It already feels like an old trope: “Wearable Tech” – but Billie Whitehouse and her team take this buzzword to a new level. Think Yoga pants that give you impulses to correct your posture. Think office wear that taps you on your shoulder when you are on the streets looking for your next appointment. Think team jerseys that tighten if your favourite player shoots a penalty.
Let’s start things off with some utopia! Where will Wearable Tech and Tech fabrics stand in the future?
Let’s speculate! Let’s say, this is 50 years down the track: Your fabric is made out of mushroom fiber then that acts like a neuron network. I genuinely believe that we will be sending neuron messages to our clothing that are super subtle. The fabric has been 3D printed, with a learning algorithm. Not only is it sensing your body temperature and the outdoors, but also the things around you and your own messaging in your brain. Even before you’re consciously thinking “I’m cold”, the fabric will add a layer of air between you and your skin and it will warm up. The results are: No more wasting power on air conditioning or no more freezing on the subway.
Actually that sounds pretty amazing. Which companies are most likely to disrupt fashion in this way – Does it seem right now as if it’ll be the legacy ones or will new ones come up?
Both. But it’s not necessarily about who does it first, but who does it with the most integrity and the right community behind it. Communities are becoming so important. A lot of those great fashion legacy brands have these very dedicated followers and loyal customers. A lot of their customer service is really fucking good. That’s why people shop there: Because you get a glass of champagne and you get treated like a little princess. I think their fear will stop them from taking too many risks in that space, but I believe that they know it’s time to evolve and their people are exited about it.
We had disruption in the book industry, in music, TV, movies. All of a sudden new players and new ways of distribution popped up. Is fashion next?
We had disruption-ish experiences already with the blogosphere – which is an awful word. For the first time then, street style was more important than high fashion. So a democratization of fashion happened. It lost it a bit afterwards and now there’s a blend. There’s still a democratization happening, we want to build things that feel as if they are coming from the people.
In the end you have to innovate from the outside. You have to make enough noise and then, they’ll come to you.
— Billie Whitehouse
How do bigger brands pick up on this and the tech fabric trend?
The change in their design is also mass-customization. Everyone is feeling more involved, Nike does it, adidas does it. Even some of the bags of Luis Vuitton or jackets of Armani, they have this promise: You design elements of it yourself. So it’s personalized and mass-customized. That was meant to really disrupt the industry. Truth is: We are already wearing wearable technology and tech fabrics. Things like RFID tags are already in the back of every piece of clothing.
But usually industries try to avoid change though, don’t they?
Definitely, especially the fashion industry. This has been happening for 25 years. It’s actually not supernew, but for the first time it’s small enough and cheap enough that people can do it commercially. What also really changed is the accessibility of information about how you can actually build this stuff. Instructibles changed my life when I was first building things. I typed “How do I fit electronics in a Bra?” in a search engine at one point. Then you get one idea and you figure out your own way. It’s all out there and that’s why we know we are not the only ones doing it. We are just the only ones making it look less offensive. As long as you make it not look like technology, people are interested. “Wearable Tech” is this terrible word used in places like big electronic stores. But they are just not where the magic should happen.
Let’s talk about roles. How do the roles change? The more tech comes into the fashion space, designers have to work differently, manufacturers have to, too and brands have to work differently.
Let’s even take it one more step back: Really good designers are anthropologists. So they study people. I mean, take Karl Lagerfeld. He’s 90. I blushed and almost fell to my knees when I met him. He understands how the role of the muse has changed. He’s an anthropologist, he studies people and he know that the people who buy his products are in Asia, so he’s targeting them. He knows what gets them to tick which is celebrity, and so he’s doing it.
What would Lagerfeld and others right now find out through observation about how we approach fashion?
If you’re studying the people right now, you realize their dependency on technology. And so, as a fashion designer, you’d have to be thinking about technology NOW. The role is more about observation than it is about anything else from my perspective as a designer. Then I have to have really fucking smart engineers and software designers and UX designers, otherwise I’m going to be screwed. The roles change because you have to be able to speak in more than one language. The only way to do that is honestly to have really smart people around. My co-founder does a lot of the things I can’t do.
