Fashioning Tech with Syuzi Pakchyan (interview) #WearableWednesday


Adafruit interviewed Syuzi Pakchyan after the Wearable Tech Expo in NYC!

Who are you, and what do you do? What did your talk focus on at the expo?

I’m Syuzi Pakhchyan. I run a design and innovation consulting studio focused on next generation wearable technologies. At the Wearable Tech Expo recently in New York, my presentation focused on how technology is shaping the fashion industry’s future and, vice versa.

You have a unique insight on the intersection of high fashion and high tech. It’s clear that technology’s been influencing fashion for as long as humans have worn clothes, and I’m curious– how do you see modern electronics and fashion influencing each other?

Right now wearable technology products are predominately being created by the consumer electronics industry and the fashion industry’s voice has been relatively absent. Considering that most fashion houses make a big chunk of their revenue from accessories, I think they will be looking at collaborating with tech companies in the near future in order not to lose market share. Let’s take a look at smart watch market that is bound to explode next year in 2014 with a slew of high-tech watches. Most of these watches all look the same and they pretty much are made from the same materials. Watches are one of the earliest forms of wearable technology and have a long heritage. They are unique identifiers to our social status (Rolex) and reflection of our personality (Nooka vs Pebble). Currently smart watches strip wrist watches of their history and beauty. But that will all change once the novelty of smart watches wears off. In short, I think in the near future wearable technology will be pulling two very different industries — Fashion and Tech — with different cultures, language and value systems to begin to work together.


Syuzi speaks at the Wearable Tech Expo in NYC

What companies, products, projects and people are the most interesting to you in wearable electronics right now? (favorite projects/products/companies, etc)

I find the Hövding — an inflatable cycling helmet — to be a beautiful example of wearable technology. The technology disappears in the folds of a fashionable scarf and is only present when — and if — the user ever needs it. The technology isn’t cumbersome and doesn’t get in the way.

I also admire the work of artist Anouk Wipprecht. Her robotic couture garments have a remarkable life of their own. From garments that pour you drinks to dresses made from vapor, Anouck’s work continues to challenge the role of fashion while having a sense of humor.

You mentioned how a lot of wearable tech companies copy each other, resulting in all smart phones or watches looking pretty much the same, offering just a variety of colors but not forms. What’s it going to take for wearable tech to develop more personality, as you mentioned about fashion designers having distinctive styles?

I think right now we are still so enamored with the possibilities that these new technologies offer that a lot of products being made are purely about the technology itself and not how wearing it makes the user feel. The initial success of current wearable products on the market is built solely on the technological novelty of it all. I can track my steps and movement? Cool, I want it. But that is so 2012. Today there are a dozen activity trackers on the market and novelty of generating large amounts of data around our movement and sleep is quickly (in less than a year) becoming commonplace. Companies will now be forced to differentiate themselves by paying attention to how these products look and feel on the body. We should want to wear them even if their battery has died.

For a personal anecdote, I’m currently testing out four activity trackers: Jawbone Up, Fitbit Flex, Nike Fuelband and Misfit Shine. I was initially testing one at a time but I had a problem forgetting to wear them consistently. I now wear four activity trackers on one wrist. I realized by doing to this it sorta became more of a bold geeky fashion statement — a reflection of who I am — and it made it more fun to wear. I think back in the 80s kids use to wear two to three swatch watches at a time — so there you have it!

It‘s really common for fast fashion to reproduce couture designs and get them into stores extremely quickly, sometimes even before the high fashion lines are commercially available. How do you see new technology impacting this cycle of copying?

I think luxury fashion companies have a huge opportunity to collaborate at an early stage with smart and textile manufacturers to create uniquely functional and aesthetically beautiful textiles to use in their lines. These smart and high-tech fabrics can not be copied by fast fashion and can become an innovative signature for luxury brands.

On the flip side, technologies like 3D printing make it even easier for styles to be copied. 3D printing isn’t quite suitable for making wearables yet but we are investing a lot of energy in developing more pliable and flexible materials that can be printed.

For luxury, the key is to couple novel functionality with style and highly personalized customer service — all of which different types of technologies in the future may play a very important role.

Couture often blends nostalgia for old-world glamour with a new edge or twist. Can you forsee a day when there is nostalgia for something that we now see as wearable technology?

I think the key word in your question is “glamour”. Most wearable technology products on the market aren’t very glamourous. Do we have nostalgia for the big bulky cellphones from the 80s? But there is a huge opportunity for all the wearable tech startups and even the big players to borrow from fashion’s language and create a signature style. The signature style can be in the product, interaction and/or user experience design.

Who do you see as best capable of leading change in design ? Designers, technologists, factories or maybe even chemical companies, (as Dupont did in the 1930s to the 1950s)?

It must be an authentic collobaration by all of the above players. By “authentic” I mean that tech companies can’t just crash fashion week and think that just by presenting their product in a fashion context it makes it fashionable. Authentic collaborations have to happen at an early stage between designers, technologists and corporations. Design decisions may help shape and inform what type of batteries or sensors may need to be used which may lead to an entirely different circuit design. Corporate values also have an influence in shaping how products behave and function. Collaborations between two companies must be authentic to the values of both — one shouldn’t usurp the other.

Your blog is a big source of inspiration for us, and we find stuff there we haven’t seen anywhere else– can you tell our viewers about your site, and where you look for inspiration?

FashioningTech is a way for me to feel connected to a community of makers, educators and tinkerers that are just as equally intrigued by designing tech-enhanced experiences to be worn on the body. I find inspiration everywhere—from digital health sites, academic institutions, media artists, fashion designers, etc. The blog posts typically reflect what I’m researching at the moment. If you see a lot of posts all of a sudden on smart fabrics — it’s probably because I’m doing a bit of research in that area and I tend to share my findings with others. It’s also a place for everyone to share their projects and ideas too!

Thanks so much Syuzi!

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