Is Wearable Technology Moving into Sportswear?

What would we do without our smartphones? Over one billion will be purchased globally this year, according to our latest data. Small wonder, then, that many in the fashion industry are keen to grab a bigger piece of the “smart” action by developing their own lines of wearable technology, from smart socks to smart bras. The big question is whether smart fashion, like smartphones, has the potential to become part of the retail mainstream.

Global Sales of Smartphones 2010-2014

Source: Euromonitor International

Clothes with attitude

The latest biometric technology means it is possible to turn our shirts, socks and bras into “wearable” smart devices that monitor heart rate, fitness, muscle performance and calorie intake. If that’s not enough, they can also warn us if we’re getting too stressed, eating the wrong food or not sleeping properly. And, yes, we can throw these smart garments into the washing machine along with the rest of our dirty laundry (just remember to unfasten the transmitter component).

The people behind Ralph Lauren’s Polo Tech shirt, which launched around the US Open tennis championships this year, believe that smart clothing will indeed become part of the retail mainstream. “Eventually it will just be part of your outfit. You won’t even think about it,” said David Lauren, the company’s executive vice president for advertising, marketing and corporate communications.

Ralph Lauren has become the highest-profile brand yet to make a foray into smart fashion. Its new smart polo shirt measures respiration, heart rate and stress levels – everything a budding Andy Murray needs to know about his fitness. However, like most smart clothing on the market, it has a narrow consumer base, comprising mainly gadget-hungry sports and fitness fanatics.

Other smart sportswear products on the market, visible mainly in online channels and specialist retailers, include socks with built-in sensors to tell you if you are running properly (Sensoria), bras that track your energy output (NuMetrex) and compression shorts that monitor how your muscles are performing (Athos). There are even dog collars that allow you to track the health and activity of the family pet.

Smart competition

Sportswear is a huge market, of course. Last year, it generated global retail sales of US$255 billion, according to Euromonitor International. But, smart sportswear is ultra-niche, and pricey too (the technology does not come cheap, yet). The wider competitive problem for technology wielding sportswear is that there are vast numbers of mobile devices on the market – phones, watches and wristbands, especially – that effectively do the same job, and often with more functionality.

The new AIRO wristband, for example, can monitor your exercise routine, the quality of your sleep, your stress levels, heart rate and calorie intake. Its list of health and fitness indicators goes on. What’s more, you don’t have to throw it in the washing machine after each use. It begs the question: why would anyone buy a wardrobe of smart clothing when they can have the convenience of a single mobile device to do all their smart tasks?

Advocates of smart clothing will argue that fabric – by dint of the fact it is close to the chest (or feet, in the specific case of running) – will give a more accurate and complete reading of the body’s performance than anything you choose to wear on the wrist or carry in the hand. That might be true, but is it a convincing enough argument to win over the consumer?

Niggling doubts

There are other barriers to the development of smart clothing too. For one thing, it normally has a transmitter (in the case of the Ralph Laurent polo shirt, the so-called “black box” is the size of a credit card). And that needs to be removed and replaced before and after washing. In a world where convenience culture rules, this will be a deterrent to plenty of potential consumers. And, for many people, there will also be that niggling doubt: will the high-tech fabric really stand up to frequent washing?

The wider issue is whether or not fashion needs smart technology at the consumer end of the market. At the retail end, Burberry has shown that it works extremely well in creating a buzz around products. At Burberry’s flagship stores, for example, shoppers can try on clothing that then triggers video content on mirrors and screens via embedded chips. People flock to the stores even if they have little intention of buying anything. Where Burberry has been successful is in using digital technology to get consumers engaging with its brands, both in real and virtual settings. But, once a garment is taken out of the shop, the gadgetry stops.

Smart clothing might not be the smart choice

In the end, the functionality of sportswear, in particular, is about how well a product shapes up to the job in hand, whether it is running, skiing, hiking or playing soccer. The weight of a garment is often a big issue, for example, and it is hard to see how weight will not be compromised by technology woven into the fabric, not to mention add-ons such as “black boxes”, no matter how small.

Away from sportswear, people mainly buy clothes because they want to look good. Yes, there is a huge consumer appetite for smart technology – if in doubt, look at the latest sales of the iPhone 6. However, this type of frenzied demand is mainly restricted to mobile phones and tablets. Specific wearable fitness devices have not sold particularly well in the last five years (and are not part of the mainstream) for the simple reason that people use their smartphones to download all-singing, all-dancing fitness apps instead.

Smart clothing is, perhaps, a shrewd way to develop a bit of a buzz around a brand. Certainly it seems to have got people talking about Ralph Lauren in the last month. But smart clothing will have a big uphill battle if it is going to develop into anything beyond a niche product. There are too many cool devices on the market that most people will turn to over and above apparel if they are keen on that type of technology. There is a role for smart fashion, but in the big “smart” picture it will be a low-impact one.