Great entrance to my next question: How do you describe what your company actually does?
We make hardware, software and apparel. But what we are really trying to do is to design experiences. Whether it’s for intimacy or whether it’s for sports or it’s for navigation or whether it’s for improvement in a physical form. We are designing for that a certain scenario and when you are having this experiential design philosophy around it, you are coming up with really different reasons for why you do something.
Do you approach big clothing brands with your work or do they know about you?
It’s a mix. I had a really conversation at a conference where a guy from adidas was speaking before me and he was saying: Oh yeah, you guys come up in the conversation every two weeks. So that is very comforting, because other than him, I haven’t really reached out to anyone from adidas.
Time to brag, then. Why do they talk about you and the company?
To be perfectly frank, the only reason I think people really talk, is because I’m really excitable and I don’t fake it. That’s the truth. I just naturally give the truth every time I speak to someone and I swear too much and I put my heart on my sleeve. I also think it’s a thing in America. Everyone is really PC, so everyone is politically correct and they do it by the book. I’m different in a way that I just don’t like talking in acronyms. I don’t want to say things like “Shit AF”. I’m just telling you how it emotionally affects me and how I respond. Anyone can build this shit, really. And it shouldn’t just be about me. The products do really excite people, because they are blending to different industries to create something new. That’s why the buzz around Fundawear was so huge. And that buzz validated us as individuals.
What would it take for your company to work together with really big brands?
It needs to be cost-effective. It needs to change the experience of the customer and bring them back. I’ve written business models around software and around hardware and apparel. At the moment our electronics are interchangeable between multiple jackets. Something like that: You buy a different jacket every month, but you could use the same set of electronics and you’d just have to maybe update the software. In the end you have to innovate from the outside. You have to make enough noise and then, they’ll come to you. It was hard for us to find a budget for that and figure out how to make enough noise, but I’ve now found a few formulas how to keep an audience interested: The way to keep them interested is to keep producing things. To keep producing things you need enough money for small projects and small focus groups and that’s what’s going to work.
You say, you are into “Creative Problem-Solving”. What does that mean for you: Is there a certain process to how you innovate or does something new all of a sudden pop up?
I think both, 100 percent. A lot of the things happen just naturally in our own company by now. But, if I was teaching a class and there was a group of engineers or designers or whoever it is inside the room, I would certainly walk them through the rigid process. A lot of the stuff happens just naturally now, but the process would be: Start with an area of the body that you think is really interesting. Think about the problem areas of that part of the body. Think about different types of technology, so have a wealth of knowledge that’s filtering through constantly, whether it’s just interesting people in the room or different engineers from different industries. I would have a computational neuroscientist in the room and I would have a couple of hardware engineers and a couple of industrial designers and I would have fashion designers all as part of one group.
How does a discussion among those pretty different people look like then?
They’d all come up with different reasoning and they’d all come up with different areas of the body. But they overall would say: “OK, here is actually a problem we want to solve.” And then I ask them to actually physically sculpt things with their hands. Quite like what car manufacturers do. So I give them silicone potty and I only give them ten minutes to do it, cause it hardens after that time, but it’s this rapid movement. Quick! Think! Move! Think! Move!
That’s during teaching or seminars. Do you do that yourself, too?
Yeah. And we also obviously use haptic feedback a lot. I have to see where battery packs can go and how things can fold and where you would position it if it’s a rigid object versus something you can actually bend. And so it only takes a couple of hours until you get a final thing and then I’m like: “Can that fit inside a piece of clothing and can you make it invisible?” And then for me, the really important question is: Can it do something more than what your smartphone can do? Cause if it can: Build it. And if it can’t: Don’t build it.
What’s your personal background for this?
Design, in Australia and Italy, luckily enough. I did my undergraduate degree at my mother’s university in Australia. So it’s a privately owned institute. She started it off the back off leaving my father, with a thousand dollars in the bank. I rebelled at first to go into that school, I didn’t tell anyone my last name for the first two years. I just said “Billie”.
Text and translation: Christian Fahrenbach
Photos: Sari Goodfriend