The news that Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts is leaving the luxury goods firm to join technology giant Apple is a sign of things to come, says Sophie Curtis.
Ahrendts has been with Burberry for almost a decade, and has been credited with turning it into a globally recognised brand. In her new job as senior vice president for retail and online stores, Ahrendts is expected to report directly to Apple chief executive Tim Cook.
Apple’s decision to hire Ahrendts comes just three months after it recruited Paul Deneve, the former chief executive of French luxury group Yves Saint Laurent, for ‘special projects’.
The moves are rumoured to be related to Apple’s development of an ‘iWatch’ to rival Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, in which an understanding of fashion will be as important as the technology and engineering behind the product.
Fashion and technology have been edging closer together for some time. Back in 2007, British/Turkish Cypriot fashion designer Hussein Chalayan created a ‘video dress’ call Airboune, with 15,000 LED lights embedded beneath the fabric. These could be used to displays hazy silhouettes of sharks in the sea or a time-lapse sequence of a rose blooming.
With the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and Google’s Glass this year, wearable technology has reached a turning point. These devices may not look like fashion items, but they are simply the starting point for the wearable technology revolution which is set to sweep both the technology and fashion industries.
O2 recently unveiled a series of designer handbags that double as phones as part of a project that illustrates the possibilities of gadget recycling. While these pieces are a light-hearted take on the category of wearable technology, they illustrate how the whole notion of wearable technology is growing.
“The key to good product design is having a need for something, not creating something because you can,” said designer Sean Miles, who created the bags.
“We’re moving closer to a point where we want 24/7 access to whatever bit of technology or data we need to get access to, and the most obvious way to do that is to integrate it into an accessory or a piece of clothing. That means taking the technology out of its own environment and putting it into your environment.”
The wearable technology revolution is being driven by the fashion industry as well as the technology industry. This week in Milan, Italian Vogue’s editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani is hosting a global forum for fashion and technology called Decoded Fashion, which aims to connect major clothing brands with start-ups to explore how cutting-edge technology is changing the retail and fashion worlds.
Speaking to The Telegraph ahead of Decoded Fashion, Renzo Rosso, president at clothing company Diesel, said that technology is a key ingredient for all processes within the company, “from the way we design collections and the way we rework hand-made designs digitally, to the way we present collections to the sales force and to clients”.
Wearable computing devices are projected to explode in popularity over the next year and with a wave of new gadgets set to hit the consumer market, ABI Research predicts that they could soon become the norm for most people within five years.
However, Mariel Brown, head of trends at design and innovation company Seymourpowell, said that wearable technology will only take off if it is designed with an eye for fashion.
Google Glass, for example, has been designed around sci-fi aesthetics because Google wants the device to be viewed as futuristic, but Brown pointed out that a fashion designer might have approached the project very differently, perhaps tapping into the vintage style that has been popular over the past five years.
“The fundamental truth behind wearable technology is it has to look good or we just won’t wear it, we need a reason to put it on,” said Brown. At the moment we see it being pushed really hard by the big tech manufacturers, but a lot of the big clothing manufacturers and brands are also starting to show an interest.
She pointed to Philip Treacy’s collection for Spring/Summer 2013, which featured a kinetic LED hat called ‘Virtual Reality’. The hat appeared to be a continuous band of light sweeping around the model’s head, but was in fact created with a carefully positioned propeller headpiece.
Fashion brand Hermes has also said it is dedicated to working out how to make technology the “craftsmanship of the future”, and has experimented with augmented reality and creating novel materials, like transparent leather.
Brown said that the technology needed to create wearable devices is becoming smaller, more durable, more flexible and more affordable. This is allowing fashion brands and design agencies to experiment much more with wearable technology.
For example, flexible screens allow the technology to become part of the fabric, so rather then thinking of wearable technology as a separate device that you wear like a piece of jewellery, in the future it will could fully embedded into the fabric.
This is not just about turning your T-shirt into a screen, but creating a whole new range of ‘smart’ fashion technologies, according to Brown.
“This could be technology that is anti-bacterial so you don’t have to wash your clothes as regularly, or nanotechnology that can change colour – so you might go to a rock concert and your t-shirt can come up with the logo of the band, and the next thing you’re at a football match and it becomes the colour of the team you’re supporting,” she said.
She added that when fashion designers engage with technology, they tend to focus on the emotion rather than the technical functional elements. For example, Studio Roosegarde in the Netherlands recently showed off a dress called Intimacy 2.0 that turns from opaque to transparent as the wearer’s heart rate increases.
“Obviously on a mainstream level people don’t want their dresses becoming see-through, but I think that emotional element is key,” said Brown. “It’s about self-expression, and that is where we’re not yet given a great level of choice or the ability to personalise from the tech manufacturers.”
Ultimately, the wearable technology revolution may not be led by big companies like Google, Samsung and Apple at all, but by fashion designers working with specialised technology start-ups.
It could also play into a much broader trend of technologies permeating everyday life, according to Brown, so just as clothing is becoming more responsive and like a second skin, buildings are also becoming smarter and more responsive to things like temperature and lighting conditions thanks to the use of sensors.
“There’s a huge shift going on with the tangible merging with the intangible world, and I think wearable technology is really just a part of that broader trend,” said Brown.