Apple Watch Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg for Fashionable Tech at SXSW

3-D printers and smart fabrics are changing the industry

Headshot of Lauren Johnson

The fashion industry is notorious as a slow mover in digital, with brands that have storied histories not lending themselves to fast-moving trends. It's also an industry known for constantly reinventing itself, and nowhere is that more apparent than at this week's South by Southwest Interactive.

More than 60 talks and discussions over the five-day conference are dedicated to fashion and wearable tech, covering everything from smart fabrics, influencers and social media.

One of the recurring questions this week is whether Apple can revolutionize the watch and wearable markets as it did for smartphones with 2007's launch of the iPhone. After all, the device isn't even available yet but the company is already courting the fashion crowd in its advertising.

During a talk Monday about the topic of wearables changing fashion's purpose, a trio of three design and fashion experts dug into much larger ramifications than gadgets strapped to people's wrists.

Alastair Parvin, director of WikiHouse, pointed out that work being done with 3-D printers, smart fabrics and other types of technology changes the production processes of fashion brands and that the term "wearables" will disappear in the not-so-distant future.

"The term 'wearable' will not exist once it's actually happened—it's like [the terms] information superhighway or mobile telephone," Parvin told Adweek after the panel. "Anything's a wearable if you've got some duct tape—it's a word that's been invented without an understanding of what it means."

To that point, Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder of Studio Natsai Audrey, also spoke on the panel about work she is doing with fashion and biodesign that few probably associate with wearable tech. "We are working with bacteria to produce pigments that dye textiles," she said.

Working around Apple

Meanwhile, brands like Swarovski are jump-frogging Apple by building out their own gadgets.

This week, Swarovski and wearable startup Misfit showed off the jewelry brand's fitness product called Shine. It tracks activity and sleep through a small disk that pops into necklaces, watches, rubber bands and clasps. The gadget then collects data and syncs with a mobile app, similar to FitBit and Jawbone.

What's different about Swarovski's wearable is that it was designed by the brand. "The category needs something beautiful," said Sarah Kreter, product category manager at Swarovski. "We collaborated with Misfit because our expertise is jewelry and crystal."

This fall, Swarovski will take wearables up a notch by launching a light-powered version of Shine that will cut back on the time people spend charging devices.

Worth the hype?

Not everyone at SXSW is wooed over by fashionable wearables though.

"It feels like a hobby everyone wants to get into it, but there's no opportunity there unless you're going to invest in it yourself," Mike Monello, chief creative officer of SapientNitro-owned Campfire, told Adweek.

And indeed, Apple Watch's whopping retail price of $350 to $17,000 means that the gadget will only be available to a few elite people when it goes on sale in April.

Still, Monello explained that the wrist does lend itself well to new types of ad design for marketers. For instance, imagine if moving your wrist in a certain direction triggered a specific ad or app to appear. Or what if you could control your thermostat by tapping a button?

It's an intriguing idea, but will the Internet of Things really shake up the fashion industry that much? "It's hard to anticipate until you see," Monello said. "What I'm looking forward to is how the watch will affect storytelling."

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.