Smart, adaptable clothes will soon be coming to a store near you

From regulating body temperature and monitoring health to enhancing performance and providing adaptive styling, smart clothing offers a wide range of benefits that could forever change the way we dress and interact with our environment.
Industries: Retail
Trends: Wearables
  • Executive summary
  • Introduction: Are clothes becoming ‘smart?’
  • Transform your lSaook in real-time with PLDC
  • Example: Adobe’s digital dress debut
  • Morph your wardrobe with 4D materials
  • Example: The shape-shifting dress
  • Stay hot—or cool—with electrocaloric clothing
  • Example: Solar-powered sci-fi fashion
  • The future of smart clothing
  • Learnings

Executive summary

We are so used to looking at our wardrobes and sifting through a collection of static objects for something to wear. With the rise of smart clothing, however, our garments are poised to play a transformative role in our lives, offering a range of next-generation aesthetic and quality-of-life benefits. Companies like Adobe, and various universities around the world, are current trailblazers of smart clothing, but it appears as though all the major brands will get involved soon.

  • Adobe’s ‘Project Primrose’ has revealed a digital dress that can instantly change patterns at the press of a button.
  • MIT and the Ministry of Supply are collaborating to create 4D-printed garments that can change shape.
  • Researchers at China’s Nankai University have created a solar-powered photovoltaic jacket that can heat and cool the user. 
  • Zion Market Research expects the value of the smart clothes and fabrics industry is expected to skyrocket from US$3.76bn today to US$31.26bn by 2032.

As research and development continue, we can expect to see even more impressive applications of smart clothing technology. Perhaps one day, our wardrobes will consist entirely of garments that seamlessly adapt to our needs, preferences, and environments. The possibilities are endless, and the future of fashion looks brighter—not to mention smarter—than ever before.

Introduction: Are clothes becoming ‘smart?’

Technology is finding its way into every corner of our lives—even our wardrobes. When you think about what’s in your wardrobe, you think of a bunch of passive items: things you wear to look good. Nothing that needs to be charged or that might receive an over-the-air update. This, however, is about to change with the emergence of smart clothing. Technologically enhanced garments are poised to become active participants in our daily lives, offering a range of next-generation aesthetic and quality-of-life benefits.

Recent market research reveals that the global smart clothing and fabrics industry is experiencing significant growth. Zion Market Research predicts that the market will reach a value of US$31.26 billion by 2032, a substantial increase from its 2023 valuation of US$3.76 billion. While this only reflects a small portion of the US$1.78 global retail fashion market overall, it is not insignificant and can be expected to grow even more over time.

So, what exactly is smart clothing, and what can it do? Smart garments incorporate various sensors, electronics, and advanced materials to provide enhanced functionality. This can include features like fitness tracking, health monitoring, temperature regulation, and even adaptive styling. By integrating these technologies into our clothes, we can gain valuable insights into our wellbeing, improve our performance, and experience greater comfort throughout the day. Let’s take a closer look at the world of smart clothing, exploring the technologies behind these innovative garments, the various applications they can serve, and the potential impact they could have on our lives.

“Unlike traditional clothing, which is static, Primrose allows me to refresh my look in a moment”.

Adobe researcher Christine Dierk

Transform your look in real-time with PLDC

PLDC technology promises to revolutionise high fashion, enabling us to produce clothes that can instantly adjust their appearance to fit the occasion.

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you’re getting ready for a big event, standing in front of your closet, agonising over what to wear? You want something that will make a statement and help set you apart from the crowd. After all that searching, you realise that the ideal garment isn’t in your wardrobe at all—it’s probably hanging on a rack in an outlet somewhere. And you don’t have time to go searching for it.

What if we told you that you could have a dress that could change its look on a whim, transforming from a sleek, black cocktail gown to a shimmering, iridescent masterpiece with the simple press of a button? Sounds impossible, right? Well, this is precisely what a technology called polymer-dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC) is capable of doing for you. PDLC is a low-power material more commonly used in smart windows to instantly switch between transparency and translucency. This application has impressive utility, but it lacks the drama of high fashion. When applied in the context of high fashion, PDLC becomes another beast entirely. Clothes that can change pattern as you see fit—whenever you see fit.

