Adam Selman, the man who made Rihanna’s see-through dress at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards in 2014, may not be the name that pops into mind when you think “wearables” (more like “less wearables”). But his was the name that MasterCard chose when it decided to introduce its latest Big New Idea: clothes that are also mobile payment devices.
Translation: a dress and gloves and earrings and sunglasses and a clutch that come equipped with minichips hidden in the seams, and that don’t look remotely sci-fi or futuristic or techie at all.
In fact, they look pretty retro. The glasses are modified cat’s eye styles with thick, Devo-like rims (the chip is in the arm); the dress, a mini 1970s empire-waisted tweed brocade with a ruffled hem and flowing bow at the bust (chip in bow); the gloves, a taxi-color checkerboard print with heavily ruffled wrists (chip on back of hand).
Along with products from such brands as the smart cocktail ring maker Ringly and the smartband maker Nymi (among other partners), Mr. Selman’s clothes were unveiled on Monday in Las Vegas at the Money 20/20 conference. The idea, whatever product you choose, is that the chip contains your credit card information — it gets hooked up via Bluetooth to an app on your phone — and you simply wave the appropriate object at a contactless reader to pay for, say, your water bottle (if you are out for a run), or your taxi (if you are at a black-tie party) or your martini. It’s an extension of Apple Pay and Android Pay, but with more stuff.
“I was riding with friends in a cab earlier this summer, and we were actually saying how the next thing to go would be the swipe,” Mr. Selman, referring to the need to swipe a credit card, said by phone. “Then, the next day, MasterCard called about this. They gave me total leeway; the idea was less about a specific product, than about changing how we think about paying, which is what designers need to do: push boundaries, think about what’s next.”
Mr. Selman likes to push boundaries.
That is one of the reasons MasterCard thought of him, according to Sherri Haymond, group head of digital channels for MasterCard. “We wanted to use things that were already a part of life,” she said. “Fashion and jewelry are a big part of that.”
Still, one of the biggest hurdles in moving that bright shiny thing that everyone is so excited about called the wearables sector from theory to reality is actually answering the question, What do you want your clothes to do?
Most people, when asked that question, have no idea. (I’ve been doing an ad hoc poll since the New York Times International Luxury Conference last December, when one speaker, an associate engineering professor at Princeton who was a battery expert, asked the audience that question and was met with a lot of blank stares.) Brian Krzanich, the chief executive of Intel, once told me that his company had the technology to make clothes do almost anything; the problem was figuring out what the anything was. I have had a friend tell me quite emphatically she did not want her clothes to do anything other than what they already did — protect her and provide her with a visual identity.
But the payment project is one answer to that question, and, in fact, one of the more logical ones I’ve heard. “You don’t have to rummage around in your bag to find your phone or your wallet any more,” said Ms. Haymond with great excitement. You wave your bow at the card reader instead.
Whether it’s actually a good thing to be able to pay for purchases with your clothes is, of course, another matter. Ms. Haymond says she thinks it will lead to greater account transparency and a closer relationship with “your card issuer” because you will have greater visibility with your account on your devices.
To me, it seems to divorce the act of payment even further from the sense of being an actual financial transaction if, say, you simply have to slip off a clip-on earring and wave it at a reader to make a purchase, and that way economic complications lie.
In any case, we will get to find out which of us is correct (probably, we both are), since the plan is to bring the — what? payables? — to market in the second half of 2016. For his part, Mr. Selman said they were still negotiating the production.
And for those who were wondering: You can dry clean the dress with the chip inside.