In June 2019, a fast fashion giant H&M (German branch) together with a Berlin based think tank The Do School gathered 23 professionals from different countries and backgrounds to create the prototypes of wearables. From a presentation by H&M, one could conclude that the company was worrying about sales drops and considering making something innovative, personal and empowering, and a wearable perfectly fitted this description.

Hereby I share my experience of participation in the event and outline some of the obstacles that I – as a team member – encountered.   

According to the initial task, an idea was to create a wearable that would connect communities, but no specific community was prioritized. Such a broad definition allowed for different interpretations, but also created some unrest because the team was a bit astonished by the range of options. At some point, we had to tame our imagination since the ideas like “an invisible coat” started to pop up.     

Eventually, we came up with around a dozen viable ideas of the wearables, and split into smaller groups in accordance with our own interests. I was in a group of four working on a jacket capable of imitating human touch and sensation of holding hands. This would be possible thanks to the sensors attached to the jacket’s back and pockets, and controlled via a mobile application. Other sub-groups were developing, among others, a garment with a GPS, a shape-shifting apparel, a bag with changing patterns, and an accessory that changed colors based on body temperature.

As far as the touch-imitating jacket is concerned, we were hoping to connect people who are far away geographically, but also LGBT-people in countries like Russia or Saudi Arabia who cannot openly show their feelings due to hostility towards them. We did not design any specific jacket for the project. Instead, we took a gender-neutral jacket from a previous H&M collection, and argued that the touch-imitating “system” could be later incorporated into other H&M clothes.

Our group conducted few focus group interviews in order to determine where to locate the sensors. Interestingly enough, participants generally agreed on the body parts (around one’s upper back and shoulder area) they enjoyed to be touched. However, the interviewees argued over the question of how to “properly” hold hands with their partner (either interlocked fingers or a down-facing palm). Therefore, further research on this issue is needed in order to incorporate different opinions.

As far as the application is concerned, we were able to create a very rough prototype, mainly due to limited time and skills. Overall, the app proved to be the most expensive and complex part of the project: we assumed there would be several types of users, depending on if one owned a jacket or just sent a touch sensation to a jacket owner. These details put extra pressure on an engineer in our group who also helped other sub-projects because of a limited number of participants with engineer skills.

Here, it is important to remark that, regardless an initial idea to switch between the sub-projects, the participants were so in love with their “own” wearables that most of us stayed within one sub-project for the whole period. Presumably, switching the members could have enriched each of the ideas, but it’s pretty hard to overcome one’s emotional attachment to a creative project.    

Eventually, H&M tested our prototypes during the so-called “gallery walk” – an event organized by H&M in their new premises in central Berlin. Though all of those who tried the jacket on enjoyed the sensation, the general feedback was that it felt like a pleasant massage. In the future, it might be interesting to see how massage (which can be associated with a medical equipment) and touch sensation can be united in one wearable.

Finally, it is unclear if H&M is actually going to produce its own wearable, but the event definitely indicated some interest on their side. By the way, H&M is not the first fashionable brand that has been entertaining the idea of making a wearable – more on this in the review of the wearables’ market here https://wearabletech.home.blog/2019/09/07/review-of-the-wearables-market-products-and-players/

The prototype of the touch-imitating jacket. The logo on the pocket says “U&I” which is the working name for the product (photo by the author)

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