This episode of Fast Forward focuses on fashion. Liza Kindred is the founder of Third Wave Fashion, a consultancy that helped create and define the fashion technology industry, and creator of Mindful Technology. We spoke about wearable technology, the role of fashion in design, and how the fashion industry is operating in this hyper-connected world that we live in today.
Liza, thanks so much for stopping by the lab. So Fashion Week wrapped up here in New York not long ago, but it seems like it was longer than a week.
Yes, Fashion Week is actually a month long. It goes between cities—it goes to Milan, it goes to Paris. But in New York, where we believe we live in the center of the universe—or at least we behave like that sometimes—Fashion Week is finished.
We cover fashion technology at PCMag. We cover wearables all the time, year round. We cover fashion technology when it's Fashion Week and we send people to the show. This year it seemed a little disappointing, from a technology perspective.
Yes, that's interesting. Disappointing. So one of the main things that changed this year as opposed to some of the most recent years, is that there's no longer a partnership happening between the CFDA, which is the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who puts on the official Fashion Week. Their partnership with Intel is not happening anymore.
And coincidentally, a little less technology this year.
Exactly. In fact, Intel has dissolved their fashion group and kind of absorbed them into some of the other groups, so that partnership isn't going on anymore. We're not seeing that big push that's at the forefront. But I would say that technology has completely upended Fashion Week. Even though we weren't necessarily seeing things as much on the runways, the entirety of Fashion Week and [the event] in general has changed because of technology.
The fashion industry is in this, some would say crisis, because of this idea that's called "see now, buy now"—which basically means that people are buying what's being shown on the runways as opposed to waiting six months or [more] for whatever is on the runway to actually come into a store. Now, tons of designers and department stores are trying to figure out when we show something on the runway, everyone posts it on Instagram, all these influencers maybe get samples of the items. By the time it's in the store six months later, is there so much fatigue in seeing our cool new designs that people don't want to buy it anymore? So a lot of designers are trying to figure out when to actually be shipping the clothes that they're showing on the runway.
That's really interesting. Because you think about the whole fashion industry was generally around a print cycle and you'd have the fall line and the spring line and there'd be months between when these things would be shown and then when they would actually be shipped.
Right, right. So long.
And now you're saying that whole thing has collapsed and people want to buy now. And if they don't build it and ship it now, somebody's going to copy it and ship their version of it.
Always. The fast fashion, the Zaras and the Forever 21s and H&Ms of the world, they knock off stuff from the higher-end designers and even from indie designers. And they have it in the stores in two weeks—an insane time to market. They won't see something, it'll be like a completely blank slate and in two weeks they'll have it in stores, which is an incredible thing to do on the back end. But that's another technological advance, if you will, that is pushing the fashion industry out of its comfort zone and having to change things entirely.
Can you talk a little bit about that, the rapid manufacturing model that's gotten transformed. Rapid prototyping, but rapid prototyping at scale, where they'll build thousands of garments and send them all over the country.
Yes, [it happens] very quickly. And so some of the most interesting innovations in fashion are actually happening on the back end, behind the scenes in ways that consumers won't see. I think a lot of times when we think of fashion tech we think of either wearables or maybe a dress that lights up on the runway.
Technology elements, and I think it's interesting that Intel may have had something to do with this, incorporating technology into the runways seemed a little forced a lot of times.
Why are we shooting this with drones when we're surrounded by photographers?
Why not? Because drones are there. And I think that there's been an interesting thing that's happened with fashion and with technology in that for a long time, the brands that people wanted and the money that, let's say teenagers, were spending was going into fashion. I myself, when I was spending money as a teenager, I was spending it on certain brands of clothing. I wanted some Pepe jeans and an Aspree bag. I'm sure anyone else that was born in 1978 is like, "Yes, I wanted that, too." But right now, my daughter who is a teenager is not at all interested in fashion brands. She is interested in expressing herself, how she looks, and trends, but she could give a care about what the brands are. She's more interested in making sure that she has the latest gadgets.
Because it enables her lifestyle in a way that clothing may or may not.
And she's able to have expression as well. So, whereas before we might be expressing ourselves through our clothing, now she is very expressive on Snapchat, you know or through these other platforms. Dollars are moving from being spent on fashion to being spent on technology. So that's something that fashion is really trying to grapple with—how do we compete with this, how do we embrace this? And so we have a lot of these slacked on partnerships where you find drones on the runway, or your dress lights up. And that's not necessarily something that consumers are demanding, it's marketing.
Google Glass made its epic debut during Fashion Week and it turned out to be a disaster. I wish somebody had asked me in advance whether or not this was a good idea. This was never going to belong on the runway. And by forcing it up there, it really highlighted all of the device's weaknesses and none of its strengths.
