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Is smart tech hurtling us towards a dystopian fashion future?

From clothing that tracks your every move, to an app that suggest styles based on Spotify preferences – big brands are watching you

Last month, John Galliano sent a tribe of ‘digital nomads’ down the catwalk as part of the Maison Margiela AW18 Artisanal show. Some wore VR-style headsets, while others sported clamps attached to their limbs holding iPhones and iPads, and another had a screen on the back of her coat. The collection blurred the line between man and machine, and it was clear that Galliano had the collision of fashion, tech, and our always-on lives in mind – which, at this point, feels inevitable.  

The latest evidence of that came just last week, Tommy Hilfiger announced the launch of its Tommy Jeans Xplore collection – a new line which sees t-shirts, hoodies, and dresses fitted with Bluetooth microchips. Each piece from the capsule offering will track wearers’ movements, awarding prizes depending on how much people wear the garment. And if you pass by a particular Tommy Jeans location? Mr. Hilfiger is watching you – and bestowing goodies including cinema passes, gift cards, and discount codes with which you can buy more Tommy Jeans items (which may or may not follow your every move).

The Tommy Jeans Xplore range is just the tip of the iceberg, though. These so-called smart labels are actually something a number of companies have been developing – and implementing – for some time now. At Burberry, select items trigger fitting room mirrors to transition into screens and play catwalk footage and campaign films for the customer, while in late 2016, NY-based brand Rochambeau launched #borndigital, a campaign which meant that people who bought styles from its AW16 collection would be given exclusive access to clubs, gallery openings, and the label’s own fashion show by way of an accompanying app.

Elsewhere, Avery Dennison, the international company that creates clothing labels for the likes of Nike, Underarmour, and Hugo Boss, has joined forces with tech start-up Evrything as part of a project that will see over 10 million garments and shoes imbued with ‘digital identities’ over the course of the next three years. For the customer, that means personalised digital content direct to your mobile device, as well as information on the item itself, offers and extras, suggestions as to what to buy next, and links to third-party companies they might be interested in (as if we really need any more of those).

As for the companies that implement the smart labels, the tech will allow them to collect data on their customers, follow their movements, and eventually map out fully-formed profiles as to their lifestyles, their preferences, and their buying habits to better be able to fulfil their every requirement. Or maybe watch them while they sleep, while plotting how best to unite with an army of Alexas to overthrow humankind.

This week also heralded the launch of a new app which will recommend clothing based on your Spotify data. Developed by San Francisco-based luxury menswear retailer Eison Triple Thread (which, if you ask us, sounds like some sort of fashion-focused Disney villain), the app invites users to take a lifestyle survey, before connecting to their Spotify accounts and working out what you’re likely to want to wear according to your musical preferences.

While there is a correlation between some musicians and what their fans wear – take Kanye West’s incredible influence on his audience, and the success of the Yeezy brand, for example – when looking closer at the app, it doesn’t seem as clear cut as founder Julian Eison indicated in a recent interview with Racked.

“If someone was born in the 80s, and listens to upbeat music from that time, we can gauge that his style is probably similar to Joey from Friends” – Julian Eison

“A guy who was born between 1984 and 1988, likes hip-hop, and works in tech in San Francisco will probably like clothing that’s on trend, so we’ll feed him looks based on that demographic and see what he responds to,” he says. “If someone was born in the 80s, and listens to upbeat music from that time, we can gauge that his style is probably similar to Joey from Friends.” (...can we?) Eisom goes on to explain that people who listen to 60s music like The Beatles will have items like high-rise flares and corduroy styles suggested to them, and Lionel Richie listeners will be offered red ribbed sweaters and blue jeans.

What Eisom is perhaps overlooking is that humans rarely fit into such neatly defined categories and, in reality, are a whole lot more complex than he’s giving them credit for. What is he going to put in front of the people who skip between Aphex Twin, Tommy Cash, Kate Bush, and Paris Hilton’s 2006 masterpiece “Stars are Blind” on the 45 minute bus journey to work alone (guilty)?

There are upsides to some of this new tech. Since 2016, Nike has been fitting its running sneakers with a chip that can track movement, mileage, and alert the owner when they’re past their best, meaning their performance is never compromised. Smart labels can hold information as to who manufactured the garment, where it was made, the sustainability of the materials used, and how to recycle it, leading customers to make more conscious choices when it comes to the clothes they purchase, and offering brands the opportunity to improve and increase their transparency. Those of us who are prone to leaving items of clothing in the back of late night (or early morning) Ubers will have a better chance of tracking them down. And companies like Goat are developing an AI system that will be able to tell you if that tiny Louis Vuitton Speedy you just bought is real or not, with technology that can detect counterfeit items.

For the most part, though, it seems brands are using these new advancements to monitor their customers’ habits to better sell them more stuff that they (probably) don’t need, and collecting information for their own gain – which raises the question of security, and what companies will do to ensure the security of the data they have amassed. “Imagine a hacked pair of shoes telling your health insurer that you don’t exercise and much as they demand for your given insurance policy, and at renewal your premium is doubled,” Dr. Richie Tynan, a technologist at Privacy International, told the Financial Times in an interview about the future of smart labelling. According to Tynan, there are no laws currently in place to regulate this process.

“Imagine a hacked pair of shoes telling your health insurer that you don’t exercise and much as they demand for your given insurance policy, and at renewal your premium is doubled” – Dr. Richie Tynan

A recent report by the New York Times also detailed how domestic violence cases are increasingly involving the use of smart tech, too. Abusive partners or ex-partners have been utilising home systems to intimidate (predominantly) women by suddenly blasting out music at high volumes, turning lights and appliances on and off, ringing doorbells in the middle of the night, and even changing security codes for front doors. With clothing fitted with trackers that show the wearer’s movements, the worrying reality is the information could end up in the wrong hands: those of abusers, or perhaps even stalkers.

While the ability to see the production journey of a product via smart-labelling could set a revolutionary new standard for transparency in the industry, it’s hard not to feel that all of this has the potential to get more than a bit dystopian. Who knows – in a few years time, it might not just be our laptop cameras we’ll be sticking blobs of Blu-Tack over, or our phone’s microphone we muffle when we’re having private conversations. We’ll also likely be frantically searching for (tiny) chips and snipping them out of our latest purchases in a bid to maintain a fragment of our ever-diminishing digital privacy. Thanks, but no thanks – log us out.