In high school, some students are quick to make a distinction between being book-smart and street-smart. The students that are book-smart are generally those who thrive academically – able to memorize endless math formulas or analyze passages of the most advanced literary works. Conversely, the kids with street smarts are able to approach real life problems, take a step back, and adapt to come up with the best solution to have them come out on top.
Many of the recent innovations in clothing design have centered on smart technology – transforming the clothes we wear into vessels for data collection. If smart clothing were to be anthropomorphized and placed into a school setting, they would definitely be considered to have book smarts.
The Wearable Revolution has enriched the user experience with an abundance of analytics to track physiological metrics like heart rate, body temperature, daily steps taken, and the pressure applied to joints during exercise. And it’s not just Silicon Valley that has jumped on board with smart clothing; even traditional fashion houses like Ralph Lauren have started to integrate technology into their catalogs.
There is no argument over the benefit of this new technology. Stepping back and interpreting the data generated through smart clothing can result in improvements in users’ health and quality of life through weight loss, increased flexibility, and more successful recoveries from injury and surgery.
The ability to produce analytics should not be the only marker of intelligent clothing – and it is certainly not the only way for today’s clothing to improve the user experience.
Usable, Street-Smart Clothing
Before the integration of technology and before clothing was used to express social status, allegiance, state of mind, or interests, its main function was just that – to be functional. The first garments served to protect human beings from weather, insects, flora, UV rays, wind, and other extreme elements. Whereas today an improperly dressed human being might not get seated at a fancy restaurant, millennia ago, proper attire was essential for survival.
Thankfully, a number of clothing designers, ranging from independent to high-end mass market, are returning to the basics and prioritizing the notion of usability (while not abandoning smart technology or aesthetics) in the garments they make. They are looking at the contexts in which users wear clothes to disrupt long-standing norms and re-envision their ultimate utility. These street-smart designers know the right questions to ask to deliver the product that best fits users’ needs.
Whereas the developers of today’s data-driven smart clothing reproduce similar technologies, it is the user-driven designers of intelligently useable and useful products that are the true innovators in clothing today.
Adapting to Today’s Technology
Back in school, the kids with street smarts are often the craftiest, finding low-tech solutions to high-tech problems. They ask the questions that others don’t know to ask and, therefore, come up with solutions no one else could.
Let’s focus on some street-smart designers asking the right questions and delivering clothing that offer first-rate usability.
In order to support the influx of information we absorb each day, the size of our mobile devices has grown. They’ve grown so large, in fact, that some Smartphones (and certainly most tablets) no longer fit in our pockets. While the smart clothing movement was able to solve the question of how a nightcap can help you get a better night’s sleep, nothing currently on the market has considered a way to accommodate these extra-large devices when in transit.
Enter the Phoenix Mark II, a jacket with extra-large pockets to carry larger phones like the iPhone 6s and even some tablets. Launched on Kickstarter in late-August 2015, the jacket’s designer, Michael Mulvey, considered the shortcomings of jeans – where many keep their phones – and realized that they were no longer the optimal storage area for larger devices. Abandoning the normative carrying spot may be risky, but in the mind of this designer, it had to be done.
Smart design can also increase the usability of existing smart products. Upscale Scottish outfitter Lyle & Scott reconsidered the way we utilize contactless, swipe pay technology to make purchases. Realizing the swiping a Smartphone past a register requires nearly the same effort as reaching into a pocket and pulling out a credit card, Lyle & Scott teamed with Barclaycard to develop the Contactless Jacket. This jacket has a sensor embedded in the coat’s cuff that allows users to swipe to pay instead of having to reach for a phone or an actual credit card. In a similar vein, Barclaycard introduced standalone gloves that serve the same purpose.
While the smart technology of swiping a peripheral or phone makes the checkout experience much more seamless, this embedded smart design makes things even easier. Street-smarts getting the better of the book-smarts. How ’bout them apples?
Smarter Means More Versatile and More Accessible
Smart design is also about making clothing more versatile. While many smart, data-delivering bras have included technology to monitor heart rate and one has been developed to help control overeating, a bra conceived by Australian professor Julie Steele has discovered a way to give women proper support at all times – whether relaxing or engaging in vigorous activity. The Bionic Bra is an intelligently designed undergarment that transforms a standard, everyday bra into a sports bra substitute when it detects an increase in speed of body movement.
Smart and innovative clothing design also asks questions around accessibility. Data wearables like the Nike+ Fuelband have been engineered to count the “steps” of wheelchair-bound users by capturing wrist activity.
Similarly two separate clothing designers have increased the usability of their jacket for disabled users.
Open Style Lab, a collaborative and interdisciplinary program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that designs accessible clothing, was approached by a client in wheelchair who was looking for a raincoat he could put on in a hurry while not collecting a pool of water in his lap. The result was the Rayn Jacket, playfully named after the client, Ryan. The jacket has a rear zipper so that someone else can quickly and easily help the user close it. It also comes with a “lap flap” that not only ensures that the wearer won’t get wet, but also serves as a pocket to keep their belongings dry.
Now imagine trying to close a zipper with one hand. It’s hard enough to do with two. To solve this, sports apparel giant Under Armour has been incorporating MagZip technology, which allows for easy one-handed closing of zippers, into their clothing. Utilizing magnets that effortlessly bring the two clasps together, the MagZip was originally developed to help disabled individuals who had lost some control of their appendages. Once again, taking an innovative approach and asking a question like, “how can a zipper be closed with one hand?” yielded a brilliant, more usable product.
In the End, the Smartest Clothes are the Most Usable Clothes
Like in high school, the definition of smart is not limited to being good with numbers and the smart one is not always the one who that uses the latest technology.
In 2015, making smart clothes means making clothing means making clothes that are the most usable – ones that serve the needs of the wearer, provide versatility, and are accessible to all.