You know, it's interesting. I know the people that worked on that partnership and made that decision and they don't see it as an epic fail. I learned by asking how they felt about their epic fail. But they see it as they wanted to test the market, and they tested the market, and they see it as a successful test.
It was a beta product. When Snapchat did the same thing with Spectacles and limited demand, it was a beta. It wasn't ever going to scale. It was something they were doing to see how it would work.
Right. But don't you feel like Snapchat was a little more clear about that?
Very clear. Well, they had a negative example. They had something to learn from.
Absolutely. But talking about that, I think there are so many wearables these days, to the detriment of the entire industry. People are putting out prototypes and calling them products. I think you know this full well because this is something that you focus on so much. But there are so many companies that are out there—I don't know if it's a rush to market or what it is, but we're seeing companies—and not just little companies, not just small brands, not just Kickstarters—but big companies putting products out there: the Google Glass is a great example. That was always meant to be just a prototype and something to play with, but they kind of pretend that it's for sale. Do you see this?
Yes. And they try to build up mass market appeal and make it cool. And you wouldn't need to do that if you were just going to test a prototype. Is there anybody that you know that's doing it well, that's really got some technological innovation but also a sense of fashion, a sense of utility for the user?
I feel like that changes from season to season and from month to month. Some of the things that I'm most interested in, as you know, are things that focus on more mindful technology. And that comes from a place of having done work on wearables for so long and [having] seen where it can really go awry and where the problems are. I'm really interested in companies that are using technology to help facilitate normal human interactions and normal human lives and aren't trying to augment us into something crazy and different. One of my favorite examples of that is a company called Ringly. Have you reviewed them?
I love them.
Yeah, Ringly is … we've actually had people on the show that have been wearing Ringly.
That's great. It works.
I've actually seen it in the wild.
That is an awesome example because there are so many times when we read about things over and over again, you never see that stuff in the wild.
I was shocked to see it. Maybe it's a New York thing. But explain what Ringly is and how it works.
Ringly is [a] notification wearable. Wearables do a million different things, notifications are just one of them. And Ringly is a beautiful. It's a ring and now they have a bracelet, and it's made with semi-precious jewels. It's not a plastic, clunky type of thing. I almost wore mine today. I really love it.
I should've told you to wear it.
It's a great product. So it has a very small light and a very small vibrating motor. So you, as the consumer, as the wearer, can decide what you want to be notified about. They work with, it must be over 100 different apps now. You can decide I'm in a meeting that's really important, but if the babysitter calls, I want to be interrupted for that. Or the boss calls, or if my Uber shows up, or if my stocks tank, or whatever it is – you can set that. It's a piece of jewelry that you wear that privately tells you when you have a notification that's important to you. So if you are waiting for a car or you wanted to make sure that you don't miss something, you can just put your phone away. You can keep it in your pocket or keep it in your bag, you don't have to keep getting it out and checking it because Ringly will let you know if something important happens.
I love that product because it solves a real problem.
Whereas yes, you can get a text message, but you have to check your phone and if you check your phone you have to scroll through all your notifications, maybe your emails. Even your phone might be ringing too often. But Ringly you can set for just the few people-
Just the important stuff.
That you really need to get through. And it's subtle. So there's a reason why you're wearing it, it's not in your pocket, it's always on your hand, so you know you're never going to miss that call.
Exactly. And I think that that's an important thing to look at when we're looking at how fashion and technology are blending together. The best examples of that are when the technology just disappears. And hopefully whatever that wearable is, is something that is beautiful enough that you would wear it even if it didn't have that extra level of functionality. That, to me, is the killer experience when … I've worn my Ringly when it's not charged up because I think it's a great looking ring. If I had this fancy handbag, would I carry it even if it wasn't charging my phone? Or whatever that is, is it something that is in and of itself beautifully designed or fashionable or lets me express myself the way that I want to, even if it's not doing that techie thing.
I gotcha. Let's get a question in from the audience.
Is there any involvement with vibro-tactile, extra sensory transducer technology or vest for assisting hearing impaired people?
So, wearable for the hearing impaired. Technologically, there's been tremendous advances in that space over the last couple of years. I don't know of anything in the fashion space or in the wearables space per se.
