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The wearables market: what’s in it for women?

The wearables market: what's in it for women?

12 August 2015

Interview conducted by Monica Oproiu

One of the hottest topics today is the impact that the advance of wearables could have on the watch and jewellery industries. Perceived either as a threat or as an opportunity, the trend of integrating some kind of technology into what we wear around our bodies can no longer be ignored. CIJ Trends and Colours spoke with fashion technologist and wearable tech designer Amanda J. Parkes, PhD, Chief of Technology & Research at Manufacture New York, in order to understand how to make the worlds of fashion, jewellery and technology interact and what can the wearables market provide for women.

Amanda J. Parkes
Amanda J. Parkes

CIJTC: How would you define your current activity and what fields does it touch upon?

AP: From the perspective of wearables, my current activity could be defined as a unique combination of physical computing, which brings together the elements of technology as instantiated in the physical world. I focus on soft and smart materials, more precisely, on how to understand and utilize the natural material proprieties of things in relationship to computation, and how to program behaviour into them based on these proprieties. Textiles, for example, allow us to have a closer relation with the body. So, the idea of working with wearables from a fiber perspective could be considered as an outcome of thinking about these things as having a more natural interaction inside computation.

CIJTC: What is the philosophy underpinning your work at Manufacture New York and what do you aim to achieve?

AP: At Manufacture New York we want to create a fashion ecosystem, an innovation hub for independent designers where they can set up their brand, have their products manufactured and benefit from access to new technologies. As these elements are usually separate, we aim to make fashion independent design a more cohesive process. As far as the research and development component is concerned, we are trying to push fashion technology into a “softer” place. The future of this space is not necessarily about gadgets or smart watches and putting lots of things of a tiny screen on your wrist. There is a whole uncharted landscape around the body, and there should be many ways of interacting with it. We are trying to open up the space for how people think about wearables into thinking about the body as an operating system, that is, to have a more holistic idea of it.

CIJTC: At Inhorgenta Munich you were invited to lecture on how wearables shape the future of the jewellery industry. How do you define wearables and how can the two worlds – of gadgets and jewellery – interact?

AP: I define wearables very broadly as anything that has interactivity around the body. Jewellery would thus be one of the most natural places for wearables to be incorporated. Firstly, we all have favourite pieces of jewellery that we wear every day, unlike clothes, which we change more often. Secondly, we are generally willing to pay more for jewellery and maybe for the technology that would come with it. Thirdly, jewellery is one of the few things we wear around our body that is made of hard materials, so incorporating circuits in it would be easier. These are the three main areas where the two worlds meet. But the point where they diverge is the durability of their products. The technology industry has a history of designing devices according to the so-called “planned obsolescence”, meaning that they are bound to be disposed of in two or three years, due to the constant change or update of technology. It is the opposite with jewellery and high jewellery, as people want to hold on to it and pass it on to the next generations. So the issue about making smart jewellery is that you might end up with a beautiful piece of jewellery, but with an outdated technology. So the real question is what would be the wearable equivalent of jewellery that is durable over time?

CIJTC: What does it take for “smart jewellery” to succeed?

AP: The initial burst of wearables consisted of plastic bracelets and fitness trackers made of rubber, which had no aesthetic appeal because they were designed by technology companies. The first step is to open up this space and explore the massive range of existing aesthetics in the jewellery market. Actually, I think that the jewellery world should step in and take over the design of wearables in order to provide it with more diversity. We should take advantage of all the ways in which jewellery provides a form of personal expression. Moreover, jewellery companies have to start incorporating cross-disciplinary design and manufacturing philosophies, and partner with some new fields, in order to bring true integration of the two worlds.

CIJTC: Wearables usually target men. What’s in it for women in this growing market?

AP: I think this is a relic from where they come from and how they were developed. Silicon Valley is a male-dominated culture, with a relatively young population oriented towards a very specific product aesthetic. There are some devices like Ringly which are obviously designed for women. Another one would be Withings Activité, which is basically a subtle activity tracker inside an analogue watch. As the wearables market grows, there will be more options for women. The growth will also be driven by the expansion of the functionality of these devices, because not everybody wants to track their steps and fitness level. I often ask the question if there is any wearable that my mother would wear. In other words, what is the wearable for elegant older women? This is a population for which it makes sense to have some kind of monitoring device that could become part of their wardrobe. I think there is huge potential for the development of wearables on the medical market. And this provides an opportunity for jewellery and fashion with medical purposes to become devices for everyday wear.

CIJTC: What do you think the future holds for the fashion and jewellery industry confronting the advance of wearables?

AP: The main thing that we are up against is the mismatch of culture between the two worlds.Wearables are designed to be disposable and periodically replaced, while jewellery is meant to be durable. We need to think about how to reconcile this, to create technology that lasts more than two years or how to update the already incorporated technology. From an industry perspective, I think that the two worlds will have to start talking more to each other.

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