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SXSW: Behind the scenes with Google & Levi’s connected clothing

Wearable tech is in an interesting place right now. Following a quiet CES, the conversation is shifting from smartwatches and fitness trackers to the wider possibilities for the market – and at the front of this shift is the Project Jacquard Commuter Jacket, which Google and Levi’s today announced will hit stores this fall, priced at around $350.

In a SXSW panel conversation moderated by design curator Tiffany Lambert, Google ATAP’s technical lead Ivan Poupyrev and Levi’s VP of Innovation Paul Dillinger discussed the possibilities of wearable tech, the design process behind the Commuter Jacket, and where they see the Jacquard platform heading to next. Here’s what we learned.

Technology needs to be woven in.

From the start, Google and Levi’s set out to weave technology into fashion, rather than the other way around. “The whole idea is to empower the [fashion] industry so they can integrate the technology into their garments,” said Poupyrev. “Any apparel maker can decide, I want to have this functionality, and do it themselves.” This ground-up approach entailed working with Levi’s existing supply chain – the mills and fabrics they already use – and developing the possibilities for the technology from there. “Google accepted the parameters,” Dillinger said. “We knew what we had to deliver: a stylish garment that looks good. One thing that was never under discussion was that it has to be launderable.”

Use case should be first and foremost.

The Levi’s Commuter Jacket is targeted to the urban cyclist, a consumer group for whom controlling music or incoming calls from their sleeve (via a swipe) is an important and useful feature, rather than a gimmick. The choice of a jacket as the format for the first Jacquard product was also rigorously thought-through. “In the future, everything’s going to be connected. But the more practical use case is to choose a garment from your wardrobe that you wear all the time,” said Poupyrev. “A jacket is a garment that people are likely to wear frequently,” said Dillinger. “You’re less likely to take a cool T-shirt and wear it three times a week.” Choosing a garment that is a lifestyle item, that speaks to a specific consumer, and which is worn almost everyday also helps to justify the price point of the item. “This product is extremely purposeful,” noted Dillinger.

Wearable tech will segment by brand…

“The back of my sock drawer is filled with wearables past: things that haven’t really worked,” said Dillinger. By contrast, the product they have chosen to connect – the Levi’s Trucker Jacket – “has been a staple of people’s wardrobes for fifty years, and people still love it.” Ultimately, every brand will develop their own distinct take on wearable tech – from form factor, to consumer use case, to design – he added. “The forms that wearables resolve into will be different by brand, and consistent with that brand’s pedigree.”

…And also by context.

The next step for the Commuter Jacket could go beyond the urban cyclist. “This may become the perfect way to listen to music without using your phone,” said Dillinger. “It may become the perfect concert goer’s jacket. We’re going to be starting a dialogue with the consumer, and there’s the opportunity to bring in new capabilities.” Customer feedback will influence their next move, and where the platform evolves to: “Real-time feedback will give us an early cue for what to do next.” Poupyrev added that one focus for Project Jacquard next will be to “grow the vocabulary of functions” – so that, while playing music and monitoring calls makes sense for a cycling jacket, the key user needs for an evening dress, a T-shirt or a range of activewear would of course be very different.

Fashion is tactile. And so is tech.

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years,” said Dillinger. “What we’re really excited to announce is that you can now try it at the SXSW Levi’s Outpost: explore the technology, try it on, see how you look and get a sense of the different functions. You can finally have a hands-on experience of the product.” Reports so far have been highly positive, and when the product hits stores this autumn, it will arguably be the biggest commercial launch yet for connected clothing.

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