The Smart Dress

As technology and fashion converge, get ready for 3-D-printed shoes, special parkas for smoggy days, and maybe even jeans that fit.

Álvaro Domínguez

Photography, telephony, music, journalism, pocket calculators. The list of industries thrown off course by the iPhone is long. Now, with the Apple Watch, it seems as if the California tech industry is at last coming for one of the oldest of old-world trades: fashion.

What we call fashion is, of course, vast and varied. It includes sneakers and sweaters, wedding rings and workout wear. Even if Apple sells as many watches as it has sold phones (an unlikely proposition), the company will directly influence only one narrow part of our attire. Still, the new watch heralds a broader convergence between the things we use and the things we wear. In a series of conversations, designers, engineers, and futurists told me that they expect many pieces of technology to look more like fashion going forward—worn on our bodies, designed to make a personal statement, subject to fads. At the same time, they said, old-fashioned fashion will become technologized. The look and feel of future clothing won’t be influenced by Apple Watch–style glass and steel as much as by standard business practices applied in a new way. Boring, buzzword‑y supply-chain management—and innovative manufacturing techniques, too—might just bring you new pieces of custom jewelry each day, or pants that are truly your size.

From Wearables to Implantables

At their most basic, wearables—short for wearable technology—comprise a microchip, a data sensor, and a connection to another device. Together, these three elements either collect information (as a pedometer does) or deliver information (as a hearing aid does). Some wearables, like the Apple Watch, do both. Until now, personal-data collection has mostly been the domain of the “quantified self” movement, whose members see life as one big data-tracking opportunity. (Some QS devotees go well beyond counting their steps—they record their moods, their social activities, even their sex lives with varying degrees of persnicketiness.)

But a number of companies are developing wearable sensors designed to appeal to a wider population. This summer, for example, the start-up Athos plans to release a line of formfitting sportswear with embedded sensors that will tell users exactly which muscles they’re exercising during a workout and how hard they’re working them. For clothing with sensors to go mass-market, however, companies will need to accommodate customers’ divergent tastes by giving them lots of options. “If there’s a smart-shoe category, you’re not going to have just one pair of smart shoes,” says Mary Huang, a technologist whose New York design studio, Continuum, has been a pioneer in 3-D printing. Shoes, after all, are differentiated by where they’re worn—you wouldn’t hike in heels—so you’ll want multiple pairs, with multiple functions. Hiking boots might have a pedometer and a GPS receiver, while dress shoes could monitor muscle stress points. Other sensors might wind up only in certain garments. A Netherlands-based firm recently made a prototype of a parka that alerts its wearer to poor air quality (it also has a mask with a built-in air filter).

Most of the people I spoke with predicted a proliferation of ever-tinier sensors. Crystal Beasley, a technologist turned clothing entrepreneur, imagines modules small enough to fit in a necklace; presumably, they could log health data, or buzz when you get a text. One day we might forgo wearables and implant microchips in our bodies. But well before then, Huang says, we may stop thinking about wearables as technology. “Where the technology starts to disappear is even before it gets embedded into people’s arms,” she told me. “It’s where it gets embedded in products you don’t even think about being technology.”

Bespoke for All

Even wearables’ fans predict that, going forward, sensors won’t be the main technological force changing fashion. In fact, they say, some of the production and distribution processes that will come into play—customization, just-in-time manufacturing (whereby only a small amount of inventory is kept on hand), and online shopping—aren’t new at all. But the entrepreneurs I spoke with said that most clothing makers are lousy at maintaining tight supply lines and using data to predict demand, practices that are standard in other industries. In the short term, start-ups like Everlane, an online-only clothing retailer, hope to take advantage of this deficiency by better managing (or rather, minimizing) inventory. Things could change even more dramatically with a new kind of manufacturing—let’s call it “just after time.” If something isn’t made until you order it, it can be customized. And customization could lead to a totally different experience for all consumers, not just the technologically inclined.

Beasley, a former user-experience designer at Mozilla, recently spotted a business opportunity in the fact that few women think their clothes fit them well. “There’s an industry stat that women try on 11 pairs of jeans before they pick one,” she told me. “We don’t look at that many houses before we buy one.” So she founded and crowd-funded Qcut, a Portland, Oregon–based company that, instead of producing 10 standard sizes, will soon offer more than 400 different “patterns” of jeans. To be matched with the best possible pair, a woman will provide familiar measurements, list the jeans brand and size that fit her best, and explain which parts of most jeans don’t fit her well. Beasley has insourced, by creating her own factory, because she couldn’t find an apparel contractor capable of accepting an order for, say, 70 pairs of jeans a day, each one a different size. Instead, most contractors expected her to order jeans in batches of thousands.

Design It Yourself

The next step for custom manufacturing will likely involve 3-D printing, which allows a design to be made on a onetime basis. Huang suggested that we might see “instantaneous consumption”: a person might, say, print herself a new pair of shoes or earrings each day. For less than $100, you can already order 3-D-printed custom jewelry; footwear is coming soon. The design studio Nervous System even lets users custom-design a 3‑D-printable evening dress, known as a Kinematics dress. The “fabric” for each dress is made from thousands of interlocking hard-plastic hinges. Whereas many 3‑D-printed items of this size require additional assembly after printing, because they are too large to print all at once, a Kinematics dress emerges from the printer in one continuous piece that is then unfolded into its final 3‑D configuration. Perhaps because each dress costs about $4,000 to print, fewer than a dozen have been made. (One was acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year.)

As 3-D printing lets designers execute previously impractical shapes and patterns, our tastes may change. Nervous System’s software derives the interlocking hinges’ configurations from the natural world, and as a result, the studio’s products tend to have an organic, fractal appearance. Huang’s clothing has an unusual polygonal pattern. Such designs foretell a time when a brand’s proprietary algorithms may create a look every bit as distinctive as, say, Burberry’s plaid. And while 3-D printing is still limited to hard materials like plastic and brass, future machines will almost certainly be able to produce one-off designs from other materials: already, Knyttan, a London-based company, has developed software that enables an industrial knitting machine to make custom sweaters and scarfs.

Changing Dress Codes

Fashion shocks driven by cultural conditions are harder to predict: we’ve never been very good at forecasting future clothing tastes, at least judging from the ubiquity of androgynous jumpsuits in 20th-century sci‑fi. (Then again, the London department store Selfridges recently said it would temporarily abolish its men’s and women’s sections in favor of a unisex section called “Agender.”)

Will climate change exact its own demands, perhaps driving us toward materials (hemp, for example) that don’t require much water or energy to produce? In an age of surveillance, will privacy concerns influence what we wear, at least under certain circumstances? Last year, as I described in an online article for The Atlantic, I tried out “facial anti-algorithmic dazzle,” freaky camouflage makeup designed by the artist Adam Harvey to foil facial-identification algorithms. I found that the same makeup that made me inconspicuous to cameras made me incredibly conspicuous to humans. Futurists are working on subtler solutions. A Dutch firm has made infrared-light-emitting glasses meant to confound security cameras, while an artist named James Bridle has made a shoulder pad that alerts its wearer to nearby surveillance cameras.

And so the hunt for the next look will continue—though sometimes the shock of the new may arrive via the resilient old. Narts, the trade association for thrift stores, reports that in 2013 and 2014 the number of clothing-resale stores in the U.S. increased by 7 percent. In the back of your closet is somebody else’s fashion future.