Amsterdam-based studio works with manufacturers to bring a design sensibility to smart fabrics.
The theme for this year’s Met Gala, the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art style spectacular that brings out top celebrities and fashion industry icons, was about fashion in the age of technology. Some designers took the opportunity to integrate smart textiles into their gowns. Actress Claire Danes wore a Zac Posen design that featured fiber optics to make it sparkle in the dark. Marchesa designers Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig collaborated with IBM’s Watson to weave technology into a dress that included LED lights that changed color depending on the emotions—joy, passion, excitement, encouragement and curiosity—expressed by fans on Twitter.
The melding of technology and high fashion is becoming much more common. Smart textiles, which already have wide-ranging applications in military, medical, protective clothing and other markets, are becoming more mainstream, and more interesting to consumers.
A collaborative effort
As uses for smart textiles continue to expand, the big challenge is how to make them available to the consumer market. Tech companies have the know-how to develop sophisticated wearable electronics, but they don’t necessarily have the creative design skills or marketing experience to transform technology into products for different markets.
Enter 4-Options Studio. The Netherlands-based trend forecasting and product development company collaborates with technical fabric producers in Asia, bringing design and marketing skills to the table. They work with their clients through all stages of product development, helping them adapt to European trends. “We help our clients integrate smart textiles into product design by finding the right balance between knowledge of the market, technology and creativity,” says Annemarie van Hoof, owner and creative director, who says that the studio offers a new way of working for a new era. “Our client provides input on the technical side, and then we can give them the right input on the creative side.”
4-Options’ collaborative process begins in their own studio. Consultants engage creative freelancers from different design disciplines including textile, illustration, apparel, web design and marketing for their projects. They also work with design academies and technical universities in the Netherlands on new ways to integrate technology into product design.
The next revolution
Smart technology is on the cusp of the dramatic change in the way humans interact with each other, the world around us and the products we use. Van Hoof points to the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, to describe the profound global changes due to advancements in technology.
It’s estimated that by 2020, 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet, according to a 2015 report by Cisco and DHL. This Internet of Things (IoT) enables physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to exchange data with other devices anywhere in the world.
In this new age, consumers have different expectations about the products they buy and how they will enhance their lifestyle. Van Hoof says that the last consumer revolution happened after World War II, when there was a rapid increase in consumption and mass production. “Design became a way to communicate and profile products, companies and institutes. By choosing products, people chose a lifestyle. How they clothed themselves influenced how the world regarded them.”
Now, she says, people are more aware of how products affect their physical existence. Consumers care about the materials used and how products are produced. They want products that improve their lives without harming the planet. The material content of products and the way in which they are manufactured now factor into buying decisions to a much greater extent.
As the technical textile market has grown, 4-Options Studio has changed its focus from working primarily in the fashion and textiles industries to working with smart textile producers.
That transition seems like a natural for van Hoof, who started 4-Options in 2001. Although she has a fashion background, she wasn’t interested in the high fashion industry. “It didn’t feel right because it was not sustainable,” van Hoof says. “Creating fashion season by season—when you design something it is already outdated.” Instead, she was interested in sportswear, outdoor products and mens wear; industries that work with fabrics that have functional qualities that also make them more sustainable.
Van Hoof worked in the outdoor apparel industry, designing clothing and other products like sleeping bags, tents and accessories. She started collaborating with textile companies in Taiwan and began working with technical materials.
Bringing creative design to technical projects involves much the same process as working with fashion brands. 4-Options offers trend forecasting, concepting, design services and styling. Clients may choose all or any one of the services.
Van Hoof says that trend research is really a way of looking at the world—finding inspiration in different arenas. The process of forecasting trends is 10 percent history, 30 percent knowledge, and an equal amount of research, market information and taste.
To build customized trend presentations, 4-Options collects information from a variety of sources. “We think that fashion is a greater predictor for trends than, for example, just normal sportswear or textile information,” says van Hoof. “So we take fashion trends and transform them into trend files for technical textiles or functional apparel.”
4-Options looks at what is being shown at New York, Paris and London fashion shows, what’s happening in the worlds of art and architecture, and what’s going on in the media. The studio also looks at street wear to understand what young people are wearing, and often photograph young trendsetters on the streets in different European cities for their style presentations.
4-Options also assists in product development: connecting tech companies with the right designers, establishing marketing plans and budgets and adding value throughout the stages of a design concept.
“In the past, people created products because they thought they were beautiful,” says van Hoof. “Now we are creating design solutions that help people, make life easier and are more sustainable. So we need to think about designing in a different way, start with a concept and add metrics before we start creating products.”
A metric for sustainability, for example, might be determining the benefit to producing a textile in a more eco-friendly way, or producing a textile that is more lightweight and uses less fabric.
4-Options has also developed an education program for tech clients in Asia to help them approach projects more creatively, based on the teams’ experience within the international textile, fashion and design industry. The studio provides an overview that discusses trends, fabric and products, and how clients work with the fabrics and apparel that tech companies create. 4-Options is currently teaching the course in four universities in Taiwan and a university in China, and hopes to expand to South Korea and Japan.
THE FUTURE IS now
Van Hoof anticipates enormous growth in the smart textile market, particularly in the next five years. Between 2012 and 2020, the smart textile market in Europe, which includes architecture, personal protection, medical, transportation, sports and fashion markets, is expected to grow to be a $500 million industry, according to a 2014 report by San Francisco, Calif.-based Grand View Research.
She attributes this to the decreasing manufacturing costs of electronic components and fabrics, as well as the miniaturization of electronics. Market demand will be driven by the rising popularity of sophisticated gadgets with technologically advanced functions incorporated into textiles.
As the market grows, van Hoof believes the need for design will be as important as ever. “Collaboration is the new competition,” she said. “We can be more innovative when we combine technology, creativity and market knowledge. Engaging different minds enables us to develop new ideas.”
Julie Swiler is a freelance writer and editor
based in St. Paul, Minn.