Fossil CTO Sonny Vu: ‘Data is the new material for fashion’

9 Dec 2016

Fossil president and CTO for connected devices, Sonny Vu. Image: Rise

Data and technology are the new materials that will influence the future of fashion, said Fossil president and CTO in charge of connected devices, Sonny Vu.

Vu became president and CTO of Fossil after the fashion design giant acquired his company Misfit for $260m last year.

Misfit made a line of sleek and stylish fitness monitors called Shine and was backed by former Apple CEO John Sculley.

‘We’ve got to make wearable technology either very beautiful or invisible’

Fossil is a fashion design giant famed for its watches, and manufactures more than 18 key brands including Diesel, Michael Kors, DKNY, Emporio Armani, Adidas, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Burberry and Armani Exchange.

Another company that Vu co-founded, FireSpout, was acquired by, formerly Ask Jeeves.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, Vu focused on machine learning and natural language processing. He completed his PhD in linguistics at MIT where he worked with Noam Chomsky, the social critic and historian also known as “the father of modern linguistics”.

Leading the fashion world’s charge into the internet of things

Speaking with at the recent Web Summit in Lisbon, Vu said: “We started Misfit five years ago and last year, we were acquired by Fossil. My role is to get technology into as many new products as possible and secondly, to look into the future and see what’s cool and what we will make in the future.”

Vu said that Fossil will always be a maker of fashionable goods first and is not turning into a technology company per se, but realises that technology represents a new canvas to design upon.

“Fossil has three different categories of products: we have the fitness trackers like entry-level price-point products that send notifications, track your activity and internet controls that complement your watch well; we also have display smartwatches with touch screens powered by Android Wear, like the Fossil Key Warrior; and most significant of all, we have our hybrid smartwatches.

“Our hybrid smartwatches are watches that look like analogue watches, but they are connected. For example, the hands can do different things, like automatically change time as you enter new time zones, activity tracking, vibrations when you get messages and internet control buttons to go to the next song on the Spotify playlists. The new hybrid smartwatches are designed to understand gestures.”

To prove his point, Vu used his own watch to remotely take a photo on his smartphone.

“Technology hasn’t always been pretty,” Vu conceded. “But I think there is a new era coming. I think that a fusion of fashion and technology will give us products that are both functional and a pleasure to wear.

“These are products that will match your jackets and activities as opposed to standing out.

“We’ve got to make wearable technology either beautiful or invisible and that’s where there’s a lot of the contention: these are real legit fashion brands but now they’ve got technology that does something; gesture controls, activity tracking, and most of the functions you need to complement your digital lifestyle.”

Where geek meets chic

The contention that Vu refers to is the sudden arrival of technology into the on-trend world of high fashion.

“My role is to give some direction. Traditionally, all of our vendors and partners would show us all the cool new materials and treatments and now, added to this, is new ways to play things.

“The vendors and materials suppliers have always been on the edge but are challenged to resist being displaced by innovation. So they’ve always been on edge with watch design, but now they need to think digitally.

“In our world, data is a new material. The technology role makes things even more relevant.”

Vu said that it’s important to remember that design and function go hand in hand. No matter how disruptive the technology, marrying aesthetically pleasing design with form and function is no easy feat.

When fashion becomes part of the lexicon of the emerging internet of things world, a whole new layer of complexity is added.

“This is the first role I’ve had in such a large organisation but it is neat to be part of a bigger team where we have 18 brands.

“We will mix the technology and then we will let the design team have at it.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years