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Can fashion designers make tech wearables truly wearable?

(Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
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When tech companies talk about wearable devices, fashion designers have been listening.

The latest product that combined efforts from the two industries is Ralph Lauren‘s tech-embedded sports shirt, unveiled last week at the start of the U.S. Open tennis championships. The shirt, called Polo Tech, features knitted-in sensors to read people’s biometrics, including heartbeat and respiration.

It’s no longer uncommon to see tech companies and fashion brands collaborate to make wearable devices into accessories that consumers may actually want to wear. Tech companies have introduced many products ranging from smart glasses, smart watches, wristbands that can work like computers, trackers and even health monitors.

But often the problem with wearable tech products is that they aren’t attractive to people with an eye on fashion. Consumers aren’t snapping up thick black wristbands and large-face watches in large numbers, for example.

“Wearables, by definition, are on your body,” said Nick Spencer with ABI Research. “They need to be both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing in most instances, and naturally it means designers need to be involved in the process.”

Google Glass worked with Luxottica, which makes Oakley and Ray-Bans. It also teamed up with designer Diane von Furstenberg to launch a line called “DVF | Made for Glass” that features five frame style in eight shades, sold by Google and Net-a-Porter for about $1,700.

Fitbit, the fitness tracker, collaborated with the luxury brand Tory Burch’s jewelry line. The result: “an elegant brass pendant and bracelet as well as patterned silicone wristbands perfect for everyday style,” said the brand’s press release. Prices range from $38 for the silicone designs to $195 for the metalwork.

“Wearables need to take account for varying tastes, not least between genders,” Spencer said. “One size, or even design form — touch screen designs for example — doesn’t fit all as it does to a much larger degree in consumer electronics. Designers need to play a key role here.”

According to a study by IDC, a tech research firm, 19.2 million wearable devices will be shipped worldwide in 2014, and the number is expected to climb to nearly 112 million by 2018.

The report also said that,  to succeed in the market, smart wearables, such as Google Glass, “must convince users to shift to a new user experience while offering them a robust selection of third-party applications.”

Spencer said wearable devices are attracting consumers primarily interested in fitness and wellness — areas that smartphones can’t do or at least don’t do well. But extending smartphone functions, such as alerts, to wearable devices isn’t the most powerful use of wearable technology.

An NPD study in January showed that 52 percent of consumers said they’ve heard of wearable technology devices like smart glasses, wristbands and watches, and one in three said they are likely to buy one.

“Design has always been a key motivator for technology purchases, but for wearable devices there is a greater focus because the devices are worn externally,” Ben Arnold, executive director of the NPD Group, said in a statement. “For device manufacturers, this is an opportunity to differentiate their product lines with special colors or designs or even to partner with other fashion or design-focused brands.”

The chipmaker Intel reportedly plans to launch a luxury smart bracelet at Barneys in the next few weeks. The bracelet is said to be engineered by the tech company and designed by fashion house Opening Ceremony, and it won’t be a fitness tracker, according the CNET reports, although specific features haven’t been disclosed.

The advice for tech companies who hope their wearable devices are truly wearable?

“Do more than just extend smartphone functions,” Spencer said. Tech companies need to provide more product and design varieties, and to ensure the back-end software and data analytics strategy is in place before designing, say, a smart watch. “Companies need to know what data they want to collect, and what they want to do with it to ensure a long-term customer engagement and values.”