Example: Adobe’s digital dress debut

Adobe has developed a digital dress that can change its appearance at the press of a button.

Developed within the scope of Adobe’s Project Primrose, the PDLC-powered ‘digital dress’ was unveiled for the first time during the 2023 MAX conference. At first glance, the dress appears to be a typical strapless cocktail gown — stylish, sophisticated, and ideal for an evening out. Then, at the press of a button, the sequins all come to life, creating captivating patterns that dance across the fabric. “Unlike traditional clothing, which is static, Primrose allows me to refresh my look in a moment”, says Adobe researcher and dress designer Christine Dierk.

The craziest part of all is that the dress doesn’t just change its appearance; it also moves with you. As you walk, turn, or dance, the patterns on the dress shift and sway, creating a mesmerising display that turns the heads of everybody around you. It’s like wearing a living piece of art that continuously evolves, adapting to your every movement. While the dress is undoubtedly a captivating feat, it’s just one part of Adobe’s larger vision for the future of design. According to the company, the material can be cut into almost any shape, allowing it to be integrated not just into clothing but also into furniture and other types of surfaces.

Morph your wardrobe with 4D materials

4D printing technology allows for the creation of ‘intelligent’ materials that can change their shape, size, or colour, making custom-made clothing accessible to a wider audience.

For as long as anyone can remember, the fashion-forward have turned to bespoke tailoring to achieve the perfect fit. There’s just something about a garment that’s been crafted specifically for your body, with every curve and contour taken into account, that makes you feel like a million dollars. Unfortunately, custom clothing has always come with a hefty price tag, putting it out of reach for most of us—until now, that is.

4D printing technology is one of the most exciting technologies gaining traction today, with applications in industries ranging from medical science to construction. While it relies on 3D printers to do the work, the real differentiator is in the ‘intelligent’ materials being deployed, which can be programmed to change shape, colour or size when exposed to an external stimulus.

In the context of fashion, this means garments that can do, well, whatever it is that you need them to do. Don’t want to clutter your wardrobe with four different colour variations on the same item? Perhaps you’re dieting and are concerned about having to replace your entire wardrobe when you reach your target weight—these are the kinds of issues that 4D-printed clothing is intended to resolve.

Example: The shape-shifting dress

Textile designer Sasha McKinlay has created the 4D Knit Dress, which can change its shape when exposed to heat.

Sasha McKinlay, textile designer and researcher at the Self-Assembly Lab, recently joined forces with the Ministry of Supply, a fashion company known for its high-tech apparel. The result was the creation of the ‘4D Knit Dress’, a garment that’s poised to change the way we think about—and fit inside—our favourite outfits.

What is it that makes this dress so special? For starters, it’s made using a combination of heat-activated yarns, computerised knitting, and robotic activation, all working together to create a fit that’s sculpted to your unique shape. The culmination of years of work on dynamic textiles at the Self-Assembly Lab, these materials can change their shape, insulation, or breathability when exposed to heat. Just apply a little heat to the right places and watch as your dress tightens, tailors, and transforms before your very eyes from a sleek, pin-tucked number to an empire-waisted frock.

“​​I like the idea of customizing clothes in a sustainable way. This dress promises to be more sustainable than traditional fashion to both the consumer and the producer.”

Sasha McKinlay, textile designer and researcher at the Self-Assembly Lab

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their clothing choices, the 4D Knit Dress offers a compelling alternative to fast fashion’s disposable nature. “Trends change, bodies change,” says Gihan Amarasiriwardena of the Ministry of Supply. This dress changes with them.”

Stay hot—or cool—with electrocaloric clothing

Electrocaloric materials enable us to create garments that can adapt to changing temperatures, eliminating the need for a seasonal wardrobe.

