If the wearables cheerleaders are right, our closets will soon be stuffed with smart clothes. Garments are the next intelligent glasses, or, even better, the next smart watches! Never mind that the Apple watch, like Google Glass before it, is scrubbing out. If we can get over the utility hurdle, there’s a cultural barrier coming up next: For smart clothes take off, we’re going to have to learn to cultivate our wardrobes like Italians.
Next to the H&M and Gap junkies on this side of the pond, the average fashion-conscious Italian spends a bit more per capita on clothes. (It comes out to about 7 percent of his or her income in Italy, compared with 3 percent for the average American.) The arguably more important gap is not an expense, but quality. Data juxtaposing international wardrobes is scarce, so we’ll have to make do with the old saws, which seem to cut it. The stereotype goes thusly: Italians tend to own fewer, better clothes.
In the U.S., we spend on average about $1,500 on clothes per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economics Analysis. Smart clothes, bought in similar bulk, would drive that number up quickly. Consumers wouldn’t just be paying for retail, design, branding, and fabric, anymore. They’d pony up for hardware (and engineer salaries). At $400, the Hexoskin Smart Shirt can currently eat a quarter of that average clothes budget.
The “less is more” dynamic makes sense if you want to cultivate that snappy bespoke suit look. Smart clothes, however, chafe against this paradigm. “Smart” is not quite synonymous with “quality” in the traditional let’s look-fashionable-for-life/employment/fuckability purposes. Smart is synonymous with — for the moment — tracking. Not to pick on the Hexoskin, you could sub in Under Armour or whatever sporty manufacturer you want, but this shirt, is, at its core, a fitness tracker stretched out to cover epidermis. It will track your heart and your lungs. It will track you as you trek around the track. It will track you in your sleep.
Some forecasting firm called Tractica — doesn’t matter what it does — declared on Monday that the “ultimate wearable computer is a piece of smart clothing that one can wear as a garment or a body sensor that can track and measure specific vital signs.” Why? Because those signs are vital, baby! Next up, 3D motion tracking! Infant tracking! Respiration, perspiration, palpitation, urination: You name it, we track it.
Except, of course, that’s totally ludicrous.
The ultimate wearable computer is not necessarily a thing nor does it necessarily need to be. Clothes can be wired, dumb, and still useful. Imagine, for instance, a nice pair of slacks with trouser pockets that charge phones as you stroll to the office. Now imagine a pair of pants that does the same, but for the sensors embedded in your arms and chest.
When that happens — when wired clothes are not just for the Crossfit beasts who must know their heart rates at all times — what we end up with is a smart, day-to-day uniform. The goal is “smart” in terms of practicality and look. Fancy, durable fabrics are not going anywhere either.
If we’re lucky, the future of well-tailored smart clothes is also a future of quality clothes. (Otherwise, cheap and disposable garments spun with circuitry and other electronics could lead to an environmental shitshow.) As it is, America is a land of too much clothing — our donation centers are swamped and our cast-off articles are sent overseas — to the detriment, some experts argue, of local textile merchants.
We need a new model for consumption and the smart one, the Italian one, may just work.