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Germany

Fashion As Smart As You Are?

It’s not enough for your clothes to just look good anymore. The coming trend in German and other European markets is intelligent clothing – active, functional garments that promise a brave, new world of fashion.

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A jacket with built-in MP3 player from Infineon AG.

An exhibition of intelligent clothing is underway in Paris until Sunday, showing visitors what they could be wearing in the not too distant future.

Imagine a blouse that responds to an increase in body temperature by automatically shortening the sleeves. Or a dress that changes color to signal your emotional state. How about a suit with a herbal fragrance in its microfibres that works as an anti-stress agent? These items already exist, albeit as prototypes.

Functional fashion

But they’re the more frivolous results of research into clothing developed for medical or military reasons. Research into hypothermia, for example, brought about the development of swimsuits that change color with the temperature to provide a built-in hazard warning. And research into bullet-proof clothing has resulted in an ultra-thin carbon fibre jacket called No-Violence, designed to withstand .45 bullets.

In addition to clothing made of high-tech fibres, there are also garments made of normal fabric that incorporate electronics such as computers, radios and phones, connected by hidden cables.

Bye Bye Walkman

A practical application already exists in the sports market. The Munich-based Infineon AG has created a jogging outfit with an MP3 player in the sleeve, activated by voice command through a tiny microphone embedded in the suit’s collar.

For female joggers, Triumph International, also based in Munich, has introduced a special bra with a “pulse beat,” – a device that measures heart beats. Women can monitor their heart rate in combination with a watch-like receiver to make sure they don’t overdo their exercise.

A similar function is at the core of intelligent biomedical clothing being developed by Philips Research in Aachen, Germany. Scientists there have invented a wireless, wearable monitoring system that can warn patients with health problems.

“Biomedical clothing is potentially a big market,” Koen Joosse of Philips told Deutsche Welle. “The concept is very useful for people with certain conditions, as continuous heart monitoring isn’t available any other way. The goal is for the monitoring system to be unobtrusive, so the wearer forgets that the clothing also serves a function.”

With the Philips system, patients would insert a small, thin technology device into common items of clothing such as bras, briefs or waist belts, and their body signals such as heart activity could be continuously monitored. But the biomedical clothing isn't being worn yet, said Joosse, because although the device and the transmission system are complete, the third component – which involves getting health practitioners onboard – is still in the research stage.

The German company, Merhav AAP GmbH, has a different concept of clothing with a medical function. They've invented a “portable airbag” system of clothing for horseriders and motorcyclists which inflates in 30 milliseconds to protect the neck and spine, areas most vulnerable in a collision.

Consumers wary

The range of intelligent clothing currently available to consumers is relatively small, so there’s little in the way of consumer reaction. But a survey carried out by the independent Hohenstein Research Institute near Stuttgart suggests the market is small and focused.

Only six percent of those asked said they would buy smart clothes as soon as they came on the market. The majority said they would prefer to wait a while before trying out the new garments. And perhaps with the exception of athletes such as snowboarders or joggers, who are keen to have MP3 players integrated into their clothing, most respondents were not enthused about the idea of wearing electronic gadgets.

The response was more positive when it came to clothing with a medical function, with 49 percent saying they would want garments that control body functions, such as heart beat or insulin levels.

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