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Wearable devices get more stylish as fashion and technology intersect

CES exhibitors promote their latest wearable devices with words like 'elegant' and 'refined'

LAS VEGAS — "I, for one, don't want to look like a computer threw up on me," fashion designer Billie Whitehouse says.

The 27-year-old co-founder of Wearable Experiments gestures toward a jacket that by all appearances is just a typical well-tailored wool garment: It's dark gray, covered in tiny houndstooth and plaid print, and lined in red.

But Whitehouse, who incorporates technology into her clothing designs, has built in a removable electronic piece concealed in a hidden pocket across the shoulders. The boomerang-shaped device has been programmed with GPS navigation for cities including New York and Paris. Say you'd like to go to the Louvre: Instead of you pulling out a map or smartphone for directions, the jacket subtly interacts with you as you walk, vibrating on the left side, for example, to indicate a left turn.

"We want to remove all that clutter, all that technology noise in our lives," says Whitehouse, who has met with Louis Vuitton and other fashion houses to show the jacket. "I wanted to give intelligence to clothing."

The intersection of technology and fashion has taken on new prominence with the debut of the Apple Watch, which the tech giant quickly positioned as a customizable fashion piece. Shortly after introducing it last year, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook boasted that the watch, expected to hit stores soon, was featured on the cover of Vogue China. On its website, Apple says: "As with all things you wear, how it looks is at least as important as what it does."

Other tech makers increasingly agree.

At the International CES, the gargantuan annual consumer electronics trade show historically known for being a showcase for all things geeky, exhibitors were promoting their latest wearable devices with words like "elegant," "refined" and "craftsmanship for connected lives." Tech specifications, once the premiere selling point for gadgets, were saved for later in the product pitch.

"We've always focused on design first," said Alyssa Anderson, a spokeswoman for Misfit, which makes a fitness and sleep tracker called Shine.

The Burlingame, Calif., company is counting on Shine's design to attract stylish customers. The $100 tracker is smooth and circular and comes in pearly pastel colors including sea glass, champagne and coral. Users can upgrade to high-end wristbands made of pebbled leather and metallic mesh, or wear the tracker as a necklace. Misfit also offers a premium Swarovski Shine line.

Other tech brands, Anderson said, "get wrapped up in the functionality and then try to make something that's beautiful in the end, instead of focusing on the beauty from the very beginning of the product."

The worldwide wearable computing market reached an estimated 19.2 million units shipped in 2014, more than tripling the total from the year before, according to IDC. The research firm predicts that the market will swell to 111.9 million units shipped in 2018.

Smart garments in particular are expected to have the greatest potential for growth going forward because the category is emerging from the testing phase, according to a November report from research firm Gartner.

That presents a huge revenue opportunity for tech brands, and many are eyeing fashion as a way to set their products apart. That's changing the look and feel of wearable devices across the board, from thumb-sized fitness trackers to tech-infused clothing.

Some are going for a more futuristic look, such as a racy Madonna-esque bra from Chromat made with flashing LED lights. But generally, tech makers say they're creating products whose tech elements don't get in the way of the overall look.

"Right now technology is so dominant in our society that you think that it's supposed to dominate fashion," said hip-hop artist will.i.am, who was at CES to show off his new smart band, the Puls. "But really it's not. It's supposed to be an ingredient that's invisible; you're not supposed to see it. It's supposed to be like the Internet."

Wearing a Puls band on each wrist, the Black Eyed Peas singer said he wanted to create a wearable that would elicit the kind of excitement that people feel over a new pair of shoes, a product that is as much about identity and self-expression as it is about technical capabilities.

"Our devices — our phones, our tablets — are some of the most personal things we've ever seen in human society. But my phone, I express myself through it, but I don't express myself with it," he said during an interview at the Venetian. "Tomorrow's devices that allow you to communicate aren't things that you put in your pocket or your purse."

Will.i.am enlisted former Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley for help designing the touch-screen-equipped $400 Puls, which makes and receives calls and texts, connects to social media and plays music. The result: a thick black band that will.i.am said evoked the leather spiky cuffs of the punk rock era as well as the chunky luxury logo bracelets made by Chanel and Fendi.

With technology headed more into the realm of fashion, those who haven't yet made it a top concern are feeling the pressure to revamp their products.

At CES, British tech company Visijax was showing off a neon yellow jacket for cyclists, which is embedded with LED lights that flash when the wearer lifts his arm to signal a right or left turn. Although the product performed well, Chief Executive Mark Bernstein lamented that the jacket's baggy appearance was likely to turn off trendy consumers.

"You look cool to me, you see, and I don't think you'd buy one of these jackets. Because it's not cool enough," Bernstein told a 20-something male conference attendee, who nodded and said, "Right, exactly."

The closer relationship between tech and fashion also brought some atypical attendees to CES.

For the first time, Refinery29, a major fashion, style and beauty website, sent a creative team to the show to transform a suite at the Wynn into a dream apartment for the chic, tech-focused millennial woman.

The suite was curated to give attendees a sense of how technology could be seamlessly merged with a stylish aesthetic. Among the products featured: Internet-connected pendants and rings, 3-D-printed clothing and a rechargeable handbag with built-in charging cables for mobile devices. In a sign that even major fashion players are taking notice, Chanel and Neiman Marcus reps stopped by to check out the space.

Refinery29 Lifestyle Director Kelly Bourdet said the site's readers have shown that they're interested in the overlap of fashion and tech, particularly because they grew up with the Internet.

"They've always had technology, they have come to age at a time when their smartphones were really important to them," she said. "Their technology and their style is such a natural extension of themselves. So to marry the two is just an inevitable consequence of this generation."

andrea.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @byandreachang

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