Spring has (sort of) arrived, in all of its unpredictable-weather glory, so we aren't retiring our coat rotation just yet. Plus, the fall '16 collections have us already thinking about what our outerwear will look like a few months from now. On the form-meets-function front, a few brands have recently showcased "smart coats" that actually generate heat. The biggest conversation around the most recent Fashion Month was about timing: specifically, whether the current system of seeing collections six months ahead of their in-store debuts is so outdated and if a "see now, buy now" model truly is the future. French brand Courrèges tested out that model by making select pieces available for purchase following its March 2 show in Paris. But the show's most innovative element wasn't the show-to-selling floor expediency, it was a trio of self-heating overcoats, which were touted as ushering in a "new era, an era when the garment will come alive," according to AFP. For their sophomore collection for Courrèges, design duo Arnaud Vaillant and Sébastien Meyer introduced three tailored winter coats (one black, one pink, and one checkered), each with an integrated heating system that's activated by the push of a button, and can be charged with an iPhone cable, according to The New York Times. "We started to think about the future of fashion, because design needs to work hand in hand with technology if we want fashion to evolve," Vaillant told luxury e-comm site SSENSE in an interview. "The way we make clothes needs to evolve if we want more comfort and well-being." This certainly aligns with the brand's DNA: André Courrèges, the label's founder, is remembered as a great innovator, thanks to his forward-thinking garments. (We've reached out to Courrèges PR for further details on the coats, and will update when we hear back.)
Warming outerwear may be new on the runway, but the category itself isn't. Self-heating jackets have cropped up before in outdoor clothing and workwear, as well as menswear. North Face and Columbia, for example, were early innovators. It hasn't been without its issues: North Face appears to have discontinued its original MET 5 warming jacket, and Columbia voluntarily issued a recall for seven of its electric heated styles in 2013 due to a potential burn risk. Heat-retaining — as opposed to heat-generating — apparel is a more common method among outdoor and lifestyle companies of creating particularly toasty garments. Columbia offers Omni-Heat technology, which reflects the wearer's own body heat to maintain a comfortably warm temperature. Similarly, Uniqlo has its tried-and-true range of HeatTech basics, made of a moisture-wicking fabric that keeps heat in. The desire for function to catch up with (stylish) form is resonating elsewhere in the fashion industry: In London, Emel and Aris is carving out its place in both the luxury and the tech space with its own range of self-regulating warming coats. Its outerwear is equipped with an inert lightweight polymer that produces far infrared (FIR) heat energy, which doesn't overheat. They're made from luxe cotton and cashmere-blend Loro Piana fabrics, and are treated to be water-repellent and wind-proof. The brand rolled out four jackets for pre-order in a Kickstarter campaign on Friday, and the company plans to debut its own e-commerce in August. "Originally, I wanted to launch with four coats for women and four coats for men," Rana Nakhal Solset, Emel and Aris' founder, tells Refinery29. Instead, she decided to tighten the focus to two styles for each category in order to get them just right. Within a day, the brand's Kickstarter was already more than halfway to its goal of $99,386. By the end of the crowdfunding campaign's first weekend, the goal had been surpassed. Emel and Aris isn't the only name peddling the concept on the crowdfunding website: Ravean, a company that makes heated down jackets, raised $1,330,293 in pledges in two months on Kickstarter. (Its original goal was $100,000.) But Ravean's jackets are outdoorsy and performance-oriented, in contrast to Emel and Aris' more polished, work-apropos aesthetic.
Solset's original concept for Emel and Aris was to create a beautiful, luxe product that integrated heating technology. (The lightbulb moment, she says in a promotional video for the Kickstarter, came from a conversation with her 6-year-old son.) While she acknowledges that there are plenty of heating systems in existence, Solset's is distinctively wireless, save for a short cable in a hidden pocket, which connects to a small battery that powers the warmth. The internal heating panels are then "seamlessly integrated between the lining and the outside fabric of the coat and concentrated on the upper part of the body," Solset says. That way, the coats are lightweight — so lightweight, in fact, that the wearer might not be able to pinpoint where the technology is housed. That, plus the ability to turn the battery on or off and adjust the heat level on a coat, makes the toppers suitable for milder climates, too. Emel and Aris' women's trench goes for 450 pounds (about $639) on Kickstarter; a women's wrap style and a men's raincoat are both priced at 595 pounds ($945), and a men's overcoat is 650 pounds ($923). When the brand launches its e-commerce at the end of summer, the same pieces will retail for over 1,000 pounds. The coats aren't exactly cheap, but those prices are still relatively gentle compared to the tags on designer ready-to-wear pieces. From initial inception to final product, Solset says the smart coats came together in six months. The process involved an array of prototypes, extensive testing, and revisiting design concepts. The issue with nailing the overcoat's formula, she explains, wasn't the technology — it was getting the exact right cut and detailing. (The only major adjustment Solset made to the design involved the placement of the coat's heat panels.) Besides a pre-e-comm mode of selling coats (and, of course, fundraising), Solset sees Kickstarter as "a forum to ask questions and challenge my decisions."
Both Courrèges and Emel and Aris have further plans to integrate technology into wearables beyond coats. "This is only our first step," Courrèges co-president Frederic Torloting told AFP at the brand's fall '16 show. "We are going to do lot of other things in this area." As far as fashion wearables go, plenty of smart bracelets have cropped up over the past few years, from the likes of Opening Ceremony, Public School, Rebecca Minkoff, and more, as attempts at bridging the gap between tech and style. Meanwhile, brands like Chromat and Zac Posen have challenged the perception of what the intersection of these two fields can look like on the runway and the red carpet, respectively. A surge of self-heating coats presents an appealing middle ground between one-off creations meant for the catwalk, and performance-centric innovations that aren't all that focused on looking good. They're practical, meant for everyday wear, and, perhaps, a step forward in what we consider "smart clothing" to be. The current price points may seem a little steep, though outerwear is already a category we're okay investing in despite seasonality, since these are pieces we tend to hang onto for years. It's only a matter of time before well-designed, tech-y temperate jackets are trotted out at gentler price points by more mass brands. Our old-fashioned, layering-required winters may be numbered, and we're certainly not mad about that.