Children of the '80s, you'll want to remember this name: Asher Levine. He's the young designer behind an also young label poised to make Marty McFly's vacuum-powered jacket from Back to the Future Part II a real-life retail item. But more on that in a bit. As you might've already guessed, Levine's brand is atypical of the industry, one based upon the incorporation of technology and innovation with style. It sounds strange when you consider this is fashion we're talking about -- a notoriously stodgy industry predicated upon its historical archives -- but then again, this is the very same designer that teamed up with MakerBot for his fall 2012 collection. Oh, and did we mention he dresses the likes of Lady Gaga and will.i.am? There's that, too.
While that last crossover collaboration employed MakerBot's Replicator for 3D-printed eyewear, Levine's current fall / winter 2013 line is taking things into a less cumbersome, more practical realm. Through a partnership with Phone Halo, a company focused on mobile Bluetooth solutions, apparel in this new collection will feature integrated tracking chips to help high-end clientele locate lost or misplaced luxury items via a customized TrackR app. So forget about last season's trends, Levine is committed to pushing things forward, while also daring to dream a little sci-fi dream.
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Our first meeting with Levine took place at his studio in downtown New York City on a rainy Monday afternoon, just one day before the debut of his newest collection for New York Fashion Week. When we arrived at this unassuming location, we admit we were (giddily) expecting the worst. Fashion is, after all, outside of our comfort zone. Perhaps we'd be greeted by the sight of a frenzied atmosphere, one populated with harried and demeaned design assistants running about like headless chickens. Or a strung-out lead designer nursing his anxiety with mouthfuls of Xanax, ready with an insane sound bite or two -- something more akin to sensationalized notions of the industry made popular by the allegedly devilish Vogue EIC Anna Wintour and fictional Mugatu of Zoolander. What we found instead was, well, quite the opposite, even somewhat calming.
The studio space, itself, was understandably cramped -- a feeling exacerbated by the massive tables upon which Levine's team was hard at work. The walls were saturated with various pinboards displaying open orders for certain bold-faced names, design sketches and photographs of the collection's planned "looks." And the soundtrack to it all? Why that'd be Beyoncé's "Halo" blaring comfortably in the background. To an outsider, it appeared as if all was work as usual. You'd never know a major fashion show was looming just 24 hours away.
It's hard to keep Levine focused on his line's TrackR integration, despite that feature underpinning select garments in his fall / winter 2013 collection. Question the spry designer about his label's tech leanings and the floodgates open, revealing a menswear future that could delight even the most fashion-averse of nerds. Phone Halo isn't the only company adding its technologic know-how to the mix. Other R&D partnerships are also currently in the works, ranging from the likes of that aforementioned vacuum-powered jacket to nanotech-inspired fabrics that intelligently shift from a tighter waterproof state to a relaxed, breathable one. But while those concepts are all comfortably far-fetched, Levine's also eyeing a textile innovation that could make you squeamish. The label's currently in talks with Modern Meadow, a bioengineering firm, to innovate leather production using specially created "chimeric" hybrids grown in a laboratory and then "printed out." If you haven't caught the gist just yet, it should be clear by now that Asher Levine isn't your ordinary kind of fashion house.
But let's bring it back to TrackR for now. As we learned from our time with Levine, he's always scheming up new ways to innovate the brand. So when Christian Smith, one of Phone Halo's co-founders, came calling last September and proposed a luxury tie-in, the partnership struck Levine as a logical move; a basic evolution of his vision of fashion and tech. At present, only three pieces from the current line will incorporate TrackR's Bluetooth 4.0 chip -- coats, gloves and bags -- but plans are underway to not only broaden the existing lineup, but also to extend it to womenswear by this coming fall. In fact, it's slated to become a standard for all future Asher Levine collections, so this is no one-time novelty.
The TrackR device we previewed was no larger than a small-sized Post-it pad and about as thin as a silver dollar. But, as Smith and Levine were quick to point out, a new, slimmer model is heading into production that shrinks the footprint down considerably. For now, though, Levine's demoing prototypes with the larger unit tucked away into a dedicated compartment and powered by a replaceable 3V battery rated for up to one year of use. When used in conjunction with the free-to-download companion app (customized for Levine's brand), users will be able to assign tags using images and names for location-awareness of up to 30 feet. Move past this distance and the app will use GPS to show you the item's last point of connection on a map. So, if slippery fingers attempt to steal off with that thousand-dollar bag, there's a good chance you can track it down to a point.
Of course, Levine's wares -- priced between $1,000 and $12,000 -- are not for the average consumer. But he's hoping that high-end halo will influence other designers to take a similar tack and adopt more progressive takes on the role of modern fashion. No doubt this collection, and others that attempt to imitate it, will someday have a trickle down effect, spreading into big-box retailers for mass-market consumption. Yet, you won't have to wait around patiently for that day to come. A standalone version of TrackR will be available this April for $40, granting anyone the ability to tag personal items or any existing Bluetooth-capable devices and use the companion iOS app (an Android version is coming soon) to locate their whereabouts.
Seen in that light, it's easy to unfairly categorize Levine's big-brand push as a form of high-end excess; an exclusionary take on small-scale innovation that any DIY-type could effect with the right tech, some scissors, a needle and thread. But that point's not lost on Levine. Rather, it was he who was quick to highlight it. This TrackR collaboration is just part two in an overarching scheme to redefine the myopic industry to which he belongs. It may smack of small beans to the technorati, but it's one very big leap for fashion.