Futuristic fashion: IP and wearable fashion tech

Wearable fashion tech is experiencing fast-paced growth, albeit in and of itself it is no new concept. From health-enhancing yarn-thread technology providing health metrics when worn, to spray-on garments and 3D-printed clothing, it is crucial for fashion brands to protect their wearable innovations. So where does IP come into play?

With the recent rise of mainstream 3D printing, including anything from printed candy and toys to homeware being readily available on the market, it is no surprise that 3D printing has now become a phenomenon in the fashion industry. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of manufacturing a physical object from a digital design. From a fashion perspective, this means that garments and footwear can now be created in whole or in part using 3D printing techniques.

Adidas’ 4DFWD shoe collection, launched in 2021, uses a patented 3D printing process to create its lattice shoe sole by solidifying a liquid resin using a layer-by-layer ultraviolet (UV) curing process. The unique sole, Adidas claims, provides enhanced performance for athletes by enhancing their forward (“FWD”) step. The process also has sustainability benefits, with the shoe soles comprising 40% bio-based materials.

Japanese knitwear manufacturer Shima Seiki has trailblazed a patented 3D knitwear concept. Its machines create seamless knitted garments through their “WHOLEGARMENT” 3D printing processes, enabling “zero-waste” as garments are created using only the required materials. For Shima Seiki, patent protection has been core to its business strategy, with over 2,700 patents registered or pending worldwide for the WHOLEGARMENT technology. Contractual considerations are also key, as it provides its machines and accompanying software to third parties to create their own garments. Japanese fashion retailer and manufacturer Uniqlo utilises this technology for its knitwear collections and is now in a joint venture with Shima Seiki.

In addition to patented technological processes to create the garments, patents can also be key to protecting certain fabrics. Swedish company Transforming Textiles has created a revolutionary yarn-thread technology, Sense-Tex, which offers applications to meet an extensive range of needs spanning across industries including healthcare, space, and aviation, as well as ready-to-wear fashion and textiles. Sense-Tex is made up of five fibres - ramie, soybean, SeaCell (algae), silver, and Smartcel (zinc) - which offer health-enhancing abilities. For example, when combined with sensors, health metrics can be measured in real time, enabling preventative care. To best exploit Sense-Tex’s wide applications, licenses are also likely to play a crucial role in enabling select third parties to use the technology.

At Paris Fashion Week 2022, a unique patented spray-on clothing concept, Fabrican, was showcased on the runway during the Coperni show, where designers sprayed a white midi dress on to supermodel Bella Hadid in eight minutes. Videos of the dress went viral on social media almost instantaneously. Fabrican - short for “fabric in a can” - is a non-woven fabric that binds together when sprayed and meets air. However, while an innovative application, Fabrican is not a new technology, having been invented by chemist Manel Torres in the early 2000s.

Whilst Fabrican benefits from patent protection, the instant virality of the technology being showcased on the Paris runway highlights the importance of brands having IP protection in place before making any public disclosures, especially when patents and trade secrets are involved. Brands can now quickly upload visual insights (pictures, videos, boomerangs) into their operations onto social media at the click of a button. This may be particularly tempting for fashion brands when they snapshot potentially lucrative social media content, such as an intriguing method of manufacture or “aesthetic” material, which has the potential to go viral online, as its appeal quickly gains traction and is shared quickly by viewers. This could be a risk where confidential processes are inadvertently disclosed. It is ever important to have robust confidentiality policies in place to ensure that employees know what they can and cannot disclose online.

Copyright and designs may be equally relevant for designers using technology to create designs, such as the Coperni dress design, Uniqlo’s knitwear garment patterns, and Transforming Textiles’ ready-to-wear garments made with Sense-Tex.

With wearable fashion tech, there is no doubt that patent protection can be lucrative to protect designers’ inventions. However, the wide spectrum of IP rights, including copyright, designs, and contracts can also be key.