Smart Clothing: The Future of Fashion

By Pan Yingqiu

During the Rio 2016 Olympics, some athletes wore a special type of garment that used antimicrobial technology to prevent mosquito bites, which pose a risk as a potential source of the Zika virus. The application of biotechnology on garments is just one typical example of smart clothing-also known as smart garments, electronic textiles or smart textiles-an increasing trend in China’s textiles industry.

Different from traditional clothes, smart garments are products of the technology industry. They not only involve apparel design, manufacturing and textiles technology, but also utilize electronic communications, the internet and knowledge of materials and medical science.

The year 2016 ushers in a new era of smart clothing in China. With an expected production of 26 million pieces this year, smart garments are predicted to grow from almost zero to the biggest player on China’s wearable device market. In fact, the expected production of smart textiles this year only accounts for 0.1 percent of the annual shipments of China’s apparel industry. If this growth momentum is maintained, smart clothing is sure to become a promising field with huge market potential.

Technology Behind Smart Garments

After more than a year of development, Smart Clothing Technology, a leading enterprise based in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong Province, has succeeded in commercializing smart fabrics that illuminate and change colors, nano fibers that keep constant temperature and smart underwear that monitors user’s health status.

Bridal gowns made of smart fabrics are of particular appeal to young women, as fantastic patterns like a starry night can be displayed on the dress via selection in a smart-phone app. Wear it on your wedding and you will become a real-life Cinderella.

Nowadays, technology is evolving to take over the fashion industry.

Recently a new type of smart jacket was released in China. With up to 17 invisible pockets, the jacket meets the needs of business travelers in different occasions. Notably, when used along with a special smart band, the jacket will become intelligent, combining the functions of pedometer, music player, and remote-controlled camera.

Thanks to the development of electron devices like the micro sensor and electronic chip, adding intelligence to what we wear is taking the lead in apparel industry. At present, the application of electronic textiles is mainly focused on health status monitoring.  Compared with smart bands and smart watches, smart garments have stronger customer appeal. Analysts expect them to be the next big wave in the development of trendy wearable devices.

Want to play music, answer phone calls and check maps while you are on the move? Now you can just wear a jacket that does all these things instead of tapping your smart phone. In partnership with a famous clothing brand, Google has recently launched a smart jacket made with touch-sensitive fabric. A small, flexible control unit is attached to the jacket at the cuff. With simple gestures like swipes and taps, users can enjoy music, answer incoming calls and check Google Maps. For riders and drivers, it means they don’t have to take the risk of reaching for their mobile phone when they are on the road.

The integration of technology with textiles is an inevitable outcome of the IT industry penetrating into the manufacturing industry, as well as an important development trend of the apparel industry.

Solar cells stitched in your pocket can power your smart phone. Socks made with thermal particles are able to absorb or release heat according to the temperature difference between the ambient environment and your body. Clothes attached with special units can compose music as your steps change. Inspirations and innovations that are expected to be materialized on wearable devices like smart watches are now entering a new promising field.

Currently, sports and health care are two main areas of smart clothing application. Sportswear attached with a heartrate measuring chip can tell information about heart rate, heart fatigue and heart age. Sensors on some smart garments can monitor, store and send health status information to computers or data terminals. Thus, health advice can be provided based on analysis of these important data, and precautions can be made in case of emergency.

 

smart-clothing
This futuristic dress is powered by an electron chip.  The dress can sense when the wearer feels threatened.

Smart Clothing Potential

 

The integration of technology with textiles is an inevitable outcome of the IT industry penetrating into the manufacturing industry, as well as an important development trend of the apparel industry.

Technology, media and telecommunications(TMT) critics believe that smart clothing is all about the combination of the virtual world and reality.

Technology is an important driving force behind the development of smart textiles. So far, researchers have succeeded in weaving circuits into fabrics with the precision of 0.1 millimeter. In addition, data exchange and sharing has resulted from deep integration of artificial intelligence, big-data technology and cloud computing. This provides strong technical support for smart garments. Some experts believe that the space for future development in this category is far broader than people have imagined.

Customers’ demand of individualization is another major impetus to this new smart garments movement. Nowadays, the fashion industry is challenged with the rapid development of internet technology and growing needs for customization. In order to keep pace with the segmenting market, it is an inevitable choice for the industry to embrace a connected world.

Seeing broad development prospects, many enterprises have tried their hands at smart clothing. Generally, they fall into two categories. One is high-tech companies like Google and Microsoft. They usually pay close attention to technological innovation so as to improve user experience and expand their product line. Apparel companies are another key player. To follow the general trend in a highly intelligent and connected world, some traditional garment manufacturers turn to wearable technology to explore ways of transformation.

To exploit the market potential of smart clothing, both high-tech and traditional apparel companies have challenges to overcome. High-tech giants are capable of selling fancy products thanks to technological advantages, but customers don’t recognize their competitiveness in making garments. For apparel companies, they have ambitious plans to equip their products with smart technology, but they are short of research and development capacity and creative minds.

According to industry experts, although some high-tech companies including Google, Sensatex and Wandoak have released wearable products using smart technology, most of which are ordinary clothes attached with electron devices. It is still unknown that how these companies will upgrade their product lines and whether customers will buy such products. Similarly, many traditional apparel companies are uncertain about the actual development direction of their attempts to explore the smart clothing market.

Since the prospects of smart clothing seem vague, venture capitalists remain prudent and have not taken swift, impulsive action. More importantly, the value chain of the smart clothing industry has yet to be formed. There isn’t a single company capable of handling all businesses concerning smart clothing, from garment production and sales to data services and technical support.

Apparel company executives agree that success can’t be achieved overnight. Although smart clothing is the trend of development, companies have to prepare themselves for a prolonged period of expanding the market.

The biggest obstacle for mass commercialization of smart textiles lies in the immaturity of the technology itself. Besides, many other factors also hinder the promotion of smart garments, including lack of comfort, difficult washing, low waterproofness and high price.

Despite its remarkable prospects, smart clothing still has a long way to go.
 

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