Smart Clothing and the Future of Apparel

From “sewbots” and sustainability to smart clothes and nearer-term trends, Counselor explores evolutions in apparel and what they mean for the promo industry.

It’s a warm evening and the Colorado sky above the ponderosa pines seems to be expanding, growing bluer and bluer as the wind sweeping off the Flatirons blows away the last of the afternoon clouds.

Wearable tech firm Polar has introduced a shirt that offers heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking.

As you run, you feel in tune with the sky, with the rolling plains and vivid wildflower meadows that jewel Boulder’s Mesa Trail. The feeling fuels your pace, propelling you along the foothills, driving your jumps over jagged rocks and railroad ties. Your heart is pumping and sweat is pouring, but there is no discomfort, no desperate gasps. There’s just the sun blessing the landscape with light. And soon, at the end, the splash of cool water from the South Boulder Creek, a refreshing reward for a run well-taken.

While you were enjoying the clean, elemental high of your trail run, your smart shirt was hard at work, recording a wealth of biometric information – like your heart rate – that was fed back to your mobile phone. Housed in the digisphere, you’ll be able to analyze the data about your body’s performance. It’s all information you can use to enhance your running as you gear up for a competition or try to improve your personal best.

This scenario, while imagined, isn’t science fiction. It’s already a potential reality given the fast-occurring advancements in the world of smart apparel – teched-up clothing that monitors and records information about your physical condition, while possibly offering other benefits that range from body temperature moderation to device control.

Once resigned to the realm of imagination, smart clothes are poised to take off in the real world. IDC, a global provider of market intelligence, predicts that smart apparel will go from accounting for 1.3% of total shipments within the wearable tech market in 2016 to 9.4% in 2021 – an ascent that will occur as total shipments of smart wearables (including watches and wristbands) increase 18.3% during the five-year period. With the rise of apparel, smart “wearables will be made available to a previously unaware audience – one that frequents fashion outlets over tech outlets,” says Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers.

As Counselor details in this feature, smart clothing is one of the exciting evolutions that could shape the future of apparel. Here, we delve into the advancements that will influence what people wear – and how that will affect what distributors sell.

Connected Clothes
Over the last couple of years, innovative brands, especially in the athletics realm, have intensified efforts to develop comfortable smart apparel. The results, in some cases, are impressive.

This year, Polar – a leader in wearable sports technology – introduced the Polar Team Pro Shirt, which offers heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking. Optimized for professional athletes, the sleeveless, base-layer shirt replaces the need for a chest strap monitor by providing two thin interior heart rate capture points directly in the fabric. In addition, a small, lightweight sensor pod fits into a pocket on the back collar, offering metrics on speed, distance and acceleration. The shirt and sensor pod grab the data in real time and shoot it to a mobile device.

“Polar’s move to using smart fabrics and integration of the monitor within a garment removes one barrier to use, especially with some of our larger athletes who find the chest strap restrictive,” says Andrew Murray, director of performance and sport science at the University of Oregon.

Polar isn’t the only one pulling off impressive feats. Athos, for example, has created compression shirts and shorts that offer real-time biometric tracking, including muscle activity, heart rate, calorie expenditure and active time versus rest time. Sensors embedded in the garments read biosignals and deliver that data to a mobile app, displaying which muscles are firing and how much they’re being exerted.

Also exciting: OMsignal has made a sports bra that records run distances, breathing rate and heart rate, while researchers at Quebec’s Université Laval have developed a T-shirt that monitors respiratory rate – a breakthrough that potentially opens the door to making clothing that can diagnose respiratory illnesses or monitor people with conditions like asthma.

Interestingly, a collaboration between Levi’s and Google’s Project Jacquard initiative is extending the smart apparel effort beyond athletic and health-wear into fashion. The Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket features Jacquard technology that allows wearers to control their mobile experience and connect to a variety of services, such as music or maps, directly from the jacket. A detachable smart tag and ingenious conductive yarns enable the connectivity. “Connected clothes,” says the Project Jacquard website, “offer new possibilities for interacting with services, devices and environments.”

Smart Apparel in Promo
But will smart apparel ever enter the promo products industry?

Danny Tsai thinks so.

“I do see smart apparel/wearable tech entering our space,” says the VP of merchandising at Top 40 supplier Tri-Mountain (asi/92125). “As far as what type of innovation, it can be anything from measuring and tracking an activity, making you more visible, or keeping your body temperature regulated. The affordability of it will decide how soon we see it in our industry.”

