (i.e., that may trigger a function) and physical interactions. Two examples may suffice:

  • Sensors on early versions of Apple iWatch pulse monitor raised awareness about potential techno-racial bias because the monitor did not work properly on red or dark ink tattoos. Sensors had to be adjusted because darker skin has been shown to reflect less light to such sensors. Similar findings have been reported for public sinks and automated soap dispensers.
  • The Kinect motion sensor for Xbox required a workaround because it required a “high-five” with another person, which is an act that is not allowed in some religions with someone of the opposite sex, including Orthodox Jewish culture.

To spot these challenges ahead of time, successful wearable companies will need to be diverse; good design will require a plurality of bodies as co-designers.

Successful wearable companies may not resemble a tech start-up or a clothing manufacturer, but they could become something different. Clothing itself embodies moral and political history, conveying information about class, politics, beliefs and other preferences. Combing unknown functionality of wearables, with something such as augmented reality glasses, could create passages to a reality of your choosing. Amateurs and enthusiasts will undoubtedly introduce the possibility of creating custom ‘mod’ versions of their wearables’ programs. When envisioning the future of wearables and the rapid assimilation of technology into everyday objects, environments and context, we must consider these wearables as part of a somewhat unpredictable evolving ecosystem.

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Safety, efficacy and privacy concerns, particularly for data-collecting garments, necessitate careful regulation. Technology and textile standards of safety and efficacy should also be assessed for each product. The level of integration of technology with the wearable will be an important consideration. Can the ‘smart pieces’ be removed without damaging or destroying the textile or product? Companies will need to develop trust to overcome consumers’ hesitancy, which includes concerns related to price, complexity of use, fears of malfunctions, lack of convenient or apparent use, and other perceived risks such as exposure to allergenic material, radiation and electromagnetism.  

But the promise of smart clothing is clear: a fusion of function, fashion and health ready to wear on the cutting edge of technology. For those attuned to the pulse of culture and innovation, this represents not just a trend but a glimpse into a future where fashion meets function in unprecedented ways. 

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