That's interesting … it's a great question because one of the things that is so wonderful about wearables is that we're actually starting to solve some real problems and do some things that are helping people, not just making their already easy lives easier. So there aren't necessarily things that I know of that are "fashion tech" but there are some amazing wearables that are doing things for people that are hearing impaired or vision impaired. There are some beautifully designed products for children with Autism, or people who suffer from seizure disorders, and a lot of those are starting to actually look like "normal" products. The T Jacket is an example, which looks like a hoodie and functions just like a hoodie and it's for children that have Autism. It connects with an app and it gives a hug. So that's one of the things for children that have different types of issues that they're grappling with – there's a strong touch that can help them to feel better and so they have control and they can have their jacket.
They can self-soothe that way.
Exactly. And while that doesn't answer that question directly, that's an example of one of the many different products that are coming out that look like your average product but have that extra added functionality and is making the world a better place.
It seems like there's almost two different paths when you're building wearable technology. One of them is to try and replicate the computing experience in your clothing, give you displays and notifications and let you make phone calls. And then there's another type of device—Ringly would definitely qualify—where you're taking advantage of different sensory inputs, different locations on the body, how you wear it, and using a different sensation, using touch instead of an audible ringing, which everybody has turned off at this point. Even a vibration that you may not feel in your bag, by making it part of your wearable experience, you're taking advantage of a sense that you ordinarily wouldn't have access to.
Yes. There are a number of different companies that have shoes or shoe inserts, have you seen those? You have to be walking somewhere for them to work, but if you're walking somewhere and you don't want to keep pulling your phone out to say like when do I turn, it'll actually just vibrate and let you know it's time to [change direction].
We should give those to everyone in New York City. Every tourist coming to New York City should get those.
It should say walk faster, too.
I just want to have an alert that says, "Please pull over if you're going to check your phone."
Don't cut me off and then check your text messages.
Are there any other examples of companies doing this well? I know Nike's been at the very forefront of this space from the beginning, but mostly in terms of health and exercise. But they've spent a lot of time and energy figuring out how to incorporate technology into all their products, really.
Nike's interesting because they're approaching it both from a fashion end and from a tech end. In the fashion end, they do a lot of mass customization. I actually have on Nike mass customized shoes today. They have my name on them. Liza. That's my brand.
A lot of the shoe companies are doing mass customization. And a lot of other companies as well. Not just with the technology in the wearables space, but with the community as well, and I think that's where Nike has really shown [up]. We can get so much data from wearables – data that we aren't really interested in and don't really know what to do with. But what they've done is actually given people information that's helpful in a format that works, and a community that they can share that stuff in.
Another example of a company that's doing well is a company called Wearable X. And I know you've seen the Natty X—a pair of connected yoga pants. They have little sensors and vibrators. So let's say you were going to hire a private teacher that would correct your [yoga] pose, and so they're doing that. The pants will actually do that themselves.
I think that's a great example because the technology is actually embedded in the pants. And you would wear the pants normally. You wouldn't pay that price for them normally.
They're $300, which is a lot for yoga pants.
Yes, it is. Although the price of AthLeisure, if you will, or Athletic Wear, is really going up and up these days. Billie Whitehouse, the founder of Wearable X, is doing some really cool and interesting stuff and that's the product that they're bringing to market right now. But she's done some really cool stuff in the past. She has this connected fan jersey, which is different than the fan jerseys that Nike just announced today or yesterday.
It almost doesn't seem like a wearable. Nike was going to build NFC chips into the labels and then you'd be able to unlock content by holding your phone near the jersey. So you've got a custom experience, custom content, but it doesn't really make the shirt any more intelligent.
It's kind of an interesting idea. Also, the ad for it was overpromising—"oh, if you use NFC to scan this jersey, you're going to be on a private jet with your favorite ballplayer," which is like, probably not.
Results may vary on that performance.
Exactly. But it's fun to see different companies are trying that stuff out. I do think it's important to note that that's just a marketing gimmick. It's not actually changing the actual fashion or the fabric, or anything like that.
Right. Do we have another question from the audience? I'm sure we do this time.
How has the manufacturing process and product development for fashion changing now that technology is a consideration? For example, how are products tested, how do you determine where the tech should be embedded?
That's a great question. By far the biggest challenge for companies that are trying to physically embed fashion with technology is the manufacturing process. It's less true now, thankfully, but there are so few companies, so few factories, that are able to actually do both of those things. So it's something that companies, brands, are able to do in house—make prototype or make a small number of items, send out a press release, make a video, and get it on the runway. But to actually manufacture things for the masses is a huge challenge. There are a number of factories right now that are investing heavily, and there are venture capitalists that are investing in those factories, to try to make that something that can actually scale up. But for now, it's something that's really only done at a small level.
Is that an incentive for those factories to move back to the United States? Or are those factories just going to get up-leveled where they are?
Well, I want the answer to be yes, that people will be moving back. But my anecdotal experience, from the people that are working on those and the factories that have approached me personally is that they are overseas factories that are seeing what needs to change, and are trying to move in that direction.
