Some apparel companies are betting that wearable technology will be the next big thing to hit the retail sales floor.

One of those companies, Los Angeles–based outerwear manufacturer Kenpo , is tapping into one of the hottest trends of the moment to market its Kenpo Jacket for iPod . Technology for the portable music player is integrated into the construction of the garment. If all goes well, the jacket should be a hit for Holiday shoppers this season.

Using technology to enhance form and function in apparel isn’t new, but previous efforts have focused more on technology than fashion, and the results have been less than impressive. With sportswear brands like Kenpo on board, techwear may break into the mainstream for the first time.

Kenpo’s iPod jacket won’t be the only techwear gift on Holiday lists. On Nov. 25, Adidas released the Adidas Intelligence Level 1.1 running shoe. The $250 shoe uses a tiny computer that can program the cushioning level based on the runner’s weight, type of terrain and pace at which he or she is running. So when running on concrete, there’s more cushioning but less so on softer ground. Adidas is extending the technology into basketball and other areas.

“Advances in electronics come very quickly,” said Adidas Innovation Team Leader Christian DiBenedetto. “By using electronics in sporting goods, we are able to improve product capabilities quickly and keep moving forward. There is a lot of untapped potential in this field.”

Kenpo has spent the past several months developing its iPod jacket.

It has already received the blessing of the usually insular Apple , which has been known to put off partnerships with outsiders.

The company isn’t rooted in technology but is licensing smart fabrics featuring conductive materials from U.K.- based Eleksen Ltd. Kenpo uses Eleksen’s ElekTex touch-pad technology in the jacket’s sleeves, allowing users to press play or pause, to adjust the volume, etc. by touching fabric buttons on the sleeves. The iPod is hidden away in a compartment within the machinewashable jacket.

ElekTex features a five-layer laminate of electrically conductive materials that transforms fabric into an interactive electronic device. The company, which has just started marketing in North America, has struck deals with other companies, such as O’Neill , which is using the technology in its H2 series of backpacks and Spyder skiwear—the Spyder iPod ski jacket is priced at $3,000. O’Neill’s backpacks allow users to charge cell phones, MP3 players and other devices through solar panels incorporating ElekTex.

Kenpo’s iPod jacket will be priced to retail at $275. It comes in four styles. The company has placed the product with Macy’s East, Macy’s West, Dillard’s and CompUSA . The jacket will be marketed for men, with women’s models following up next season. Essentially, the Holiday rollout is a test for both retailers and Kenpo. The company is also selling the jacket through its Web site, kenpofashion.com .

“We initially were planning to release it next fall, but we wanted to get a read on it now,” said Kenpo Vice President Joel Bernstein. “We’re excited. We’re getting calls on it every day.”

Macy’s is rolling out full-page ads on Dec. 2 in the New York Times , Los Angeles Times , San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News touting the jacket.

Sales of iPods currently stand at about 35 million units and counting, but what’s most impressive, Bernstein said, is that sales of iPod accessories almost match that number. Apple is also marketing new versions of the iPod, including the nano, which is nearly as thin as a credit card.

Bernstein said Kenpo designers knew that technology alone wouldn’t sell the jacket, so they focused on styling too.

“We wanted to make sure we were right with everything. All the details had to be precise. The thought process was to come up with something different; it’s not intended to be a me-too product,” said Bernstein.

Although the jacket is being marketed with the iPod in mind, the tech-friendly garment has additional compartments for a cell phone, PDA and other devices. It’s built with high-grade poly with mesh linings in various weights.

The company, which has grown rapidly since launching less than two years ago, hopes the jacket will spur sales for its men’s and women’s sportswear divisions. If all goes well, the company plans to release activewear and other clothing that incorporates similar technology.

“It’s a real lifestyle solution,” said Thomas Krutilek, Kenpo’s project director. Macy’s West Associate Buyer Audrey Russell thinks the piece fits in with the current lifestyle of the urban consumer, for whom technology continues to play a growing role.

“Given the iPod’s success, we feel it’s a great opportunity to see how fashion and technology can merge.”

Russell added that she isn’t too concerned about the jacket’s price point. “It’s functional and driven by technology, and people are usually willing to pay for technology.”

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Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

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