Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is the Player Nervous? Just Ask His Shirt

TENNIS HAS an emotional impact that isn’t confined to the court. Consider the ball boy, who speeds the game along by retrieving stray balls for the players.

“It’s fascinating to see this guy at the peak of his youth and his health, to watch the stress that he’s under when Roger Federer is handing him a ball,” David Lauren said last week, just days before the United States Open, which starts on Monday.

“You can actually see his heart rate spike,” said Mr. Lauren, who has monitored those activities remotely. “You can see his breathing.”

Mr. Lauren, the executive vice president for advertising, marketing and corporate communications for the Ralph Lauren company and a son of the designer, isn’t cyberspying, nor is he tricked out with some newfangled sensor providing access to his subject’s inner workings. It’s the ball boy who will, in a manner of speaking, be wired.
Come Monday, ball boys at the Open will be trying out, in full view of fans around the globe, the sexy nylon T-shirt that marks Ralph Lauren’s entry into the rapidly advancing world of wearable technology.

“Everyone is exploring wearable tech watches and headbands and looking at cool sneakers,” Mr. Lauren said. “We skipped to what we thought was new, which is apparel. We live in our clothes.”
What spectators will see this week is a slick, form-fitting black athletic shirt, the Ralph Lauren polo pony emblazoned on the front. What they won’t see is the conductive silver-coated thread that is woven discreetly into the fiber, one that, according to the company, makes that shirt the first item of tech apparel to be introduced by a mainstream fashion label.

No, the shirt won’t answer your smartphone, fire your ignition or get you a date. What it will do, among its varied functions, is monitor your heart rate, breathing and stress levels, collecting data that is displayed on a dashboard, phone app or computer screen — all that without compromising its racy good looks.

“We want to control the technology and make it applicable to our life in a way that is refined and comfortable,” Mr. Lauren said.

That is, no distracting hardware, not a disk, wire or tube in sight.

“Nothing clunky that you have to strap on,” he said. “You’re just putting on a shirt.”

One, he might have added, that flaunts the sort of streamlined aesthetic that has been mostly missing from the marketplace.

Rachel Arthur, a global senior editor at WGSN, a trend forecasting firm, said, “No one has produced a wearable that is 100 percent bang-on in terms of what mass consumers will want.”

Fashion, she maintained, has yet to attractively fuse with technology.

“We all know this is the future, but in terms of beautiful design, it’s not there yet,” she said. “It has to be something we want to use.”

Geek-friendly but stylish, in short.

Robert Scoble, a blogger and champion of technological progress, said: “The things that are on your skin need to feel empathetic and beautiful. They need to be nice to the touch and not hang on your clothes.”

It’s a mandate that Team Lauren plans to address, integrating technology into everyday wear. In the first half of next year it will introduce, alongside the athletic shirts, tech-enhanced classic dress shirts at Ralph Lauren stores. The shirts, which have yet to be priced, will represent a portion of a projected multibillion-dollar business that will include tech products as well as new collections of contemporary streetwear.

In a sense, the company explored the tech concept years ago. Back in the mid-’90s, the Ralph Lauren company, which for some years has been a sponsor of the United States Olympic team, the Open and Wimbledon, introduced carbon-fiber jeans and ski jackets with MP3 players threaded into the sleeves.

At the time, those jackets met with a lukewarm reception, Mr. Lauren acknowledged.

“Not everyone knew how to use MP3 players,” he said.

He is confident, though, that wearable tech is only now hitting its stride. He went on to predict that the tech-infused shirts, produced in collaboration with OM, a Canadian company known for so-called biometric smartwear, would be a game-changer. And an image transformer to boot.

“So many people think of Ralph Lauren as a preppy New England brand, but we love playing with the stereotype,” he said. “We’re not all mahogany and vintage chandeliers.”

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