The Next Frontier In Fabric Tech Is Reinventing Fashion With Function
Meet LOOMIA, the team of young creatives bent on getting smart textiles right and introducing fashion to the power of the blockchain
With objects all around us getting smarter, and more covetable for it, it makes sense that fashion should follow suit. Enter LOOMIA, the New York startup designing fabric-based technology for highly functional, scalable, wearable products. Founder Madison Maxey grew the company out of her studio The Crated, after her early projects with connected textiles caught the attention of companies like The North Face, Google and Levi’s.
PSFK sat down with Maxey, CEO Janett Liriano and Director of Product Development Ezgi Ucar at New Lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the company is based. The cavernous coworking space hosts a number of creative companies with a bevy of tables and couches for flexible seating, a lofted second floor and an in-house cafe, but the real draw for entrepreneurial groups like LOOMIA is access to shared equipment—3D printers, laser cutters, a metal shop and more—that can be used for prototyping.
Maxey, Ucar and Liriano, along with VP of Supply Chain and Operations Marco Paúl, constitute the small team integrating technology into comfortable fabrics, which are intended for use by brands in performance products (just as materials like Gore-Tex are). Even if the notion of connected textiles leaves you utterly confounded, a short time spent with the minds behind LOOMIA will convince you to trust them on it.
“Our goal is to make technologies that add comfort, safety and confidence to the human experience. Comfort can be done through things like heating, safety can be done through things like lighting for high visibility, confidence can be done through things like haptic feedback, really comfortable interfaces—just products that perform really well,” Maxey said. “The way that we do that is through making flexible soft circuitry, and those circuits are meant for textile innovation.”
Though we are already seeing examples of ‘smart fashion,’ it’s still difficult to wrap one’s head around the concept as far as it concerns consumers on a larger scale. Many prototypes and early products, as Maxey explains, are made by hand or remain very fragile; these suffer from a lack of scalability and “design non-considerations.” If the battery pack (a necessity for existing connected textiles) detracts from the wearer’s experience, a garment won’t win wide adoption. Maxey cited “this one heated hoodie where they wanted you to put this giant battery pack in the pocket that sags the whole hoodie and will eventually tear the connections so it stops working, which is what most of the reviews said.”
LOOMIA is on a mission to bring tech to clothing in a way that actually works for people, without being intrusive. The company calls its conductive textile the LOOMIA Electronic Layer—imperceptible circuitry within a thin fabric. Another piece of proprietary technology, the LOOMIA Interconnect, makes the hard-to-soft connection between the fabric and the battery pack. All of this is designed to be sewn into a garment so that the whole system is contained. “We never want any user to be able to reach the electronics,” Ucar said.
While the company sees itself as a principally B2B venture, Maxey and Ucar are designing limited runs of products to show what their technology can do. In the coming months, they plan to release a women’s leather boot that heats the wearer’s foot using a LOOMIA layer at the bottom of the shoe. The battery is located in the heel and charges on a flat platform. Maxey and Ucar paid special attention to their choice of battery, selecting a safe chemistry that can withstand the pressure of walking. It’s these kinds of details that make or break the user experience. LOOMIA forgoes the bells and whistles in favor of a sleek design that adds function without sacrificing safety or style.
“Anything that exists in the market that is somehow doing the functionalities that we do doesn’t work for everyday consumer goods—they’re either too bulky or uncomfortable, or they make weird noises when you wear them,” said Ucar. “So what we’re trying to do is change that materiality and make the technology as invisible as possible, so it’s doing the work in the background while people actually do what they’re supposed to do and not worry about, ‘Oh did I turn it on? Did I adjust it right?’ Or, ‘I’m carrying this giant battery pack.’ We want people to forget about the technology and just enjoy their lives, and the technology will try to make their environment as comfortable as possible for any use case.”
Beyond the consumer, LOOMIA has set its sights on optimizing the manufacturer experience. “We think we’re most helpful on the B2B side, selling these customized solutions for brands. Because brands and manufacturers, they’re not engineers: they don’t know how to create reliable, trusty circuits. They’re going to need to contract people for that. And even if they do end up contracting, they don’t have an intimate understanding of what textile-based goods need, so we really saw an opportunity there to create that bridge and provide things that are tailor-made—tailor-made!—for those products,” Liriano said.