So you're wearing an Apple Watch. Do you see that as a successful product? Tim Cook said recently that it was the best-selling watch in the world. What's your take on the Apple Watch both present and future?
I think that it's kind of a piece of crap. I have gone to just wearing my Apple Watch as an Apple Watch. I'm not really using it for anything else at this point. I've tried all the different things and I'm not really finding that there's much functionality there that makes my life better. I find that it was just another gadget that needed some care and feeding and another place to get my notifications. What do you think? Are you wearing one? No.
I am not. I'm on the Android universe. I'm wearing the Fitbit Blaze. But I think all trackers have sort of the same problem. First of all, they have to identify as a fitness device, which they didn't want to straight out of the gate. They wanted it to be this new smartwatch. But nobody really knew, other than notifications, which I think it does pretty well, what does that other application that you need it for? Or is it just letting you know when you get text messages? And I think that's still the best thing that it does. We'll see with the Apple Watch Series 3 now that they've got the cellular modem built in that you can make phone calls off of it, now that you can stream music from.
Which I actually think is a killer application, not having to bring your phone and being able to listen to music and make phone calls. That is genuinely useful and that could be a game changer.
I'm surprised they didn't do it a long, long time ago. Several years ago, when I was working with Vodafone, there was a real push towards tying to un-tether things and give them their own cellular connections. I don't really understand why that didn't happen much sooner because the cellular companies were wanting that to happen. I don't know if it was an adoption thing. It will be interesting to see what happens, but personally I won't be spending the money to buy a new one because I don't really know if it's going to make my life any better than it is.
I made sure that my last Fitbit had a GPS. This one has a continual heart rate monitor, which is great. I love to be able to monitor my heart rate in real time, constantly. That actually doesn't necessarily make my life any better. It doesn't tell me anything. It doesn't give me any actionable information. I know when I've had a good day and I know when I've had a bad day.
I don't know what the latest statistics are, but we tend to enjoy the novelty for a little while and then stop doing it. And I think after you do that several times, after you get excited about a device and then it ends up in the drawer several times, then there's a really high barrier for people to actually say, "Okay, I'm going to take the leap on this one."
I want to talk about some of the companies are doing this badly, although we've covered a couple of them already. No shortage of shade being thrown around. Are there any other companies that have tried to do fashion technology and you've just looked at it and said, "They just got this terribly wrong?"
Oh my gosh, there's so many. And I think part of the problem is that people aren't solving real and actual problems. That's an issue across the board, that's not just something that fashion companies are doing, or fashion tech companies are doing. But there are so many things that people are trying to do because they can. My husband often says that it's not a problem of technology, it's a problem of imagination. And I think that's really true because we have the technology to do basically anything right now, but the problem is that we're doing things that don't make any sense. We're doing things because they're fun. He and I diverge at the idea of novelty because I don't like novelty. I like things that are actually improving peoples' lives and he likes novelty because he feels like it can be fun and it can add some joy and levity. He's the joyful one at home.
But, what we're seeing is there are like people that are not doing good in the world or not actually solving those problems. And so, for instance, if I had a dollar for every time a fashion tech company said that they've built the Clueless closet, do you remember that movie?
I don't know what the Clueless closet is.
Do you know the movie? Okay, so Clueless is a movie from late 90s.
Yes, exactly. There's one scene and it lasts six seconds, it's so fast; she's got this computer screen and she's just kind of like scrolling through her outfits. And the implication is that it will give her some kind of feedback, although we don't really see it doing that. Every fashion tech start up says, "I've built the Clueless closet" and they never have. And we have fashion tech companies that are saying, "I've solved visual search. Just use my app and you can take a picture and I'll tell you what products or similar products." It rarely works. So we're seeing over and over people trying to build the same technologies or solve the same "problems" and they're just spinning their wheels.
I think it's interesting too that they're literally solving a problem that nobody said was a problem, and it just randomly happened in a movie.
Twenty years ago or something.
Vendors trying to recreate the Minority Report interface because it was in a movie and it looked cool.
So they built it. And by the way, maybe that doesn't make any sense at all. Maybe that's a terrible way to navigate information. But people don't ask themselves. They build it and then they try and get venture funding for it.
Right. And they get a little press. And that's, you know, there are some things that are buzzier to write about than others, and so it reinforces that for people.
We do a little bit of that on PCMag.com. Let's talk a little bit about the privacy issues because I think one of the great things about wearables is that you're collecting information you wouldn't be able to get otherwise. With the new series of Apple Watches, Apple said they're going to be collecting heart rate information so they can identify anomalies and then alert people when they have irregular heartbeats, which I think could be really cool. But it's also this idea that we're creating these data sets of our health information and I don't think most people realize that when they strap on a Fitbit.
