On Friday evening, a crowd of fashionistas sat in a freezing, industrial space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and watched a string of models strut down a runway in dresses and sports bras. It might have been an ordinary Fashion Week scene, except the dresses and bras were “responsive” garments, made out of 3-D printed panels armed with tiny computer modules that sense and respond to a person’s body.
The runway show marked the public debut of a new line of smart clothing from “architectural sportswear” brand Chromat, in concert with semiconductor chip and processor manufacturer Intel (INTC). The five-year-old women’s fashion label worked with Intel engineers over the past several months to develop dresses and sports bras that integrate Intel’s Curie module — a tiny piece of hardware featuring a battery, motion sensors, and wireless connectivity.
Chromat founder and head designer Becca McCharen told Fortune that the Intel collaboration was “a total dream project.” Says McCharen: Working with Intel engineers was “like going back to school and getting a master class in mechanical engineering and sensors.” (Chromat’s show was part of WME-IMG’s Made Fashion Week, which highlights emerging designers.)
The Chromat Aeros Sports Bra uses Curie sensors to gauge your heat level, and the bra will open vents and cool the body down. The dress uses the Curie modules to sense adrenaline and stress levels, so if stress levels are high, the dress will expand into an imposing shape.
Neither item is going on sale in stores, since the Intel Curie module has yet to be authorized by the Federal Communications Commission. But drumming up sales wasn’t really the point—for Intel, anyway. The Chromat show was meant as a display of what designers can do with the Curie module at their disposal. It’s also part of Intel’s push to expand its presence at New York’s biggest fashion event of the season, which the company is co-sponsoring along with companies like Lexus and Maybelline.
Last fall, Intel came to NYFW to debut the MICA smart bracelet in one of the company’s first attempts at marrying fashion with wearable technology that saw them partner with designers at Open Ceremony. Since then, the Silicon Valley company spent months working to find new fashion partners that would integrate Intel’s technology into their latest designs.
Intel’s goal: To corner the nascent market for wearable technology that is fashion-forward and highly functional. “I think we’re all about creating a category and it’s about innovation leadership,”Ayse Ildeniz, vice president of Intel’s New Devices Group, told Fortune. “We’re trying to show the rest of the world that unimaginable things can happen through technology.”
Intel also made its presence felt off the runway at Fashion Week this year, as the company’s technology has been integrated into tablets used in the check-in process; and the company even provided drones that were put into action, hovering over the action to provide 4K video and aerial photographs. And, Intel’s RealSense technology powers MemoMi’s MemoryMirror technology. Installed in Fashion Week headquarters in Manhattan, along with some Nieman Marcus retail locations around the country, the interactive dressing room mirrors let shoppers try on clothes virtually.
The attempt to marry fashion and technology has been tried before — not necessarily with success. Despite a design from Diane von Furstenberg, Google Glass has failed to gain traction, while Apple (AAPL) recently opted to partner with French luxury brand Hermés on new Apple Watch bands after its first round of smartwatches failed to win many fans among fashionistas. But, Intel is making it clear that it hopes to get ahead of the curve after spending the past few years chasing the wearables market.
Ildeniz has been adamant in the past about the importance of aesthetics when it comes to wearable technology; she believes visual appeal is essential in order for wearables to achieve widespread adoption, particularly when it comes to female consumers. Ildeniz echoed that sentiment on Friday, telling Fortune: “We would never put on ourselves something that we don’t identify ourselves with . . . the function alone is not enough.”
“You do need the aesthetically savvy people, like the fashion designers, who create the most beautiful things. And, then we need to give them the technology to make them appeal [to] us so that we are proud to wear [the products],” said Ildeniz, who helped steer Intel’s work on the MICA bracelet and the Curie module.
Ildeniz helped set up the Chromat partnership as well as a collaboration with Fossil to make multiple accessories and wearables powered by Intel technology. That includes a smartwatch that runs on Google’s (GOOG) Android Wear operating system, which was on display at another NYFW show over the weekend. (The Fossil connected accessories will go on sale in time for the 2015 holiday season, Intel said.)
Intel also is trying to give more visibility to wearables through a partnership with Mark Burnett, “Survivor” and “Shark Tank” creator/producer. They’re launching a new reality television series that will air on TBS sometime next year. Currently titled “America’s Greatest Makers,” the series will pit amateur tech engineers against one another to see who can create the best wearable tech products using Intel’s technology, namely the Curie module. The TV show follows last year’s Intel campaign called Make It Wearable, which featured a similar premise and resulted in a $500,000 grand prize being awarded to the makers of Nixie, a flying wearable camera.
Ildeniz pointed to those projects as examples of how Intel is looking to foster creativity and innovation. So why did Intel recently drop its support for Science Talent Search, a prestigious competition for American high school students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields? Ildeniz maintains that Intel is committed to supporting innovation in STEM and that the company envisions the Curie module as a building block for all kinds of inventors, not only tech-savvy fashionistas.
Looking ahead, Ildeniz wants Intel to continue expanding its partnerships with the fashion world and her hope is that the company’s increased visibility at this year’s Fashion Week will help give other designers an idea of what they can do with Intel’s technology at their disposal. “It’s a give and take,” she said. “It’s a learning together process that we’re going through and we hope that everybody else gets to learn from the process.”
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