A 10-fold path for intelligent apparel brands aspiring to go big

The world is talking about wearables and its market is all set to boom in the coming years. Amidst all this, the original 'wearables'-clothes that mankind adopted-have been left quite ignored. While fashion has evolved and is continuously changing, everyday clothing has not seen much change or innovation over the years in terms of function and wearer benefit.

While certain sub-categories of clothing like sportswear and performance wear have witnessed adoption of technology, it has so far not made its way into a consumers' regular clothing, remaining the preserve of a niche set of athletes, fitness and outdoors enthusiasts. But times are changing and technology is making its way into routine apparel-be it casualwear like T-shirts, formal shirts, bottomwear like jeans and chinos, or winterwear.

Brands are fusing technology with fashion to offer consumers a host of functional benefits like anti-viral, anti-stain, anti-odour clothing, jeans that are super-stretchy and winterwear that isn't bulky yet. And they are doing this without compromising on the fashion quotient, giving wearers the optimum mix of style and benefits to suit their lifestyle. It is a relatively new field, where the scope is immense and the potential limitless. If anyone entering this segment plays its cards right, there is no ceiling to how much it can scale up.

How can fashion tech brands do this? Here are the ten points to keep in mind:

1. Know your customers; solve their pain points: As with any product, it begins with the customers and the ideal users of your brand. Knowing them will help you identify the key customer pain points. In an industry like fashion that is primarily focused on style and looks, a brand that addresses pain points like high maintenance cost for premium fabrics and separate maintenance for separate materials will go a long way.

2. One tech doesn't fit all; find the right solution for a specific type: Fusing technology with fabric is perfect, but the technology should not be indiscriminately added to clothing just for the sake of novelty. Look at the kind of apparel and its end-use and choose the technology for it accordingly, to suit the purpose of a particular article of clothing. For instance, stain repellent technology is more suitable for regular wear and formals than socks. Activewear calls for moisture management above everything.

3. Make a little tech go a long way by balancing cost and efficiency: To build on the previous point, pay attention to the value that a particular tech will add to a specific apparel type to maintain a balance between cost and efficiency. Given the same cost, a certain type of tech will add just marginal value to a particular end product while drastically increasing the utility range for another product. Concentrate on the latter. For instance, adding stain-repellent tech to inners does not do much for the product but adding odour-control will add much more value at the same cost. In contrast, for a white shirt, stain-repellent tech will add more value than a quick-dry finish.

4. The easier the adaptability, the faster you can scale up: Always be prepared to grow and scale up. This sounds obvious enough but if the technology you are using cannot support your growth, it can turn into a hurdle. This implies when chemicals are chosen for each technology, those that are readily available and easy to process should be selected, and the application process should be simple enough as well to be done even by an unskilled person.

5. Balance form and functionality: It is tempting to add all the cool technology you have to every product you make. But remember, you cannot sell a space suit for everyday wear! In a similar vein, you cannot sell beach shorts that promise the benefits of winter wear. This is where it becomes extremely important to balance form and function. Style is important, but so is technology. Both are equally important but some kinds of technology simply do not belong to certain products and vice versa.

6. Quality assurance is great, but it can be a pitfall too: Brands live and die due to their quality. Once you have chosen the chemicals and the technology that gives you the quality edge, batch-wise quality assurance becomes trickier the further you go as the quality parameters for textiles are relatively simpler and forgiving than chemicals. You need to merge the two with careful planning, insight and knowledge of both the fields. New test methodologies and processes have also to be invented and implemented, especially if the product is unique and no prior testing criteria exist.

7. The right patron who believes in you can make all the difference: Fashion technology and intelligent apparel is a relatively new field, and as with anything new, there is a certain degree of risk that potential investors associate with this field. This is where reaching out to the right investors and supporters becomes extremely important, as the importance of a patron who believes in you, your product and your potential cannot be underestimated.

8. Communicate clearly to your customers: Words like 'intelligent apparel' and 'smart clothing' will only sound like buzzwords when their meaning is not communicated to consumers, especially in a country like India where people are unfamiliar with tech-infused fabrics. To get early adopters, you need to name your tech, so that it is easily understood by a large population while communicating its benefits clearly and unambiguously.

9. Continuous innovation and on-demand improvement: Anything that is good can always be made better. Look at what your customers are buying and what they love the most, be it a benefit or a particular technology and improve on your existing technology to deliver more value and benefits to buyers. Develop new technology depending on current user demand, not because you can. There is no point in introducing technology that does not have a demand. That is important to create a ready pool of potential customers.

10. The right vision is always long-term and always changing: Be clear where you want to go and what you want be and let everything you do play a role in supporting this vision. This means not being tied down to any specific segment or wedded to a particular method. Keep an ear to the ground, keep an eye on your future and be ready to pivot nimbly and take up better methods of production, manufacturing and processing, and exploring new chemicals. Look forward to continuous improvement and let every action be in service to your goal and to making your brand grow.