“So whatever the brand is, let’s say X brand wants to make a jacket, which is an easy application. We would work with them to design the textile panels, decide where the battery pack is most optimal in the garment and deliver it to them at the end: pre-cut, insulated, pre-assembled panels that they just sew in. So their manufacturing process is not any different than sewing in a lining. That’s where a lot of our design thinking comes in: it’s not just the user, it’s the people who are going to put these garments together. How can we make it easier for them to integrate this technology in a way that doesn’t disrupt all their processes? Because that’s expensive, it’s not easily repeatable, there are a lot of specialists that need to be involved to make a jacket, and a lot of the work that Ezgi and Maddy do is thinking about that.”
Maxey added, “A lot of the future that we see is being able to have functionality, which is kind of what clothing was meant for and then it changed to something else. It’s still meant to be aesthetic, but to be able to have functionality be something that we really expect from our clothing: It should work for us. Getting there is about making these smart design decisions that make it easy for manufacturers to make it easy for consumers.”
A heating shoe or a lighted jacket are obvious visions for making our clothing smarter. Waiting more subtly in the wings of connected textiles is their data potential, which will become concrete when LOOMIA launches a token sale (with its own cryptocurrency on the LOOMIA network) this fall—a first for fashion and apparel. “What our materials do is they carry power and they carry data. So the data from the sensor—the fabric itself is a sensor—that’s all something that can be used for different applications,” Maxey explained.
The LOOMIA Electronic Layer and Interconnect are just the first two elements of an open platform that will bring garments into the realm of the Internet of Things. The LOOMIA Tile, a smooth rectangle about the size of a smartphone that is activated by a fingerprint, is being developed to collect data transferred from a user’s garment. With an accompanying app, the user would be able to sell their personal data to brands as they choose in exchange for money and insider perks. Maxey enumerated the benefits of the blockchain as a decentralized platform that keeps data and information safe, which could eventually serve as proof of identity.
“It’s very well reported that data is the new oil in terms of currency, and what people want to be trading, being paid for and paying is for information, because information is power, especially in the digital age,” added Liriano. “Say X brand sells a leather jacket. After that jacket leaves the store, they have no idea how it performs: how many times a user wears it, where they wear it, what they pair it with. Do they like Starbucks? Do they [drink] matcha? They don’t have any understanding of what happens to that garment once it leaves. So there’s really no closed product feedback loop. We have an opportunity to provide brands with pretty compelling information like, your leather jacket is worn only when it’s 45 degrees and below, or 45 degrees and above—things that could really inform product decisions and also create a meaningful, anonymous profile of their buyers.
“This data would be collected and aggregated and anonymized because the tile that’s holding the data isn’t going to be attached to any credit card or public social media profile. That’s the benefit of the blockchain: you can have an identity that can still be pretty anonymous, and then that data would be put on a platform with a very nice user interface for the brands or for the user to sell that data. So me, Janett, in my leather jacket, can put my tile on the payport, send my data from wearing the garment, get paid by the brand because they want that information, and that’s a nice little economy.
“The tokens that we’re launching would be able to be used with brands that participate in the platform. Any brand that buys into the data pool that LOOMIA is collecting with these smart garments will also offer incentives to the user to sell that data. So, it cuts out the middleman: Right now, your phone is collecting all kinds of data, you have no idea who’s buying it—and they’re definitely buying it. There’s no control over that information; there are also no incentives for giving that information away. We see an exciting thing there.”
The LOOMIA ecosystem speaks to a future of fashion in which we’re less reliant on our phones—where our shoes can hold our personal data, where our jackets can help us navigate with haptic feedback or illuminate our path. Maintaining comfort and aesthetics despite the tech will be crucial, but Maxey’s design sense is fit for the challenge. LOOMIA has been in talks with several brands about partnerships, and the company expects products containing its technology to arrive on the market over the next 18 months.
Liriano sees the team’s thoughtful approach as its greatest asset in an emerging industry. “The ethos behind it is—and this is not very sexy in the startup community—but we believe it’s better to be right than to be first. I’m not particularly interested in being first; I really care about being right. Because in the end, that will live. I think that a lot of the solutions that we’re working on take the longer view. Anybody can put out a heated jacket, but is it the one that people are going to love? Different conversation.”
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