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Tech in Your Closet? San Francisco Hosts #FashionTechWeek

By Atia Musazay |


 

San Francisco’s fourth annual Tech Fashion Week drew enterprising designers who want to bring Silicon Valley to the runway with wearable innovations like sweaters that blush and jackets that play music synched with a dancer’s moves.

In a series of fashion hackathons and virtual or augmented reality forums, entrepreneurs at the February event on Potrero Hill showed their creations and discussed their efforts to be taken seriously by Silicon Valley investors. Kristin Neidlinger, the founder of Sensoree, a wearable tech startup based in San Francisco, said people have trouble bridging the gap between fashion and tech because “the vocabulary is missing.”

However, the tide is slowly turning. In 2015, Christina Mercando’s two-year-old company Ringly, a maker of rings that light up to display phone notifications, raised $5.1 million in funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, a $4 billion venture capital firm. The high fashion world is also embracing futuristic elements on the runway. Rebecca Minkoff, the New York-based designer of apparel and accessories, has a website featuring a $24.99 cardboard VR headset that lets viewers experience her runways in 3D. Her line also includes such wearable tech as a bracelet that doubles as a portable phone charger.

Linda Franco, co-founder and CEO of Machina, said she moved most of her five-person fashion tech startup team from Mexico to San Francisco last September because it made sense to be close to the tech scene. Her team consists of a hardware developer, a software developer, a mechanical engineer and a business officer. Franco has a media and tech background, and taught herself skills like soldering because she wanted to have the ability to create her own prototypes.

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The Sensoree mood sweater has a high collar that lights up to indicate emotions based on a sensor placed on the hands that measures excitement.  Photo by Atia Musazay

Because the VR experience is limited to the head area, Franco and her team took it one step further and created OBE, a garment that turns the body into a game controller. Using body mesh vibration technology, the jacket creates a full immersive experience for the wearer. The product, to be unveiled in the next few months, will sell for under $200, Franco said.

Her startup has received four rounds of investments, for a total of $350,000 from both the tech and fashion funders. However, people don’t yet fully understand the “process of fashion tech,” she said.

“Many investors want to listen to you but actually are on the sidelines just waiting to see who joins in,” Franco said.

Among its products, Machina offers a MIDI jacket, which makes music according to body movement. Raising the arms increases the volume and tapping the chest changes the tempo. Franco has also created a chic backpack for cyclists that has battery-powered LED lights in the back that signal when turning left or right, much like a car.

Kristin Neidlinger, founder of Sensoree, said she frequently feels out of place at both tech and fashion-oriented events. But when she was a graduate student at California College of the Arts getting a degree in interaction design, she designed wearable tech pieces for her thesis.

In 2010, Neidlinger launched Sensoree in San Francisco and created a line of fashion tech items that enhance sensory awareness and can be used as a therapeutic device for autistic people. The goal is to show how one feels on the inside as well as on the outside.

One of these items is the GER (“galvanic extimacy responder”) mood sweater, which has a high collar that is supposed to act as an “external blush.” Using the same technology as lie detector tests, the garment uses sensors on the hands to read the wearer’s mood and reflect it in the color of the collar. The sweater is expected to go on sale on Sensoree’s website in April and is expected to be in the luxury price range.

Neidlinger’s futuristic ideas have been a struggle to fund. “I get no play here,” she said about Silicon Valley. Instead she relies on museum grants and commissions, as well as funding from healthcare systems to support her eight-person team.

“Everything is funded from socialized healthcare countries and I get hired by women,” said Neidlinger. She said she has received funding from Big Pharma and noted that most of her support comes from countries with socialized healthcare like Canada and Holland.

Some of the innovators at Fashion Tech Week keep their day jobs in Silicon Valley, while moonlighting in wearable tech. By day, Julia Framel works at Google, designing interfaces for mobile and web applications. By night, she creates high-tech accessories for her own use, including a fingerless glove that plays music.

Urging women to not be scared of technology, Framel asserted that fashion tech is simply “empowering clothing to do something for you.” In her blog, technicallysweet.com, Framel said she also tries to build a bridge that helps women enter the male-dominated tech industry.

“How can we remove that barrier and just wear beautiful things?” she added.

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