Is wearable technology the future of fashion?

From smartwatches and Swarovski-encrusted fitness bands to handbags that charge your phone on the go, the market is booming as big names in fashion dip their toes in the burgeoning pool of wearable technology.

Elliott Gittelsohn takes a picture with Google Glass. Josh Edelson/ AFP Photo
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There can’t be many product launches for which Gwen Stefani and Dr Dre will travel. But the music megastars pooled resources to be at the Apple Watch presentation in California in September, sharing Dre’s private jet and arriving in a single motorcade (don’t say they never think of the environment). Their reward was face time with the world’s fashion and technology press, a live performance by U2 – and a first look at a device that could shape the next generation of luxury goods.

Note the “could”. Analysts expect 2015 to be the year that wearable technology goes mainstream, with 64 per cent of internet users having worn it already or keen to do so, according to a survey by Global WebIndex. But the sector is very much in its infancy, with experts agreeing that no one has yet produced a “must-have” wearable.

"We're reaching somewhat of a saturation point when it comes to smartphones and tablets – we can only make them so big/small/fast – and so wearables are the next logical step for the tech world," says Mike Priest, deputy editor of the gadget magazine Stuff Middle East. "They do have the potential to make things easier for us – whether it's a matter of unburying our noses from our smartphones to glance at notifications on our wrists, or letting us watch a concert with our eyes while our smartglasses take a photo. But whether they will change our lives in any meaningful way remains to be seen."

There have been some success stories, of course. Fitbit wristbands, which measure the wearer’s activity, calorie burn and other metrics, are already de rigueur on wrists at fashionable gyms around the world. “I’ve noticed a big increase in the popularity of wearable fitness trackers among our clients lately,” notes Maryam Fattahi Salaam, owner of the Physique 57 studio in Dubai. “The bands can be a great tool to help keep clients motivated, especially in the cases of significant weight-loss goals.”

Although fitness trackers were devised to enhance performance, the companies behind them are keen to position them as a fashion product. Fitbit commissioned the American designer Tory Burch to produce a highly wearable range of health-tracker bracelets and pendants in silver, gold and rose gold, while its rival Misfit has just embarked on a glittering collaboration with Swarovski.

Not that wearables are all about health. Products brought to market in the past couple of years include everything from USB cufflinks to Bluetooth “smart rings”, which link up to your phone to let you know when you’ve received a call or an SMS. A Sydney-based designer was inspired by Louis Vuitton’s Amble app to create the Navigate jacket, which uses GPS and LED lights to help the wearer get from A to B.

Meanwhile, Samsung, Sony and Pebble have all beaten Apple to market with popular smartwatches that include much of the functionality of a phone, enabling the wearer to take pictures, play music or even turn up the air conditioning.

Not surprisingly, given that Credit Suisse predicts the global market in wearables will be worth $50 billion (Dh183 billion) by 2018, luxury fashion labels are starting to respond to the march of technology brands into their territory. Lulu Guinness recently collaborated with the camera manufacturer Autographer to create a shoulder bag with a built-in camera, designed to keep the Instagram generation’s hands free. And the luxury leather goods label Aspinal of London has created a buzz with the Marylebone Tech Tote: a two-tone bag that contains a phone-charging juice pack in a hidden pocket – with the first version selling out within two days.

Aspinal’s creative director Mariya Dykalo puts the product’s success down to the fact that it was inspired by her own busy lifestyle. “I am a working mum with two small children and I get into a panic when my phone gets a low battery. I had decided to integrate a charging battery pack into one of Aspinal’s iconic bags, which I would carry myself every day. Our Marylebone Tech Tote comes with an integral juice pack and cable paths so you can charge your phone and tablet on the move. I travel so much and couldn’t live without this bag – it’s like my portable office.”

Last month Aspinal launched a special version of the Marylebone Tech Tote for Middle East customers, which has been created in a smaller size and with a special finishing touch, Dykalo explains. “The tote arrives with three pairs of different-coloured handles, so that you can change your handles depending on your wardrobe or your mood for the day. It’s like an instant bespoke tote.”

It’s touches like this that are making a whole range of consumers start to buy into wearables. As fashion designers begin from the standpoint of style rather than functionality, their offerings are desirable as physical objects in their own right. To look at MICA, for example, you would never know that its full name is My Intelligent Communication Accessory. Unveiled by the American brand Opening Ceremony at the most recent New York Fashion Week, the product is a “smart bracelet” clad in 18-carat gold and semi-precious stones. It looks like a piece of statement jewellery, but has a curved sapphire glass touch-screen display on which users can manage their calendars and contacts, and receive notifications and alerts.

Yet while a number of brands have dipped a toe in the water, experts are still waiting for a crossover product that will take wearable technology into the mainstream. Until recently, the most likely candidate seemed to be Google Glass, a revolutionary set of smart spectacles created in the Google X laboratory in California. With much of the functionality of a smartphone, and frames designed by the likes of Diane von Furstenberg and Ray-Ban, the Glass created a huge buzz in the technology and fashion worlds alike.

Unusually, given that major product launches are usually shrouded in secrecy, Google opted to develop Glass through an Explorer programme that involved members of the public. Testers could buy a prototype for $1,500 (Dh5,500), the idea being that the company would learn how its product was used in everyday settings – from surgeons filming training videos to home cooks searching for recipes as they chopped. The Glass was met with excitement but also some suspicion, with potential functions such as facial recognition causing some mistrust among non-Glass users. Although Google pointed out that those who wished to film others secretly could find better ways of doing so, the product still seemed to make people uncomfortable and the Explorer programme was pulled in late January. According to a statement by Google, the product is merely entering the next phase of its development, with future iterations being worked on behind the scenes. But with no published timescale for when these might arrive, rumours abound that Glass has been shelved.

That leaves Apple, whose watch is expected to go on sale next month with a starting price of $349 (Dh1,282), as the strongest candidate to produce a wearable with mass appeal. It had game-changing hits with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, and has hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry and Patrick Pruniaux from Tag Heuer to make sure it doesn’t make any fashion missteps with its first foray into wearables.

The watch itself is as stylish as you’d expect, with a clean, simple display and strap options from colourful leather to 18-carat rose gold, and Priest believes that it will be popular in the UAE, which is typically early to adopt new technologies.

“It is definitely a desirable product. However, the onus is on Apple to make the device compelling enough for consumers to continue to use it past the initial gadget honeymoon phase and potentially pick up a second-generation model,” he says.

While the technology giant has undoubtedly created a luxury item, Priest continues, it must now rely on developers to make it indispensable. “I feel that smartwatches are still yet to come into their own and are missing the much-coveted ‘killer app’ that will elevate them to the same status as smartphones and tablets,” he says.

To some extent there will always be creases to iron out when fashion and technology cross over. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, described the Apple Watch as “the most personal product we’ve ever made”, and therein may lie the problem. As one writer for American GQ points out: “You don’t want your wrist lighting up with a message from the CEO when you’re toasting the groom.” The watch will enable users to send and receive messages, or to pay for things. It will have GPS; it will monitor their heart rates. For some, such possibilities will intrigue, but for others they are downright uncomfortable.