from icarus to the iwatch, wearable tech is full of possibility and peril

Wearable tech may be the future of something, but is it the future of fashion? Now Apple have poached Burberry's and Saint Laurent's CEOs to design the consumer products of the future is there a chance that wearable technology might cross-over into the...

by Dean Kissick
17 March 2015, 10:18am

Inventors have wanted to dress us for a while now but they have a massive obstacle to overcome, because wearable technology is still considered really uncool. That's the conundrum. It's brought to us by engineers rather than fashion designers and, whatever amazing functions it might have hidden inside, it usually looks bad. Our parks are overrun with dripping hot bodies in black-and-orange-pink Nike bodycon sportswear and it looks stylish - an alluring sexual-athletic fetish, as well as a fairly compelling reason to go jogging - but accessorise that with a FuelBand and you look like a try-hard. It's too much technology, it's naff, like David Cameron taking a selfie or Ed Miliband tweeting about owls. In the luxury world it's no less desirable than those intentionally ludicrous Japanese inventions like the loo-roll-dispensing hat or the soup-noodle ruff. The question is: how can companies make wearable tech something we actually want to wear?

Apple, already the most stylish technology company in the valley, has scouted high fashion's boardrooms and assembled a mind-bogglingly expensive team to solve this riddle: poaching Burberry's CEO Angela Ahrendts (the highest-paid person in British business in 2012, with a salary of £16.9m), Yves Saint Laurent's CEO Paul Deneve, Tag Heuer's vice president of sales Patrick Pruniaux, and Nike design director Ben Shaffer. Their mission is to develop the consumer product of the future, the one that will supposedly have us all wearing our ❤s on our sleeves, the closest yet collaboration between Apple and Nike: the iWatch. According to speculation it's a curved-glass screen that wraps around your wrist, housing a collection of biometric sensors that monitor your happiness and wellbeing: sunshine, sleep patterns, every heartbeat. You'll most likely be able to talk to it, and I imagine it will be absolutely amazing at taking selfies. However it also opens up your wardrobe door to darkness and control, in a way that clothing rarely does.

One Japanese lingerie label has invented a True Love Tester bra that watches your heartbeats for flickers of love, and only when the flames of passion are alive will it unhook itself.

First though, a short history of wearable technology. In Ancient Greece, according to myth, young Icarus flew too close to the sun with his wings of melting wax and feathers and fell into the sea; an early warning sign if ever I saw one. In 13th-Century Italy crystal eyeglasses were invented for those short of sight, in 15th Century Europe chastity belts were introduced to imprison vaginas, and in 17th Century China, a Qing Dynasty jeweller crafted a ring that was also a working abacus, 1.2 cm long by 0.7cm wide. In 1868 Swiss horologists Patek Philippe produced the first wristwatch, while in 1978 a tiny computer was hidden inside a shoe in order to beat the roulette tables of Las Vegas; it was abandoned, with winnings of around $10,000, after it burned a hole in one of its inventors' skin - such clothes are dangerous! Nonetheless today we're experiencing an explosion of wearable tech with Nike FuelBands, Google Glasses, GoPro cameras and, very soon, Apple iWatches, and remote-controlled contraceptive microchips.

These wearable computers are able to record everything from what you've witnessed to the distance you've run, and so they can be used in all sorts of unexpected ways. In competitive sport the clothing manufacturer Under Armour - sponsors to the likes of the US gymnastics team, Tottenham Hotspur and Gisele's husband Tom Brady - are working on Bluetooth shirts that broadcast their wearer's biometrics in real time, allowing coaches to constantly monitor their performance. For a more everyday wellbeing, the latest collection from New York fashion designer Tory Burch includes bracelets and a pendant designed to house the Fitbit Flex tracker, and thus keep track of your exercise and sleep routines. For narcissists and amnesiacs the Narrative Clip live-blogging necklace will take a photo of your life every 30 seconds, around the clock, forever.

While we're all very aware of the risks involved with fashion - taking a tumble down the catwalk, having blood thrown over you, being called out on TMZ because your knee apparently looks like a vagina - what nightmares might wearable technology have in store for us?

