There is a great buzz around smart clothing segment all across the world. Over the years, smart clothing, with an embedded computing device that monitors health statistics, has been considered quite a niche commodity and has not been able to reach mass consumers. It is only recently that the demand for smart garment is rising, but the quick growth is still hindered from mass adoption because of delicate sensors that the industry believes can’t sustain sweat, multiple washing and extreme temperature. An ABI Research report stated that the smart clothing market saw shipment of just under 5 million units in 2017. However, the global fashion industry is undergoing a huge transformation today and the brands are aware of the fact that what worked well in the past might not work in future. Smart clothing segment also won’t remain untouched by this change and will certainly see the effects of rising consumerism and changing fashion market dynamics.
A look at smart garment industry
While smartness can be introduced in the garment by introducing sensors that monitor the physical and/or physiological conditions of humans, intelligent pattern engineering in sync with human anatomy can also make a garment smart. Smart bra is one of the fine examples which is a challenging garment that demands support and shape of breasts in dynamic condition (especially bouncing). A lot of companies are trying their hands at smart bra including renowned names such as OMsignal and Maaree, but again, they are yet to see any adoption from the mass consumers despite innovating a lot.
Skiing is another area where smart garment companies are focusing at. It is a sport that has all in it – speed, style, adventure and thrill. Along with these exciting elements, skiing is also quite dangerous and can be a life-threatening sport for the skiers, as all it takes is one slushy patch and the skiers can wipe out, sometimes severely injuring themselves. There are companies such as Dainese which have found out a way to protect skiers against such incidents through their D-air system.
Apart from the above mentioned products, companies like Under Armour have also come up with intelligent garments that tend to relax the body during sleep after heavy workout. Under Armour worked on a project and found out that a human body is incredibly efficient at creating energy, but with heat loss, not nearly as efficient at retaining it. And, this is something an athlete or a gym-goer can’t afford. Such kind of garments are closer to mass appeal as one can wear them in daily routine but what one can see in mass market of apparel, there is no such product easily available.
Reasons for low growth
ABI Research report further forecasts that smart clothing category will see shipment of around 31 million units annually by 2022, which is a whopping 520 per cent change from 2017. However, uncertainty in the fashion industry is not letting any prediction or forecast stay true for years. There are a number of factors that can explain why smart garments haven’t been adopted by mass consumers yet. Amanda Cosco, Founder, Electric Runway, Canada, throws light on some key reasons for low adoption of this category. According to Amanda, the first and foremost reason is price and, in the age of fast fashion, smart garments cost more significantly than regular clothes.
“Usability, availability, privacy and use cases are few more strong reasons. While some smart garments can be washed, many of them require special care which a regular consumer avoids. Besides, consumers are becoming increasingly anxious about their data privacy and what kind of information they’re uploading on the cloud,” avers Amanda, adding, “Perhaps the most important reason is that there’s no strong use case for wearing smart garments daily. Outside of sports and medicine, what’s the benefit of wearing connected clothing all the time? Consumers are hesitant to change their habits unless there’s a good reason, and connected clothing hasn’t made a good enough case for itself.”
Though a lot of renowned brands have tried their hands in smart garment category, they have not seen any significant shift. There are only a few of the commercial projects on smart garments, from big brands like Ralph Lauren to smaller start-ups like Emel + Aris. The challenge for brands wanting to work with embedded electronics right now is cost, as producing such garments is expensive as well as there is lack of expertise inside the fashion industry. Most fashion brands don’t have wearable technologists in their team or smart fabric manufacturers in their supply chain. “Moreover, until consumer demand shows an appetite for smart garments, brands won’t create them,” mentions Amanda.
Mohan Kumar, Director, Digital Fashion Factory, India, has his own take on less adoption of smart garments especially in India which is a booming market for fashion retail but has seen almost negligible development in smart clothing category. As not many domestic brands are foraying into smart garment commercially in India, it becomes even more essential to find out why it is so. Mohan opines that the fault lies in the manufacturing side. There is a massive disconnect between traditional textile manufacturers and conventional electronics manufacturers. The design process and business cycles are quite different and it is compounded by the lack of integrated standards.
“Standards that need to be there for large scale manufacturing and certification are not yet available, especially smart garments that are meant for healthcare use cases,” asserts Mohan strongly.