From the scorching heat of the Sahara to the frigid winds of the Himalayas, humans have always been at the mercy of extreme temperatures. As incredible as the human body is, it simply isn’t built to withstand the full range of climates our planet has to offer. We function best within a narrow ‘thermal comfort zone’—a sweet spot between 22 and 28 degrees Celsius where our biological processes can happily tick over. Step outside that zone, and things start to get uncomfortable fast.

For centuries, we’ve relied on clothing to help us bridge the gap between our bodies’ limitations and the harsh realities of the outside world. From self-heating vests and Gore-Tex layers to suits with built-in ice packs, we’ve gotten pretty good at dressing for the elements. Most of these high-tech garments can either warm us up or cool us down, but not both. What if there was a way to create clothing that could adapt to changing temperatures on the fly without any extra baggage?

Electrocaloric materials—materials that can rapidly change temperature following electrical stimulation—can achieve precisely that. This material is flexible and bendy, making it ideal for use in clothing. When exposed to electricity, it absorbs heat from its surroundings, storing it like a battery. However, when that electrical current stops, the heat is released, rapidly warming the material and anything it is in contact with. While this technology remains in its nascency, it is easy to see how it might potentially change our conceptions of ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ clothing. And by that, we mean we won’t need any: it’ll be one suit for all seasons.

Example: Solar-powered sci-fi fashion

Researchers at Nankai University have created a new type of material that can heat or cool the wearer as needed.

A team of scientists at China’s Nankai University are behind the most recent developments in electrocaloric technology. In 2023, they combined their electrocaloric material with an organic photovoltaic that stores energy from the sun—no need for a bulky battery back. During the day, when temperatures are at their highest, the photovoltaic patch pulls heat away from the skin and stores it for later. Then, when the sun goes down and things start to cool off, it releases that stored energy to keep the wearer warm.

One of the most impressive characteristics of this new material is its speed, capable of switching between cooling and heating modes at the drop of a hat. In tests, the team found that the patch could cool the skin by over nine per cent in just a matter of seconds. When exposed to a wide range of temperatures—from the bone-chilling cold to the searing heat—it kept the wearer comfortable and content.

The future of smart clothing

While smart clothing could forever change how we think about the clothes we wear, it could also create a divide between those who can afford it and those who cannot.

Although there have been some major advances in the world of smart clothing, the reality is that things are just kicking off. Imagine a world where your solar-powered jacket can charge your phone automatically, just by putting it in your pocket. This isn’t so crazy—all of the technology is already available today. Let’s push the boat out a little further into the world of self-repairing fabrics. What if your clothes were able to repair themselves whenever they took a nasty scuff? We’re already seeing the development of fabrics that can heal themselves. Although things remain at an early stage, it’s not hard to imagine the allure of such technology for extreme sports enthusiasts.

The only catch is that there is likely to be a strong imbalance between the “haves” and “have-nots” in who actually gets to experience such technologies. Fashionable attire is already expensive without having to factor in the presence of a motherboard or some highly advanced fabric. Indeed, a smart jacket today can cost up to five times more than its conventional equivalent, and we’re only at the beginning. As smart clothing technology becomes increasingly advanced, these garments are likely to be exorbitant in price—a statement of social status every bit as much as they are a fashion statement. While economies of scale may bring these down, it will always cost more to equip one’s clothing with cutting-edge technologies.

Learnings

As we’ve seen, smart clothing is no longer a futuristic concept but a growing reality. With the market poised for significant growth in the coming years, it’s clear that more and more fashion-forward individuals are recognising the potential of these innovative garments.

  • Smart clothing offers a wide range of benefits, including the ability to regulate body temperature or even enhance performance.
  • It also has the potential to contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry by reducing waste and encouraging a more mindful approach to consumption.
  • One day, our wardrobes may consist entirely of garments that seamlessly adapt to our needs, preferences, and environments.
  • However, the increased cost of technology integration may restrict access to smart clothing to high-income individuals.

The possibilities are endless, and the future of fashion looks brighter—not to mention smarter—than ever before. As we embrace these advancements, we may find ourselves not only looking better but also feeling better, knowing that our clothes are working with us to improve our lives in countless ways.

Industries: Retail
Trends: Wearables
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