Fashion brands live and die based on service — whether that is online, in stores or through their factories.
However engrained that is in the industry, the forward-thinking Advanced Functional Fabrics of America wants insiders and consumers to recognize the service that technologically enhanced fabrics can provide. Running tights that illuminate when facing headlights, color-changing garments, cellphone-charging fibers, athletic wear equipped to share real-time physiological data and app-powered trade show bags that share personal information are among the Cambridge, Mass.-based group’s projects. Developing fabric as a service or fabric as software is part of its mission.
The concept of fabrics as a service as opposed to fabrics as a commodity is going to make the industry think about their business models in a very different way, according to AFFOA chief product officer Tosha Hays. “With subscription models like Rent The Runway, Harry’s and things like that, the consumer’s mind is shifting about how they actually purchase and use goods. The time is right for us to think of fabrics as a service,” she said, adding that services-enriched apparel is more appealing to consumers whether they are making purchases or renting “versus just buying it as a commodity and just throwing it out.”
Located adjacent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, AFFOA is a one-stop shop of sorts — a laboratory, brain trust, weaving, knitting and prototype development center from fiber to end product. The 45-person group was started by MIT’s professor of Materials Science, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Joel Fink, who invented the draw tower, drawing the semi-conductor advanced fibers into actual fiber qualities that can be commercialized into consumer textiles. His team focuses on extending the frontiers of fiber materials from optical transmission to encompass electronic, optoelectronic and even acoustic properties. From his point of view, “fibers are among the earliest forms of human expression, yet surprisingly have remained unchanged from ancient to modern times.”
A few weeks ago the team created the official bag for the Augmented World Expo, the largest augmented reality conference, which was designed to be part of the exhibitor-attendee experience. Once picking up one of the bags upon registration at AWE, attendees downloaded the conference app which then allowed others to have access to their profiles — photo, title, LinkedIn, company web sites — whatever they chose to share. “Throughout the conference each attendee could learn about other attendees and exhibitors,’” Hays said. “We created thousands and thousands of connections that way by having a physical form that could connect to the conference app [by pointing the app’s camera]. As part of the app, we have avatars that people can create that are photos, bitmojis or images of themselves.”
The “fabric communications” technology has also been used at college orientations, conferences and larger meetings of like-minded people who want to know about each other and are willing to share information about themselves through their fabric. Another initiative is a fiber that draws 250-micron LED chips into textile-quality fibers that has been woven into a trim on leggings. Aside from being prime for running at night, the app has a light reader that can pick up the frequency of the light and also share information about the wearer. AFFOA refers to its spatial code technology “looks,” and its optical code where a circuit code is attached to the fiber that shares a specific frequency that can be unique to the wearer as “active looks.”
“We think high-visibility apparel — for the self-driving future — is going to be important. Imagine you’re wearing a pair of normal trousers in the evening crossing the street, when the lights of a car hit your trousers the lights in the fibers light up. So that vehicle will know there is a pedestrian in front of them. We have these awesome light blue trousers that look like ones you would buy at any store. No one would ever know there are lights in them. They don’t look like a science project,” Hays said.
Various projects have been done with New Balance, ’47 Brand, the U.S. Department of Defense and other organizations. The Boston-based New Balance has been involved with developing the high-visibility running tights, which can also share real-time data such as pace, heart rate and calories burned. The runner could also create a profile in the app with their favorite song, a web site they like or their motto of the day. “Sharing data can be anything — real-time physiological monitoring or it could just be sharing something as I would on Instagram — an image, song or video,” Hays said.
Hays had a grasp on the fashion industry having worked at Spanx for nearly eight years before cofounding textile technology start-up Brrr!, Inc. in 2014. She is no longer involved with the latter’s day-to-day operations, but she advises the company and remains a major shareholder. “I moved to AFFOA because I felt the technology here was just a whole other level of groundbreaking innovation,” she said.
AAFOA works with all levels of the fashion industry (as well as other ones), whether that is fabric mills, trim suppliers, hardware suppliers and the like “to move the needle for technology or the product,” Hays said. Proprietary projects are also in the mix such as ones for Bose. Color-changing technology is an area of particular interest in the fashion industry, Hays said. The idea that a shirt could be black one day and white the next is awesome and is under development at AFFOA. The prospect of embedding energy fibers in clothing that would enable cell phones to be charged without being plugged in is also in the works. AFFOA has a supercapacitor fiber that can light its LED fiber, which “everyone is very excited about,” she said.
“People don’t realize that we actually create the fibers here. It’s an end-to-end facility. We actually draw the fibers in draw towers here. We take preforms, which are blocks of semiconductor, conductor and insulator and that block like a brick polymer is drawn into these fibers, meters and meters in length, that maintain this high functionality even once they go through this process of block to fiber,” Hays said.
As for getting the word out, AAFOA’s chief executive officer Fink will speak at ITMA Barcelona later this month and the group’s biannual demo and networking member event will be held this summer.