Wearable Style News recently sat down with Amanda Parkes, PhD, Chief of Technology & Research for Manufacture NY. A fashion technologist and biomedia/wearable tech designer, Dr. Parkes is also leading the development of MNY’s Wearable Tech R&D center, a space for high technology fashion & textiles. In addition to her work with Manufacture NY, Dr. Parkes is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab and an adjunct professor in the Columbia Univecrsity Department of Architecture.
WSN: You’ve been a leading proponent of the notion that wearables must be stylish. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that idea?
DR. PARKES: I think there are a couple of different ways to think about it. First is understanding what kind of ecosystems and language fashion uses — the business models and how product gets developed inside of them. Fashion is really a language of personal expression, of identity. It’s one of the ways that we communicate to the world that’s non-verbal. This is about the difference between something that is a device, which you operate or hold in your hand, versus something that you wear that becomes part of your body, like a second skin.
The example I like to use is the iPhone – as a device, Apple can market the same iPhone to a 70-year-old man as to a 14-year-old girl, they will both co-opt it as part of their functional lives. But I can’t think of any kind of fashion object that would be the same for those two markets, as soon as it crosses the threshold of the body , it starts to define expression and identity in a very personal way
When tech temporarily starts to embrace the language of fashion, which acts as a language of emotion — it’s about desire and expression and sex, and just like all these things — while they talk about these wearables in terms of functionality, there needs to be this larger rethinking about how and why the devices are made.
Things that you wear can really express a lot about you personally, just from your choice as a consumer. And most of the wearable devices on the market have not been diversified enough to give people options for nuanced levels of expression.
Can you think of or provide a specific example of a current wearable that does deliver on the style front?
My favorite example is Ringly; that’s one of the very first products to be a fashion-first device. The whole point of the object was to make people want to wear it even if the power is turned off, even if it’s not charged. Sometimes I forget to charge my ring and I still wear it; it’s a part of my wardrobe. And that’s something that I don’t think you could argue for devices that what we might call a “functional” wearable. It satisfies its entire purpose just as a beautiful ring. and it’s made of high quality materials, precious metals and stones.
The idea is to start to embrace this notion that you could potentially have something super unique and handmade and yours, but it does have digital functionality with a platform module, which is one way to think about wearables.
Do you think jewelry is the future of wearables? What advantages does jewelry have over other wearable styles?
I think jewelry has a big advantage because it’s one of the few things that we wear on our body that is hard in terms of materiality and we tend to wear the same pieces consistently and repeatedly. But it also has a challenging place in wearables and tech, because technology is often made with planned obsolescence in mind, and that is going to be changing constantly. And a lot of what jewelry companies are trying to do is to create heritage and legacy products, and so they’re kind of at odds with this notion of planned obsolescence. This is one of the reasons why things like modular systems, where you can change up the tech and leave the jewelry hardware in place, is really interesting and growing right now.
We also are looking at ways to integrate circuitry into the jewelry itself – parts of the jewelry are already made of metal, why not take advantage of that conductivity? I’m really interested in a notion of fashion technology that is not just about an extension of consumer electronics.
Can you talk about some of the products that you’re working on that you expect to meet this criteria?
The company that I engage most intensively right now is called Thesis Couture, which is a redesigning of the stiletto from the inside out. High-heel technology has never been addressed appropriately. The shank inside of a high heel is stamped steel - literally medieval technology! It has nothing to do with how to distribute forces across the body; everything that we know about the dynamics of walking, the statics of standing, none of that is taken into account.
We start by analyzing the dynamics of walking, and use that information to create structures that will actually respond in an appropriate way. A polymer is not metal, and so we are literally taking a very hi-tech approach to thinking about these problems, down to the nuances of what we now know about the intricacies of the orthopedics of feet, and applying that to this problem. So I really see this as fashion tech in its purest form, whether it’s electronic or not.
You had mentioned at PSFK that fabric would recharge by washing it…
It doesn’t actually recharge, it reconstitutes. You know how when your battery life on a laptop is three hours the first time you charge it, and then it slowly disintegrates? Even with that full charge, it will only last two and a half hours or so, with the same laptop. So basically, the battery starts to dry out, and that’s why they have less and less capability to hold charge. It won’t work for as long. What the washing does is actually force water back into the battery, which gets it back to its whole potential life. So washing the fabric doesn’t actually charge it, but it allows for the capacity in the battery to remain unchanged.
I really think that whoever can win the battle towards true mobile power, that’s the win for wearables.