Tsai says Tri-Mountain has worked on developing smart pieces, though he was mum on particulars as none have been brought to market. Still, he’s not the only one to think that smart apparel has a future in promo. “For our customers, it’s at least a few years away, but I can see it having applications in workwear,” says Andrea Lara Routzahn, senior VP of portfolio and supplier management at Top 40 supplier alphabroder (asi/34063).

For instance, Routzahn says, workers in physical jobs could wear smart apparel as uniforms – something that could help lead to productivity gains and healthier employees. Depending on how developments go, the clothing could also be a good fit for wellness programs, team wear, fitness niche clients and more. That said, most suppliers contacted for this story aren’t currently developing or looking to source smart clothing. When they might start remains to be seen. “I don’t think smart apparel is going to take over,” says Routzahn, “but there could be a space for it in our industry.”

SoftWear Automation's 'sewbots' can sew garments without a seamstress.

Powered-Up Performance
More immediately, promo apparel firms say they’re focused on emerging trends that are already heating up. Paramount among the developments? An increasing desire from end-buyers for wardrobe staples with “the DNA of activewear,” says Vicki Ostrom, senior designer at Top 40 supplier Sanmar (asi/84863). “Sportswear and traditional office wear are evolving and becoming an entirely new species,” she says. “As lines are being blurred between work, rest, travel and play, clothing must easily transition from one experience to another, with fitness remaining a top priority.”

Given the demand, industry suppliers are keen to come to market with lightweight apparel that delivers enhanced comfort and amplified performance features. As for those features, Norm Hullinger, CEO of alphabroder, points to developments in moisture-wicking fabrics that could see the sweat-sweeping-away power last indefinitely. Similarly, apparel makers are developing improved anti-wrinkle, soil release and antimicrobial treatments.

David Bebon, CEO of DBEBZ Apparel/Backpacker (asi/48746), talks about innovations like better UPF protection and bug-repellant capabilities – both built directly into shirts. He also describes enhancements like specially shaped yarns that wick in a way as to cool a wearer’s body temperature – a feature in Backpacker’s Sport Utility Short Sleeve Shirt.

Revved-up performance properties are expanding to styles across clothing categories. “Features like stretch, odor control, stain resistance and soil release are becoming more common on dress shirts, blazers and outerwear jackets,” says Ostrom.

Whether at retail or in the promo industry, a key element in apparel’s evolution is that people want performance features, but with the touch – and, increasingly, the look – that is associated with natural fibers. That’s led to greater emphasis on creating apparel that blends the technical function of polyester with natural fibers like ringspun cotton. Going forward, expect such blended garments to abound. Says Routzahn: “It’s the best of both worlds – performance and a soft natural hand.”

Steps Toward Sustainability
While advancements in apparel are intriguing, there’s no denying that the traditional process of making fabrics consumes massive quantities of water and energy, while potentially releasing harmful chemicals into the environment.

But in recent years, pioneers in the apparel industry have been working to revolutionize the fabric creation process, making it more sustainable. Their efforts could help create a greener industry in the decades ahead. “A lot of technology is being applied to producing fabric in a way that’s less invasive to the environment,” says Routzahn. “We’re seeing things that would be good for the planet – and lead to cost savings.”

Take DyeCoo for instance, a Dutch company that uses reclaimed CO2 instead of water in a patented process to dye textiles. With DyeCoo’s method, no process chemicals, water or wastewater is required, which means wastewater treatment isn’t needed. Rather, the Dutch innovators employ CO2 reclaimed from existing industrial processes as part of a closed loop system to infuse vibrant colors into textiles using 100% pure dyes. “Short batch cycles, efficient dye use, (and) no wastewater treatment all contribute to significantly reduced operating costs,” DyeCoo says.

Apparently, the company is on to something: Nike, Adidas and Peak Performance have products featuring DyeCoo technology. “We are convinced that this trend will continue as more and more brands will increase their demand,” the company says.

Meanwhile, Spinnova is another European company engineering innovations. The Finnish startup has invented a technology that transforms wood fibers directly into yarn. Inspired by the web-weaving of spiders and paper manufacturing, the process uses 99% less water and 80% less energy than cotton, Spinnova says. The wood fiber method does not require extra chemical treatment of pulp fiber, and the yarn is recyclable. FabricLink named Spinnova one of its top 10 textile innovations of 2016-17, commenting that the offering could “revolutionize” both the textile and forestry industries. Industrial scale production is reported to be starting in 2017-18.

