Flemish companies roll up their sleeves to make smart fashion


The worlds of fashion and technology are coming closer together, as designers and engineers work on integrating sensors into everyday clothes to make our lives easier

Thinking caps on

Clothes of the future will not only keep us warm or serve special occasions, but will also improve our health and give us better insights into our emotional wellbeing. Textiles with embedded technology are expected to lead to big societal advancements, not least in the care sector.

In recent years, Flanders has made great strides in the area, with designers, researchers and companies joining forces to get the prototypes out of the lab and into the streets.

Fashion designer Jasna Rokegem is the founder of Jasna Rok, a design studio in Geraardsbergen, East Flanders, specialised in interactive fashion with high-tech applications. She combines futuristic designs with technology that can be used for augmented reality, virtual reality , the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

With her futuristic collection Fashion On Brainwaves, Rokegem is exploring how clothes can be linked to the brain activities of their wearers. Microtechnology in the outfits reacts to the user’s brain waves, which are measured through a diadem-shaped EEG headband.

One of the pieces, called Exaltation, includes a huge collar that unfolds over the head when the technology senses that the person is feeling uncomfortable. “The clothing,” says Rokegem, “senses that you need emotional protection, which, in today’s fast-paced world, is more important than ever.”

Life animated

Another outfit, Braight, translates different states of mind into colour patterns and movements along the back of the dress. Bright animations flash when the wearer is excited and become darker and slow down when the person is upset or unhappy.

The aim is to enable the wearer to comprehend better how they feel. In turn, the people around them have an easier time figuring out their emotional wellbeing.

The pieces, however, are not quite ready to be worn in everyday life. Their purpose is to demonstrate the possibilities of mixing fashion and technology. They are also used in artistic performances, with artists interpreting each other’s emotions based on the clothing’s appearance.

Think of sensors in textiles that can analyse the skin and protect older people from dehydration by advising them to drink water when they need it

- Jasna Rokegem

But that doesn’t mean Rokegem isn’t looking at more practical applications. “This evolution opens up many opportunities in the medical sector, for example,” she says. “Think of sensors in textiles that can analyse the skin and protect older people from dehydration by advising them to drink water when their body needs it.”

Other possible applications include textiles that are adjusted to the needs of rheumatoid patients, prevent hypothermia, help cure injuries or warm up in cold weather.

With the help of the Ghent-based company Nanex, which specialises in protective fabrics, Rokegem is working on developing hydrophobic nanocoatings to make textiles water-repellent, UV-resistant and stain proof. The aim is to eliminate the need to wash the clothes, so they can be permanently integrated with electronics.

Virtual wardrobe

In the long run, Rokegem (pictured above left) hopes we will get to a point where people only have a handful of clothes in their closet – instead of buying new ones, we would use the electronics to adjust them according to what we feel like wearing. “It would be a big step forward in terms of sustainability,” she says.

In the nearer future, the designer thinks we will see holographic systems that allow people to try on clothes without actually having to put them on; Rokegem is already involved in a project that’s only  steps away from making that happen.

With the American company Leap Motion, her team has created a virtual-reality experience in which people can personalise their clothes. With a VR headset, they can easily adjust the colour, fabric, materials and even buttons, texture, patterns and cut of their designs on an actual model.

In the field

Jasna Rok is currently part of the Antwerp-based start-up incubator Start it@kbc. There, the team is collaborating with Nokia Bell Labs, a leading research organisation in information technology and communications, to further explore fashion-tech possibilities.

Its other important partner is the Centre for Microsystems Technology (CMST), an Imec research lab at Ghent University (UGent). Like Rokegem, Frederick Bossuyt, who co-ordinates the smart textile activities at CMST, thinks the near future holds opportunities for intelligent textile.

“Textiles with sensors could help in construction, for example, by letting us easily monitor the strain on foundations,” he explains. “Sensors could also be used in textiles to set off anti-theft alarms. They could also be installed in truck tarps or carpets.”

You always have to look for the right balance between reliability and comfort

- Frederick Bossuyt of UGent

Technology integrated in firefighter outfits, he continues, could increase safety by keeping track of their position, their body temperature and their heart rate. Similarly, athletes could benefit from integrated technology that provides them with detailed information about their physical condition.

Founded in 2012, Bossuyt’s team designs prototypes with integrated smart technology for various businesses. “We notice that companies are showing increasing interest in the field and have a more realistic vision on the profitability of projects,” he says. “It’s important to take into account the costs of electronics when developing possible applications.”

The manufacturing process poses many challenges. “To make smart clothing comfortable to wear, the integrated technology has to be flexible and thin, but that means the technology is also more susceptible to damage,” says Bossuyt. “You always have to look for the right balance between reliability and comfort.”

In good hands

The need to wash the clothes is another challenge. “We already have means to protect the technology against water,” Bossuyt explains, “but it remains tricky to protect it against the mechanical impact of a washing machine.”

In 2013, various Flemish companies and research institutes joined forces to examine the extent to which smart textiles can already be produced on a mass scale using automated processes. The SmartPro project, launched by the research institute Centexbel and the knowledge centre Sirris, with funds from the Flemish government, will conclude this October.

The project’s initial aim was to analyse the possibilities for smart textile developments in four sectors: safety and intervention, care, sports and leisure and technical applications. “But we quickly decided to focus on care only because of the major interest and demand in that field,” says SmartPro’s co-ordinator Frederik Goethals, who works as a researcher at Centexbel.

Coming together

In the care sector, he explains, smart textiles could help monitor if elderly nursing home residents are getting enough exercise or keep people with dementia from wandering off or getting lost. Integrated sensors could also let care providers or family members know when a person has fallen down. Because the sensors would be hidden, Goethals adds, the person would not feel uncomfortable.

The SmartPro project has resulted in a new electronic module that can monitor movement and body temperature. The module will be presented in October at UGent’s Smart Textiles Salon, an annual event showcasing the latest in smart textile prototypes.

The exhibition will also mark the project’s conclusion. SmartPro, says Goethals, has managed to bring the textile and technology industries closer together, stimulating the development of new consortiums and spin-off projects.

To achieve progress, we could certainly make use of technology and expertise developed in other regions

- Frederik Goethals of Centexbel

Elsewhere in Flanders, work clothes specialist Alsico , based in Ronse, East Flanders, is developing smart fashion for nurses, with integrated alarm buttons. Gysemans Clothing Group of Rotselaar, West Flanders, on the other hand, is working on smarter clothes for patients.

Centexbel and some of the businesses involved in SmartPro have also partnered with companies in France and Lithuania on a project that aims to develop smart wearable sports and health solutions that would enable people to continuously monitor their health. CareWare will conclude later this year.

Based in Brussels, the SmartPro consortium wants to create a European-wide innovation platform to foster collaboration between companies and knowledge centres focused on smart textiles. “Because to achieve progress,” says Goethals, “we could certainly make use of technology and expertise developed in other regions.”

Photo: Jasper Van Gheluwe