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Sewing up the iPod market

Clothing makers are jumping on the gadget's bandwagon. Will tune-friendly apparel be anything more than a blip on the fashion screen?
/ Source: Business Week

There was a time when "high-tech apparel" meant clothes that were coated with some slick substance to ward off wrinkles and deter ketchup stains. Now, with the skyrocketing popularity of Apple Computer's iPod digital music player, some clothing companies are upgrading the tech factor in their threads.

San Francisco-based Levi Strauss, for one, expects to launch its Levi's RedWire DLX jeans this fall. Designed to work with the iPod, the $200 jeans have a "docking station" in a pocket where the wearer plugs in the device. A control panel sewn directly into the area where most jeans have a coin pocket (at the right hip), means wearers don't have to continually take the iPod out of a pocket to adjust the volume or locate a song. "This brings blue jeans into the 21st century," says Levi spokeswoman Amy Jasmer. "The idea is to merge fashion and technology together."

Product piggyback
Spyder, a ski-apparel maker based in Boulder, Colo., sells a top-of-the-line $2,000 jacket that lets the wearer plug in an iPod inside, then control the music tracks and volume with a touch pad built into the sleeve. To help vigorous skiers avoid unintentionally changing tunes while speeding down the slopes, the touch pad features a "passive locking control." Â If it's left alone for more than seven seconds, it locks. Holding down a button for two seconds unlocks it.

Yet clothing makers aren't just looking for ways to help the customer wear an iPod. Tavo Products sells a pair of gloves designed around how people touch the device. A special fabric on the tips of the thumb and forefinger let wearers work the iPod scroll wheel without removing their gloves. These threads, like a flurry of other products, are intended to piggyback on the iPod's eye-popping success. Apple has sold about 42 million of the sleek music players since 2001 . Here's the logic behind iPod-compatible clothing:Â Just as people seem tethered to their cell phones, they won't leave home without their iPods and want an easy and convenient way to keep the player handy so they never have to fumble around for their favorite tunes.

Touch the sleeve
"Technology is worthless unless you find an easy way to carry and use it," says Scott Jordan, chief executive of apparel maker Scottevest. Based in Ketchum, Idaho, Scottevest sells a line of clothing designed to help wearers comfortably tote music players, as well as cell phones, handheld devices, and other gadgets.

Last October, Jordan's company introduced one product that particularly appeals to music-player lovers: a $299 jacket with a volume control embedded in the fabric itself. The jacket sold out over the holidays, although Jordan wouldn't disclose how many units were sold. Sales for the privately held company as a whole in 2005 rose 40% year-over-year, he says.

An Apple spokesperson wasn't available to comment on clothing made for the iPod. Under its "Made for iPod" initiative, Apple encourages companies to develop merchandise, such as car adaptors and remote controls, that works with the music player.

iPod bulge?
Some observers are skeptical this new clothing will amount to little more than a blip on the fashion radar screen. "It's a cute idea, but it's a limited market, just for the iPod aficionado," says Emanuel Weintraub, an apparel-industry consultant in Fort Lee, N.J. "For most consumers, if you need some way to carry your iPod around, you'll figure it out and just stick it in your jacket pocket."

Besides, Weintraub adds, plenty of consumers wouldn't want to wear their iPods in their pants or jeans. Women, in particular, like their clothes to have a body-hugging fit and may not want to wedge an iPod into already-snug jeans, he says. Nevertheless, some clothing makers continue to bet on iPod-accommodating apparel. To broaden the appeal of the upcoming RedWire jeans, Levi's is considering making a cheaper version to sell at mass-market chains, including J.C. Penney, both key retail distributors where Levi's jeans tend to sell for $40 to $50.

And ProductM, an Atlanta startup, is preparing to launch the Tunebuckle, a $50 leather belt that lets the wearer snap an iPod nano directly into the buckle. ProductM designer Dean Nguyen, who says the company hasn't finalized any distribution pacts just yet, feels confident that the Tunebuckle will sell. Making the iPod part of the belt buckle keeps it handy, "right there, front and center." Besides, that strategic positioning just might help deter theft. "It won't get pickpocketed there," he says.