In Spain, Hilaturas Ferre S.A. is upcycling textile waste into recycled yarns. The company cuts the waste into smaller pieces and then shreds it to reclaim the longest possible fibers. From there, a “colorblend” process enables consistent color-matching of cotton fibers without the use of dyes. A finishing process involving the infusion of carrier fibers and spinning results in high-quality, color-correct yarns that are used to make apparel, accessories and home textiles. Through its “Recover” process, Ferre saved 42.3 billion liters of water, 6.8 million pounds of pollutants, and 130 million pounds of CO2 emissions in 2016 – numbers verified by Universitat de València and UNESCO.

Clearly, sustainable products and processes are not yet the standard, but industry insiders expect them to become more pervasive. One day, suppliers say, sustainable apparel could become a strong selling point in the promo products industry, which has already experienced a rise in certain eco-friendly items, like shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. “The emphasis on sustainability is going to grow,” says Routzahn. “Millennials are gaining greater buying power, and they’re not walking away from sustainability.”

Sewbots & New Sourcing Hot Spots
While apparel making remains one of the most labor-intensive forms of manufacturing, innovators have their sights set on changing that in a big way.

Case-in-point: Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation has developed “sewbots” – a trademarked term referring to robots that can sew garments without a seamstress. While complex garments are currently beyond the sewbots, they can produce simpler products like T-shirts. Eventually, SoftWear envisions making denim items and more. CEO Palaniswamy Rajan has said that every four robots only require one human operator to manage them.

Beyond Softwear, Seattle-based Sewbo has developed a process in which fabrics are temporarily stiffened with the help of a non-toxic polymer, allowing “conventional” industrial robots to build garments from rigid cloth. So far, Sewbo has had success creating T-shirts. Additionally, household name brands like Adidas, Nike and Zara’s parent company Inditex have been focusing on greater automation.

While the technology isn’t taking over in 2017, interest in bot-driven automation is ramping up. That’s because it could provide lower labor costs, enhanced efficiency, fewer mistakes, and more speed and flexibility in the supply chain, allowing brands to get clothing from conception to consumers quicker in a world of fast-changing trends.

To the point of rising interest, consider this: Rajan recently told California Apparel News that 2017 SoftWear sales are forecast to beat 2016’s numbers four times over. Also interesting: he and other proponents of robotic automation believe the technology could help drive onshoring of apparel production, given the envisioned reduced labor costs and growing desire to get apparel to market with lightning speed. “You will see a sizable amount of industry moving back to the U.S,” Rajan says.

While that’s a big boast not everyone is buying, robots could allow at least some production to return closer to major consumer markets in the U.S. and Europe. It’s perhaps noteworthy that Adidas, for example, is building an automation-fueled “speedfactory” in Atlanta. Utilizing robotic cutting, computerized knitting and 3-D printing, the factory is expected to produce trainers and other sport shoes. “I expect (robotic automation) will appear in China, the U.S. and Europe first as a way to manufacture garments more efficiently,” Routzahn says.

On the downside, robotic production could eventually lead to job losses for manufacturing workers in developing countries – something some labor groups worry could escalate poverty and trigger social unrest. Still, don’t expect a jobs apocalypse anytime soon. In at least the next few years ahead, industry sourcing experts anticipate that more apparel-making work will spread to lower-wage Asian nations, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as Sub-Saharan countries like Lesotho and Kenya.

While China will remain a dominant player in apparel production, issues there like rising wages, labor shortages and an increased focus on manufacturing more advanced products have compelled apparel sourcers to find additional options. That will continue. “Vietnam has become second for us, behind China. There are good factories, a good supply chain, and great needle that gives us consistent quality,” says Cutter & Buck (asi/47965) CEO Joel Freet, whose assessment of Vietnam was widely echoed among promo suppliers.

As apparel production spreads globally, sourcers are encountering infrastructural challenges in some areas. These issues slow down the speed with which apparel can be shipped stateside. Nonetheless, suppliers anticipate that, as the road bumps continue to be smoothed, more production will continue to migrate to burgeoning sourcing hotspots. “We’re in these places now,” says alphabroder’s Hullinger. “We will be in even bigger ones as progress moves forward.”

– Email:; Twitter: @ChrisR_ASI