However, this whole scenario is set to change soon. IEC, an international standards body, has a separate technical committee (TC124) to enable standards in the smart garments space. “Once this is done, industry adoption would be faster,” informs Mohan, who represents India at IEC. “India has a great opportunity to pioneer in this space. We have a large textile manufacturing base that exports to the world and we also are the software capital. If we combine these two, we can be the leader. However, we already have competition from the likes of Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Bangladesh, etc. So, we need to move fast,” comments Mohan.
Future of smart clothing segment
In order to understand what might be coming in the realm of smart wearable tech in clothing sector, let’s take a look at a few solutions that can be worked upon. It’s a fact that the platform is really lacking for those brands and manufacturers who have ideas in their minds but fail to enhance the reach of the same to mass market due to no consolidated platform. Conferences focused on wearable technology and smart fashion raise awareness about the opportunities and innovations in the market.
Mohan suggests, “Events like ISPO and conferences like wearable technology are really helping boost this category to reach to the masses. They are really good to showcase not only big manufacturers and brands but also start-ups that are doing exciting stuff in this category.”
Apart from events and conferences, the industry also needs to look at diversifying the applications of smart clothing segment which is largely considered just an athletes’ category. There are not many players in this space. Big brands have shown interest in this category but have stayed away from investing big time, as they feel that the price-conscious Indian customers may not buy. “So, in some sense, it is a chicken-and-egg situation now. They also look for maturity of the technologies before executing in mass scale,” asserts Mohan, whose DFF is notably working to combine the best of smart textile technology with digital expertise to offer solutions for healthcare and wellness, high performance sportswear, industrial wear and quirky fashion. One of the products is protective garments for pregnant women which DFF calls Anti-RAD Maternitywear.
“This product range has stainless steel fibres that block non-ionising radiation. We have also embedded some semiconductors to enable us to monitor the environment for radiation and communicate the same through an app,” shares Mohan.
On similar note, Amanda elaborates that adaptive fashion is a market estimated to be worth US $ 50 billion by 2022. “Adaptive garments aren’t necessarily embedded with digital technology, but they’re innovative in the sense they’re designed for people who are seated (in wheelchairs), wear prosthetics, or have trouble with buttons, for example. The fashion industry has been slow to consider people with different abilities and experiences, but now it’s catching up,” avers Amanda.
Indeed there are a lot of opportunities for smart clothing to take off in the medical field (monitoring patient’s biometrics) as well as in sports in order to understand the body of an athlete. “I also see an opportunity for embedded electronics in apparel and accessories to help retailers with inventory control, as well as to provide ongoing value for the consumer. Having said this, we still have to overcome issues of data privacy and provide a killer incentive for consumers to want smart fashion in the first place,” comments Amanda.
Although the word ‘smart’ generally gives an impression having smartness due to embedded electronics/IT enabled, there can be smart garments without any electronic. For the best examples of innovative smart garment without any electronics, take a look at the award winning garments displayed at ISPO 2020. “Most of the innovation is in material science, fabric construction and garment assembly. However, there is bias towards electronics and IT whenever there is a start-up led innovation,” says Prabir Jana, Professor, NIFT, Delhi (India) who further goes on to say that the current world market of smart garment is leading a two- pronged growth; the non-electronic innovations are led mostly by existing brands, that too in performance apparel. “While the electronic embedded/IT-enabled innovations in smart apparel are either led by wearable technology brands or new start-ups, India’s proven IT expertise and vibrant start-up ecosystem makes it natural for start-ups in electronic embedded/IT-enabled smart apparel to take the lead. However most of India’s premier textile and apparel education are isolated from IT and electronics education. An integrated inter-disciplinary approach at the education level is needed to light up the young minds towards smart garment,” concludes Prabir.
Rashmi Thakur, Professor, NIFT, Mumbai (India) says that smart textile or wearable concept initially derived from the US military and medical textiles before getting diversified into clothing segment of common people. “As innovations are being done over the years and more start-ups are trying their hands in smart clothing segment, we can see a gradual shift towards the positive side in the global smart apparel market which is also foraying strongly in the Indian market,” shares Rashmi.
Somehow the future of smart garments depends on the understanding level of consumers which is a tricky thing. Most of them consider smart garment same as athleisure, activewear or sportswear for which they need to be educated. “I don’t blame consumers for this. It’s a responsibility of brands and companies which are catering to this segment. They first need to identify what they mean by smartness in apparels. Is it fabric functionality they are offering in their garments or is it electronics enabled apparels?” suggests Rashmi, who is also a core team member of NIFT Lab dedicated to smart textiles, which undertakes tasks such as educating companies and consumers on innovations in smart textiles and their significance as well as feasibility.