Innovation Knows No Bounds

How a spirits company dreamed up an evolutionary leap in apparel.

Odds are, you haven’t seen anything like tshirtOS. The shirt features 876 LED lights on the front that shift and change at the touch of a cellphone button – from any static or scrolling text to images, animations and more. It’s comfy like a T-shirt, yet dynamic like any inventive gadget. It captures the attention of many who see it, trying to understand how electronic lights can be so seamlessly integrated into the fabric. “People rub this shirt all the time,” says Alison Lewis, CEO and creative director of fashion technology company Switch Embassy, which researched and designed the shirt.

So, naturally, this forward-thinking garment – positioned right as the wearable tech craze has taken off – is the brainchild of a… liquor company?

Yes – and it’s part of the strange-but-true beginnings of tshirtOS.

The idea was dreamed up by Ballantine’s, a long-standing maker of Scotch whisky. The company takes its cues from early 19th-century founder George Ballantine, hewing closely to a message of authenticity and personal expression, branding itself with the motto “Stay True. Leave An Impression.” In considering how to drive that message home, Ballantine’s and Havas Work Club, a digital marketing agency, decided to take a leap. “What Ballantine’s needed wasn't to ‘say’ it believes in personal expression, but to actually go and create new tools of personal expression,” says Niccolo Rigo, senior strategist for Havas Work Club. “Add something to the world that people could use and that demonstrates implicitly what Ballantine's is all about.”

Ballantine’s and Work Club focused on T-shirts, “the original canvas of personal expression of young males globally,” says Rigo. While styles had changed throughout the decade, the essential function of the T-shirt has remained the same – blissfully unconnected in our digital age.

To change that, Ballantine’s partnered with CuteCircuit, a London-based fashion brand that creates wearable tech garments. A prototype was created and revealed on August 2, 2012. A proof-of-product film encouraged people to register their interest at a campaign hub on the global Ballantine’s Facebook page, while a Twitter account (@tshirtOS) interacted with fans of the concept and provided updates.

The marketers for Havas Work Club and Ballantine’s continued to have fun with the concept, introducing a five-minute trailer in the vein of an ’80s buddy comedy where two tshirtOS interns decide to take the shirt out for a spin. Other films in Mexico and Brazil saw, respectively, tshirtOS go back to the future with a rock band and help two street dancers attract a crowd.

Meanwhile, in real life, Ballantine’s had commissioned Switch Embassy to perfect the shirt. Lewis says she spent three-and-a-half months researching the project, evaluating over 1,000 materials and then creating 50-100 prototypes. “Some of them were just hand drawings on a T-shirt,” says Lewis. “Where should all the electronics go? How is the fit? It was a pretty cool process, and we’re gathering all the information now so we can share the videos with people; it was a wild ride.”

Switch Embassy produced 25 shirts that are being used by Ballantine’s brand ambassadors all over the world, including the most recent South by Southwest festival. Data is being accumulated on how the shirts are used (wearers prefer text over animation, for example). Clearly there is consumer interest; over 20,000 people so far have registered their desire to own a tshirtOS. Lewis says the technology is difficult to manufacture at that scale, however, and requires an overwhelming demand – 50,000 signups at switchembassy.com/ballantines-tshirtos – to mass produce the garment. “We need to hear from the world they want this product,” she says. “If they speak loud enough, tweet enough #iwanttshirtos and sign up on our page, we can make it happen.”

Still, tshirtOS is just the start. Lewis says the LED technology can work with any garment that can be embroidered. Separately, Ballantine’s and Havas Work Club are continuing to think big. “Even though we can't talk of the existence or lack thereof of any project involving fashion or wearable technology,” Rigo says, “we can assure you that tshirtOS is definitely not the last surprising innovation the world will see from Ballantine's.”

T-Shirts that Light Up
tshirtOS can display text and images on the front of the shirt, thanks to LED lights that are embroidered into the fabric.