Apple is set to lead the way in the inevitable fusion of high tech and high fashion
Author Boyd Farrow
Despite the fuss being made about wearable technology, the fact remains that most of the devices in question are wearable only in the same sense that a lampshade is: You could put one on before you go out, but don’t expect any compliments. The majority of smart watches are self-consciously bulky, like something a kid would wear playing super-spy, while fitness trackers tend to look like a gasket from a washing machine. As for socks that measure calorie burn-off, well…
The Apple Watch—which hits stores in early 2015 and has analysts predicting sales of 10 million units in the first year—could change all that. Part of Apple’s appeal, of course, is that it creates gadgets that are not only useful, and often essential, but that look incredibly cool and stylish. Ironically, for a man whose entire wardrobe consisted of black turtlenecks and Levi’s, Steve Jobs took many of his cues from the fashion industry, first by cultivating slavish desire, and then by feeding it with ever-pricier seasonal upgrades.
After Jobs’ death in 2011, Apple maintained its emphasis on design, which leaves the company well placed to lead the inevitable fusion of high tech and high fashion. Indeed, Apple has signaled its ambitions in this regard by hiring senior executives from Tag Heuer, Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent. So while Apple Watch will still have the sleek, gadgety aesthetic that made the company’s phones such a hit, it will also dip a toe into the luxury fashion market—with crafted detailing, the application of semiprecious stones and an 18-karat gold version expected to cost around $1,200.
Apple won’t have the luxe market all to itself, however. American designer Tory Burch has incorporated a Fitbit band into an elegant gold bracelet. French firm Withings has married Swiss precision and French design in its wearable Activité watches. New York startup Ringly has launched stylish gold-and-jewel rings that buzz when you get an email. For its first foray into wearable technology, Intel has teamed with Opening Ceremony and Barneys to launch its MICA bracelets, which provide notifications, allow for data exchange and look like, well, bracelets. Intel has also struck a deal with Fossil and SMS Audio to develop other funky wearables.
There is more at stake here than bragging rights. According to a recent report by market analyst Beecham Research, the fashion-led wearable tech market could hit $9.3 billion by 2018—if, that is, developers can change the way they think about design. As the report’s co-author Saverio Romeo says, wearable devices have so far focused on function at the expense of form. “They assume people will buy them because of the coolness of the tech,” he says. “Wearables are not only technology devices.”
Romeo cites Google Glass as an example of awesome tech—a much-heralded product expected to launch the Internet of Us—that has gotten its aesthetics in a twist. To some, the glasses are creepy, but more damaging is the fact that they have become synonymous with poor fashion sense—the pocket protector of the postmodern age. Or, as a Wired blogger put it last year, Glass is “too dorky to live.” Accordingly, Google is now collaborating with Italian eyewear giant Luxottica, which owns the Ray-Ban and Oakley brands, to make the product cool.
Not everyone, however, is swooning over the love affair between the tech and fashion sectors. “Maybe Apple will sell watches, but a lot of this sounds like desperation,” says luxury market analyst Pamela Danziger. In fact, she adds, the marriage between chic and geek may be founded on a contradiction. “Fashion needs to be market-driven, while gadgets, by definition, have to be product-driven. Tech is mass-produced and becomes obsolete quickly, while in the luxury market, which is all about exclusivity, goods become more valuable over time.”
Danziger points to Ralph Lauren’s Polo Tech shirt—which, when launched next year, will have tracking sensors knitted into the fabric—as an example of designers tripping over their feet in their rush to jump on the wearables bandwagon. “Does anyone really want this?” she wonders. The answer to this question is almost certainly yes. After all, we already have wearable technology that has become an indispensable fashion accessory. It’s called a watch.
Berlin-based editor and writer Boyd Farrow wrote this article while wearing a crystal-studded egg timer on his head.