The $208 billion U.S. apparel industry has changed markedly over the past 50 years. Now technology is adding a new wrinkle. Mobile executives may carry as much as 10 pounds (5kg) of tech tools. This trend has already rendered briefcases obsolete and is the driving force behind a new direction in fashion: e-wear.

The rapid spread of blue jeans as a fashion uniform clearly signals that consumers want easy-to-wear clothing. Garment manufacturers are responding with a raft of “smart fabrics.” In 1999, Brooks Brothers introduced a no-iron cotton shirt, using technology provided by Hong Kong-based TAL Apparel Group.

These shirts, now also available from Nordstrom, J.C. Penney and others, are treated with a special seam adhesive to prevent puckering. And, in what may be a first for nanotechnology, Nano-Tex relies on a special polymer to allow stains on cotton or wool to be wiped off like lint.

As more people tote around notebook computers, PDAs, mobile phones and maybe a digicam or MP3 player, they have two choices: use a photographer-like “gadget bag” or stow them in available pockets. Expandable, soft bags have all but erased sales of attaché cases, which were once a mainstay of business professionals.

But traditional clothing is not designed for bulky gear, resulting in torn pockets and frayed jackets as belt-worn mobile phones brush against coat linings.

Levi’s Dockers Mobile Pant addresses this problem with hidden gear pockets. In Europe, the company is set to launch anti-radiation Dockers — trousers that include a mobile phone pocket lined with a radiation-reducing material called MDF.

Levi’s has already teamed up with consumer electronics manufacturer Philips to create a jacket featuring a built-in mobile phone and MP3 player. And Palm and Japanese apparel manufacturer Sanyo Shokai have created a line of raincoats featuring a “Designed for Palm Handhelds” pocket.

Another anti-body clutter approach comes from ScotteVest, which hides headset cords using garment conduits, dubbed a “personal area network.”

This activity is just a warm-up for a new generation of e-wear that will literally electrify you. So-called “textronics” will allow clothing to be made with enough conductivity to power mobile phones and MP3 players.

And if you’re worried about getting lost in this future, DuPont is producing textiles that can be detected by global positioning satellites.

Panasonic is banking on the popularity of e-wear. The company has registered the e-wear trademark and promotes its views on this emerging fashion at each CES show. One researcher, Venture Development, says the market for wearable computing, including devices built into fabric itself, could hit $1.3 billion by 2006.

One day, that once odd act of people talking into mobile phone headsets might look positively normal next to the guy talking to his vest.

Have a good business idea related to e-wear?

Top Apparel Searches on Yahoo!

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1. Old Navy

2. GAP, The

3. Victoria’s Secret

4. Nike

5. Lands’ End

6. Banana Republic

7. Abercrombie and Fitch

8. Frederick’s of Hollywood

9. Burberry

10. L.L. Bean

11. J. Crew

12. Prada

13. Adidas

14. Coach

15. Chadwick’s of Boston

16. Nine West

17. Ralph Lauren

18. Calvin Klein

19. Lane Bryant

20. Levi’s

Source: Oct. 2002 Yahoo! Buzz Index (week ending Oct. 26)

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