How Big Fashion wants to turn you into a walking ad

Brands are developing ‘smartwear’ to tap directly into consumers, with Tommy Hilfiger the latest to get in on the act

Advances in technology have put a lot of power back into the hands – even fingertips – of consumers. The current on-demand economy means you can have a pizza delivered at 3am and a cool pair of Selvedge denim jeans is just a swipe away.

This is posing a range of problems for companies, which can no longer just depend on brand loyalty to keep cash rolling in. After all, there will always be an another option available somewhere else at the tap of screen

How can any business survive in this fickle climate? Well, like all great relationships, it’s about communication. To keep afloat in this 24/7 digital marketplace companies are developing ways to create direct lines of digital communication with customers and a nascent but growing trend is “smartwear” or clothing with embedded technology.

The latest company to get in on the act is designer clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger, which recently unveiled a range smart clothing, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, hats and hoodies which have an embedded smart chip.

Here’s how it works: after buying, say a T-shirt, the consumer downloads an app and couples it with the item of clothing. They receive points for different activities, such as how often they wear the clothes and finding Tommy-branded icons on the app’s map, which can then be converted into merchandise or concert tickets.

According to the brand, the inspiration behind Tommy Jeans Xplore is to create a "micro-community of brand ambassadors". That fancy-sounding title is really business-speak for: create an army of low-maintenance marketing staff on the cheap and get them to pay for the privilege.

Supermodel Gigi Hadid is also an "ambassador" for the company, though one would imagine she earns more than "points" on an app for this honour.

All of this raises questions about the marriage of tech and fashion and about how much data will the company gain access to

This is not the company's first brush with technology. It already has a SmartWatch and recently launched the TommyNow Snap app. The app allows users take a photo of any Tommy Hilfiger product and shop for it instantly through their website tommy.com.

Other companies have flirted with similar concepts. Google and Levi created a jacket in 2017 that connected with users phones. However, the jacket was not without its kinks. You would imagine that forking out about €300 on a jacket that it could be washed more than 10 times, but you'd be wrong. Doing so, could impair the technology, buyers were warned.

All of this raises questions about the marriage of tech and fashion and about how much data will the company gain access to and how much control will consumers have over their information.

With companies such as Facebook coming under fire for their data privacy policies or lack thereof, is it wise to passively feed personal data into a company based on your T-shirt preference? Developments such as these allow brands to track not only how successful a product is in store but how often it is used after purchase and how often people "engage" with the brand.

Consumer culture has managed to capitalise on everything from love (dating apps) to lifestyle fads (two words: Gwyneth Paltrow), so brands focusing on what we wear is hardly groundbreaking. In an information-saturated society in which privacy is becoming a novelty, some people might not find it that unnerving to have a data collector from a particular brand stitched into their jumpers.

The move symbolises more than just an advancement in technology or fashion innovation. In the case of the Tommy Hilfiger app, you could argues that the ultimate goal is to groom purchasers, like naive puppies, into buying and wearing the brand, while at the same time handing over valuable information.

Yes, consumers will be rewarded for spending money, and for advertising Tommy Hilfiger, but we now appear to be entering the era of the consumer doubling as a walking billboard.

So, what will this new Tommy Hilfiger brand “ambassador” look like? Along with a smartphone or device, they will have to have plenty of disposable income. If you don’t have the cash to burn on the clothes, it’s unlikely you’re ambassador material.

The brand has become synonymous with its all-American "cool but preppy" aesthetic, an aesthetic which according to its size guide, is only suited to women under size 16. Perhaps the Jeans Xplore collection, which caters for men and women, will have more diversification, but it seems unlikely.

This does make one "principle" of the brand – "The way we connect: positive and inclusive" – a touch ironic, even if it appears to relate to its "corporate responsibility" and not its customer base. It seems to support "diversity", but appears to not want want too much of it in the people who buy  its products. If you are middle class and not overweight (by Hilfiger standards) this could be the "micro-community" of your dreams.

Perhaps, negativity towards the techwear is unjust. As someone who actually read Facebook’s terms and conditions before signing on and was once convinced tech moguls could hack phone mics to gather marketing data, I could be biased. Maybe Tommy Hilfiger really is a pioneer of tech-savvy fashion and consumer relations.

Loyal Irish fans eager to pay the equivalent of between $29 and $99 to be baited into advertising the companies wares will have to wait, however: the range is currently only available in the US online and in the brand’s flagship store in New York.