The wearable device market—a sector that includes recording and communication devices like Google Glass, activity-tracking Nike Fuelbands and smartwatches that communicate with your smartphone—is one of the fastest-growing categories in consumer electronics, estimated to be worth somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion in the next two to four years, according to an aggressive forecast from Credit Suisse. Over the past year, there’s been an increasing concern, within the U.S. fashion industry at least, that it will be tech companies—and not fashion companies—that will benefit from the boom, with the bestselling devices coming from the likes of Apple and Google rather than, say, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren.
But the fashion industry isn’t reacting passively. In the past few months, eBay and American designers like Michelle Smith (Milly) and Rachel Zoe unveiled the results of a collaboration on $25 bracelets that function as USB cords—an initiative fostered by eBay and the CFDA. Rumors persist that Warby Parker and Google are working together to make a more fashionable version of Google Glass that will give it appeal beyond the tech blogger demographic. Fitbit also announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week a collaboration with Tory Burch, who is designing a collection of "Tory-esque" bracelets, pendants and wristbands for the activity-tracking device maker (see sketches below).
Perhaps most notable of all, Intel and the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced at CES last week a plan to connect fashion designers, hardware and software developers, and retailers to encourage more frequent collaborations in the space. Intel is creating a library of reference designs for wearable tech products, which designers and developers can then use as templates for their own products. (Intel, which does not sell wearable tech products to consumers itself, benefits through sales of components used to make the devices, and from feedback on the reference designs from fashion designers.)
To start, Opening Ceremony and Intel will be working together to create a "smart bracelet" that will be sold at Barneys New York. Ayse Ildeniz, vice president of business development and strategy at Intel’s new devices group, describes the bracelet as a fashionable device that will allow wearers to connect to the Internet and their loved ones 24/7.
Illdeniz acknowledges that it is technology and not fashion companies that are leading the march into wearable tech, and that needs to change. "Basically, what we have observed as a technology company is that wearables are being driven largely by technology companies today," Ildeniz says. "Wearables are very personal things, they are things that we wear on us, somehow we need to be emotionally connected to them, we choose to wear them. With that in mind, the fashion industry should be in the driver’s seat for this."
The growing number of collaborations suggest that the fashion industry is taking a serious interest in the wearables market, but it’s important to note that it’s still technology companies, not designers, who are launching the devices: In other words, it’s not Tory Burch releasing a bracelet powered by Fitbit, or Warby Parker releases glasses powered by Google, but the other way around. But Steven Kolb, president of the CFDA, believes that the industry could move that way.
"I could envision a design studio with someone with a tech background inside as a starting point, pushing those things, like Apple [will soon have] with [Burberry CEO] Angela Ahrendts," Kolb says. Ultimately, he says, it’s about taking existing tech and merging it with designers’ DNA to meet a common objective: a beautiful, useful, wearable product. "It’s about the crossover," he says.