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Technology: The most important fashion trend of the decade

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Although technology and fashion have come together previously with fads like the 80s Walkman and 00s iPod, technofashion is far more prevalent and having a much greater effect today. Technology has not so much diverted spending away from fashion – it has become fashion.

Deborah Weinswig, Executive Director and Head of Global Retail and Technology at Fung Business Intelligence Systems in New York, monitors global fashion trends. She says: “Fashion and beauty are increasingly being affected and even driven by science and technology. There is a great deal of technology in fabrics, and we are starting to wear more electronic devices on our wrists and on our bodies.”

Two smartphones with illustrations of clothing

A fashionable trend

For some businesses, such as performance apparel retailers and mass fashion retailers such as Uniqlo, the trendiness of tech is their bread and butter. For others, it could create an issue, leading consumers who once would have been shopping for multiple outfits choosing to shift both time and money elsewhere.

Is this a trend with staying power? If so, what does it mean for traditional High Street retailers? The fusion of fashion with technology has occurred in a number of ways, some obvious and some more nuanced. Take for example Happytel, a 21-year-old retailer of high-end mobile phone accessories with stores in more than 60 of Australia’s trendiest shopping centres.

The retailer’s owners consider themselves to be fairly and squarely in the fashion, rather than the technology business. Happytel’s phone cases are made not just to protect the device, but to be shown off. Elizabeth Ryu, Director of Happytel Retail Group, says: “Our customers demand more of us than just something that’s highly functional. We have to be able to position our product in the same way as a designer handbag or a valuable piece of jewellery.” 

The fact that shoppers shell out $50 or more for a designer phone case is not likely to keep clothing retailer executives awake at night, but other technology trends would be sure to get them thinking. One is the technology embedded in high-performing, attractive fabrics – for clothing that can be worn for multiple activities on the same day.

One size fits all

It is no longer necessary to have an outfit for the gym or even the opera; one outfit can theoretically take care of it all. And growth retailers like Lululemon, Athleta, Lorna Jane, Nike and Under Armour are trying to give consumers exactly that option. These ‘athleisure’ brands are often sportswear retailers that have invested heavily in fabric technology and design when health and wellness has perhaps become this decade’s most important lifestyle trend.

This is hitting two kinds of traditional clothing retailers hard. The first are those that rely on purchasing habits that target ‘occasions’, like work, leisure, sport, evening wear and so on. The second are those that have relied on staple fabrics like denim. These two imperilled categories account for most fashion retailers on the High Street. Interestingly, it appears the trend is increasingly intergenerational.

To illustrate, a closely-followed survey of American teenagers by Wall Street firm Piper Jaffray found recently that higher-income females prioritise athleisure brands over denim. Non-athleisure fashion brands are not taking the trend lying down. Some are jumping on the bandwagon with their own performance apparel lines. It’s a plausible response, but will not necessarily cut it with the fashion shoppers who are committed to the pioneering brands, perceiving them to be more authentic and technologically superior.

It’s impossible to say if athleisure is a trend that’s here to stay, particularly among women who could conceivably revert back to more traditional feminine outfitting patterns if given compelling options. Wearable technology in the broader sense is now unstoppable, and fashion executives betting on getting by without adopting technology-enhanced merchandise are making a big mistake. Deciding to do it is one thing, but getting there is the hard part.


The infusion of technology is arguably the most important broad fashion trend of the decade – perhaps even of the century. Established High Street fashion retailers that haven't yet shown up to the tech party could struggle to catch up. The first movers, meanwhile, are benefiting from significant brand loyalty and stellar profit margins.

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