What a huge issue that we're wading into without having any real idea of where it's going to lead. One of the things that concerns me a lot is that some of the biggest adopters of health wearables are insurance companies and the promise is that okay, if you get your 10,000 steps or you work out five times a week, then maybe you can have discounted rates. So there's this promise to consumers in order to collect these enormous amounts of data. There's no evidence that we're going to save money if we let insurance companies access everything about us. And we're just giving up so much information.
In so many different types of technology, we are the product and we forget that so often. I think there's a large swath of the consumer public that doesn't necessarily understand that they're the product. And my hope is that the people who are building and designing wearables can actually be respectful of the human experience and focus on actually helping the people that are wearing the devices and not trying to turn around and sell the data. It all comes down to the business models that they're based on because there's different ways to do it. Some people will probably focus on selling the data and some people will focus on offering helpful services.
And you see the data tech companies sort of sorting into two different camps there. Google, very much a data-based business and advertising-based business. Apple, a little bit more respectful of individual privacy and trying to make money on the hardware, not necessarily on the data and services that are going to get layered in later.
That's a great example. I think that it's important for consumers to really think about which model they want to get into. Like how much is your free email worth?
I think people need to understand too it's very much like those Progressive [Insurance] modules. Progressive Insurance will sell you these modules that plug into your car and then they give you a discount for being a safe driver. Your Fitbit and your Apple Watch could wind up becoming the same type of device that allows the insurance company to price your insurance just on your particular risk, which may be great for you if you live a healthy lifestyle. But it could come with a downside if you don't have a healthy lifestyle.
Well, and healthy lifestyle will hopefully keep you healthy, but there are other things that happen even if you live a healthy lifestyle. You can have sickness and do you really want to remain in that relationship when that sickness happens. You're talking about the heart rate, I actually had to stop checking my heart rate on my Apple watch because if it would be a little bit elevated, then I would look at it and then it would be like a lot elevated and I realized I was kind of on this self-reinforcing thing where when my heart rate was raised, it just kept going up.
That's a bad feedback loop. I want to ask you some of the questions I ask everybody that comes on the show. What technological trends concern you the most? Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
When it comes down to it, the thing that worries me the most is how we are changing our interactions with each other. Technology is a tool that can be used for good or for evil, although it's not necessarily neutral when we have humans programming the algorithms. Humans have inherent biases that are programmed into that, so it's not totally neutral. But on the surface it is. And so I think that we're at this place right now, where the decisions that we're making can really affect what kind of world we're going to be living in. And so what keeps me up at night is really hoping and wanting for people to make good decisions based on whatever their value system is, to hopefully narrow the digital divide and offer accessibility and connectivity in a way that enhances humanity.
All right. That's why we're having these conversations. Is there a product or service that you've used that inspires wonder?
You know, there are a couple of games on the iPhone that I love. That word wonder, I think you said awe also, freaking Monument Valley, man? There's two of them now. So beautiful. And the Old Man's Journey. There are some really gorgeous things that are happening and as much as technology can kind of bring us down, I think it can really awe and inspire and us as well. I recommend [that] anyone spend the money and take the time to play those. They're gorgeous.
Interesting. This happened in the gaming market too. It's like after you hit all the mainstream segments, all of a sudden this really new creative type of game came out that provided a totally different experience. I feel like now we're getting there in the mobile space where yes, Candy Crush is still doing very, very well and the Jewels. But then there's this other creative space where people are having a gaming experience, a creative experience, on their mobile device that would've been unheard of two years ago.
Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful. To have that immersive game experience like that in your pocket? It really kind of changed the way that we look at our devices.
So, and I don't ask this question for everybody that comes on the show, but I'm going to ask you. Is there a particular fashion faux pas that geeks generally commit?
I feel like people are expecting me to say socks with sandals.
There's probably someone in this office right now with socks and sandals.
And his name might be Max.
Oh boy, Max. I think the thing is pretending you exist outside of the realm of fashion. And when we go somewhere, whatever we decide to do with our appearance is how we're presenting ourselves in the world. So I think the biggest faux pas is not taking the time to care about how you present yourself.
So, no hard target there. What about hoodies? What's your stand on hoodies?
I mean, I don't own one, but they look cozy.
All right. I think that that is the final word. I think we can translate that. Thank you so much for coming by the Lab and talking to us.
Thank you so much. That was great.
How can people find you online and keep up with what you're doing?
Thanks so much for joining us today for Fast Forward.
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