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FashTech April edition: Will wearable tech ever be fashionable?

Last week found ITProPortal at the Net-A-Porter head office in West London for the second instalment of FashTech – a series of networking and panel events that bring together those from the, some might say opposing, worlds of tech and fashion.

Apart from the massive news that tech journalists can actually be fashionable (one unwitting ITPP reporter was mistaken for one of the fashion camp), April's Fashtech focused on wearables and iBeacon technology, and how fashion retailers can use such innovations to engage their customers. Compering the evening were Alex Semenzato of Cortexica, FashTech's core sponsor, and Sam Sethi of Skadoosh.

Sarah Watson, group mobile manager at Net-A-Porter, fashionably kicked off the evening with a presentation that introduced the new Netbook app, currently operating on an invite-only basis and launched at London Fashion Week last September. Net-A-Porter's product feed has so far been anonymous, but with the Netbook users can enjoy an identity while shopping online. Watson said how celebrity adoption was an important part of the company's marketing strategy, with models Jemma Kidd and Laura Bailey both active users of the app.

iBeacon technology was next on the agenda, with a presentation by Alex Sbardella, product director at mobile retail tech startup Red Ant. Sbardella was keen to emphasise the marketing benefits that iBeacons could bring to retailers, explaining Red Ant's plan to stick "tech on top of good ol' fashioned customer service." iBeacons can track the positioning of mobile devices, offering retailers the ability to pinpoint the location of their customers in-store.

Speaking to ITProPortal after the event, Sbardella said how retailers, equipped with the data from a person's mobile device, could then offer a heightened level of in-store service. "So whether that's around location – directing [a customer] to a specific product they've been interested in – to knowing when a customer is walking past a certain display," he said, "there's the opportunity for communication."

"Also, it's inherently cool. Apple described it as magic. They like to give magical experiences, which is where your phone does something and you're not really sure how it did it."

Red Ant's offering could entirely change the nature of shopping in the "real world" by removing the search element – it's as if your phone would do the shopping for you. This level of customer engagement is new to physical stores, despite being present in online shopping channels, but could potentially prove a nuisance for the peaceful shopper. Sbardella stressed the importance of opt-in and said how "it shouldn't be creepy." With the 1984 element in mind though, it's easy to envisage some brands deliberately distancing themselves from iBeacon.

As with last month's FashTech, the main focus of the April event was the panel discussion, which opened up with the subject of wearable tech. How do we see it within clothes? What can it do for us?

Nancy Tilbury, founder of tech fashion firm Studio XO, argued how quality design will be essential for uptake of wearables, just as with regular clothes fashion. So far this hasn't quite been achieved by wearables currently on the market, she said, but affirmed her confidence in the next wave of products to match that all-important design factor with functionality. Sbardella added how whenever tech comes along, data analysis comes with it, and in turn this brings convenience and improvements to peoples' lives. Tom Wittlin, head of digital design at Folk, said how it's important to use tech for a real reason, not for the sake of it.

The general consensus in the room seemed to be that wearables are still at an embryonic stage and iBeacon, though potentially a handy customer service tool, may not drive revenue unless it also contributes to brand loyalty.

Once again, an evening of buzz, informed chat and innovation, FashTech heads to the Valley for its San Francisco debut on 15 May and returns to London on 21 May (location TBA).

Photos: Aidan Jordan