If you wish to become the next Paris or Kim, well the sex-tape possibilities offered by wearable tech are next level. One Google Glass hack called Glance allows you and your partner to stream what you're seeing to each other during sex; so you can challenge the laws of light, time and decency and watch yourself fucking yourself, as it's happening. However if that sort of self-reflection doesn't turn you on - and maybe it shouldn't - other erotic technologies are available. Durex has invented his-and-her vibrating pants that your lover can control through an app on their phone, even if they're on the other side of the world. One of the reasons for liking fashion is because it makes us more attractive, to ourselves and to others - dressing is often about undressing too - even the feel of fabrics upon our skin can become really sensual (for a perfect example of this try the opening pages ofThe Story Of O), so really it's unsurprising that our clothes themselves should start pleasuring us. That's the obvious next step from all the sex fantasies of fashion imagery; only beware of falling from grace, like the Swansea housewife whose Ann Summers vibrating Passion Pants caused her to faint in the aisles of her local Asda.

Anyway not everyone's a pervert, so, hearts overflowing with joy, one Japanese lingerie label has invented a True Love Tester bra that watches your heartbeats for flickers of love, and only when the flames of passion are alive will it unhook itself.

With all this weird science our world could become a lot livelier, however rather than hiring only high-powered executives from the fashion world, shouldn't Apple approach its creative talents too? There's so many top designers with an interest in technology: Alexander Wang's autumn/winter 14 show featured thermochromic fabrics changing colour on the revolving runway; Iris van Herpen's shocked us with a vacuum-packed Soo Joo suspended in the air; Philip Treacy's spring/summer 13 show included an LED propeller hat spinning round and round in a halo of light. There's no reason why engineers and designers can't collaborate more closely, and return to the Bauhaus principle of bringing form and function harmoniously together.

There's also no reason why the fashion industry can't have a lot of fun with the technology industry. Adidas has come up with a concept shoe that speaks to you, which opens up all sorts of possibilities really. Imagine if your knickers were always telling you how sexy you were, or your trousers turned transparent whenever you approached a Tinder crush, wouldn't that be interesting? And what of post-apocalyptic-Japan-style fighting robot suits? What about becoming an Evangelion and flying around fighting whatever monsters might come? After all it's now only a matter of months until 2015 when, according to the original anime, 14-year-old Shinji Ikari will arrive in Tokyo-3 and become an Evangelion pilot.

While we're all very aware of the risks involved with fashion - taking a tumble down the catwalk, having blood thrown over you, being called out on TMZ because your knee apparently looks like a vagina - what nightmares might wearable technology have in store for us? After all, Icarus fell into the sea, right? Google Glass wearers were attacked in the streets, and the product was eventually pulled, despite FKA Twigs' endorsement. In his short story The Man That Was Used Up, from 1839, Edgar Allan Poe offers the cautionary tale of visiting a military hero at his home and finding nothing but a mess on the floor:

"There was a large and exceedingly odd looking bundle of something which lay close by my feet on the floor, and, as I was not in the best humour in the world, I gave it a kick out of the way. 'Hem! ahem! rather civil that, I should say!' said the bundle… 'Strange you shouldn't know me though, isn't it?' presently resqueaked the nondescript, which I now perceived was performing upon the floor some inexplicable evolution, very analogous to the drawing on of a stocking. There was only a single leg, however, apparent."

As it turns out the General is nothing more than a collection of prosthetics, and has to be put together every morning by his servant. What if this happens to us and the machines take us over? There are important differences between wearing clothes and wearing technology, and the most worrying is that the latter looks to turn our lives into data, and draw us yet deeper into the "Internet of Things" in which everyday objects, even our watches and our knickers, will send and receive data around the clock, and everything will become connected. With forthcoming releases scheduled for the iWatch, the iPhone 6, iOS 8 and its new "Health" app, Apple's going to start gathering a lot of highly intimate data about our fitness and our lifestyle. Can a multinational corporation really be trusted with such private information, and is connecting our bodies to the Internet of Things actually a wise idea? Only this weekend, in his Observer article on The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics, Evgeny Morozov warned of the dangers of the slow creep of this "nudging state", in which our consumer electronics monitor our lifestyles and nag us to improve them; already think tanks and tax offices, engineers and insurance companies are dreaming up ways to reward or punish us according to our personal data. Shouldn't the clothes we choose assert our individuality, rather than covertly report back on us and subsume our lives into statistics? And in any case aren't we too addicted to our phones anyway, without wearable tech adding yet more distractions? So until someone actually sends me some vibrating pants or an Evangelion suit, I think I'll just stick to actual clothes from actual designers.


Text Dean Kissick
Photography Mitchell Sams, Alexander Wang autumn/winter 14

Alexander Wang
Saint Laurent
wearable technology
wearable tech
Dean Kissick