Fashion's Next Frontier: Wearable Tech

Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for 42 West

Wearables are now trending, and London-based Studio XO is leading the charge.

Wearable technology is still a subset of fashion, hanging on the racks of our imaginations more so than in department stores. Perhaps this is why even baby steps toward more stylish applications of wearable tech—like Mary Katrantzou’s hyper-realistic computer-generated prints, Alexander Wang’s heat-activated fabrics or increasingly complex forays into 3D printing by everyone from newcomer Bradley Rothenberg to heritage brands like Pringle of Scotland—cause a clamor in the industry.

But the day might not be far off when swiping the bodice of a black cocktail dress could speckle it leopard, drawing your fingers together could cinch the waist to your exact proportions and flicking once more could change the entire knit into a textured ripple. The technology is racing forward; crawling behind it are consumer appetites. The greatest challenge for the wearable-tech industry today is to engineer the public to click over and crave digitally enhanced attire enough to create a market for it.

While products like the Nike+ FuelBand and Google Glass have been steadily chipping away at the masses over the past couple of years, this fall’s headlines, in quintessential Apple style, were written well before its newest gadget hit stores: “The Apple Watch brings wearable tech to the mainstream,” proclaimed The Guardian shortly after Apple CEO Tim Cook’s three-ring circus of a media briefing this past September in Cupertino, California, which for the first time courted dozens of fashion editors from around the world. The digi-stork seems to have missed the tech pages and dropped the Apple Watch directly into front-page news, where murmurs about the industry at large are now swirling.

The London-based design duo Studio XO arrived here by no accident. XO’s principals, Nancy Tilbury and Benjamin Males, have decades of work between them in the adjacent fields you might say birthed wearable tech—she as a trained fashion designer who later worked for Philips Electronics, he as a mechanical engineer and product designer. “We are pleased the Apple Watch is here,” says Tilbury. “Computing power moving from the pocket to your wrist is vital for fashioned technology.” While Tilbury counts herself an admirer of the device, whose early success critics expect will depend on its uses for personal health, ideologically her ambitions for wearable tech veer in another direction: “People have become transfixed by pedometry and steps, and although diet is an exceptionally interesting element of wearable tech, in terms of relating it back to our everyday lives, we haven’t really tapped into pleasure and emotion yet.”

These are precisely the chakras on which Studio XO focuses its attention. The duo incorporated in 2011 after collaborating on a series of couture bodysuits with programmable LED panels for The Black Eyed Peas’s world tour that year. Hybridity is the lifeblood of Studio XO. In order to innovate computational fabrics, the company is full of people who are as gifted with code as they are with shears. A peek inside their North London premises is a preview of what all fashion houses may look more like in just five to ten years’ time.

According to Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at The Centre for Fashion Enterprise at London College of Fashion, who recently worked with Studio XO and designer Richard Nicoll to produce an optic dress called “Tinkerbell” for Nicoll’s SS15 show during London Fashion Week, “Studio XO understands that devices like the Apple Watch are worn on your body but are not connected to your body.” Experts like Drinkwater see this as nothing short of a revolution: “XO will lead us to a future where the body is technology. That is a hugely exciting prospect.”

To date, music remains the locus of Studio XO’s activity. The artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta went gaga for Tilbury’s geodesic “Bubelle” dress—designed in 2006 for Philips and whose outer layer changes colors according to the wearer’s emotions, as determined by biometric readings taken by sensors lining its inner layer—and commissioned a suite of bespoke outfits for her 2013 Artpop tour. Utilizing the world’s largest 3D printers and cutting-edge aeronautics, XO created three dresses for Lady Gaga: “Anemone,” a short white number that doubled as a bubble-making machine; “Parametric Sculpture Dress,” whose contours wrought in response to the singer’s body rendered her a living sculpture; and “Volantis,” whose honeycomb of overhead propellers indeed bestowed upon the singer the gift of flight. Québécois supergroup Arcade Fire tapped the team for customizable digital crowns for its 2014 tour, and in the previous year, rapper Azealia Banks chose a Swarovski-encrusted mermaid bra that twinkles to the beat of each song.

Perhaps it’s more than performers’ flair for spectacle that explains music’s embrace of Studio XO’s work. Music is the first creative industry that has been forced to adapt to Generation Digital. By now it has essentially upgraded its entire constitution. In the wake of this, while the dinosaurs of the industry are facing extinction, digital sales of recordings, self-distributed artists and countless new hardware options exploiting emerging file formats are the tip of the iceberg of a rapidly modernizing industry with a host of new players. While fashion is predicated on the pursuit of the new, progress by and large is measured by revivals of familiar standards. “I still to this day can’t really understand how clothing technology is so antiquated when everything around us is broadcasting,” says Tilbury. “We believe that similar things that happened to music ten years ago are going to happen to the fashion industry.”

Complicit in all this are our phones. As attached to our bodies as any pair of jeans or shades, and fully accessorizable with designer cases that glitter, flash or look like little purses or gang weapons, smartphones occupy a gray area between what we might consider holdable and wearable. “To think that we’d be walking around with a piece of computer power in our pocket even ten years ago or that we’d have something to watch high-resolution video on in our pockets is kind of crazy,” says Males. “The intimate relationships we have with the smartphone have opened up a dialogue around what it actually means to have technology. We see clothes as the final frontier for that. It’s the last kind of interface before you get to the body and, ultimately, within the body.”

Studio XO is ratcheting up its projects in anticipation of an explosion in demand for wearable tech by you, me and everyone we know in the coming years, which according to Males may top $80 billion by 2016. “We don’t believe that’s all going to be wristwatches,” he explains. “We believe once we get these established pieces of wearable technology into the market, then consumers will be looking toward their other items and other bits and pieces that build up their personal ecosystems and saying, ‘Well, why doesn’t this work? Why isn’t this smart?’ ”

Next up is the 2015 release of XOB, B for body, which they are pitching as “Tumblr for the body, Spotify for your wardrobe.” A ready-to-wear line that allows users to customize the surface of the clothes with imagery lifted from the worlds of music, fashion and design, XOB promises to inch closer to XO’s fantasy of truly protean garments and to its long-stated goal of “making science fiction” into “science fact.”