On one of the coldest days of the year, a smartly dressed woman, defying the elements, stands at one of the last remaining newsstands in Manhattan flipping through the voluminous bible of fashion that is the March issue of Vogue. Amid the pages of waifish models blissfully tossing aside $1,000 scarfs and tableaus of beauty products promising transformative powers she happens upon something completely different: another, mini-magazine, devoted to the Apple Watch.
The message contained therein, all visual, no text, is obvious: The illusion of luxury, of another, better life — one filled with glamour, the right look and the people and places that go along with such trimmings of success — now includes a smartwatch.
It’s an old message, aspirational luxury, but one made new by technology playing the starring role. But all stars aren’t created equal. And even the most brilliant sometimes fail to capture the public’s imagination.
So now, with companies like Apple, Nike, Under Armour and many others betting billions on the chance that the marriage of technology and fashion might produce a hit, there’s a key question that needs answering: Is wearable technology ready? And will the Apple Watch be the catalyst that takes it mainstream?
“It’s gonna catch on really quickly,” says Jacob, a 22-year-old fashion assistant at the Soho retail branch of G-Star Raw, an expensive apparel brand that sits comfortably between the high-end design approach of couture brands recently seen at Fashion Week and the street style aesthetic that has turned sneaker culture into a curatorial art.
“I have a Michael Kors watch,” says Jacob, immediately demolishing the myth that all but rich old bankers and anti-tech Luddites still wear watches. “I actually don’t like a lot of Michael Kors watches, but this one in particular I really like just because of the band — it’s more for the fashion of it. It’s the same thing with the [Apple Watch]. They’re taking something super advanced and making it look simplistic. I feel like that’s where Apple catches people, that simplistic and advanced kind of thing together. Apple does a good mesh of those two things.”
Apple’s ability to mesh technology with beautiful design has worked for computers and mobile phones, but applying that methodology to products like the Apple Watch could prove be the company’s greatest challenge ever.
Stores, online and brick and mortar, are littered with examples of geek-tainted products that failed to hop the fence from Silicon Valley conversation piece to non-techie must-have.
It seems like ages ago when Diane von Furstenberg put Google Glass on the runway, but it was only a few years ago, in 2012, that the fashion icon sat next to Google co-founder Sergey Brin as models showed off multi-colored versions of the wearable computing device.
Since then, after high-profile privacy debates and a general sense of “uncool” descended on the device, Google Glass has become a kind of punchline for those who think technology belongs on our desks and in our phones, not on our bodies. Today, von Furstenberg’s models stalk the runway swathed only in fabric, sans wearable computer.
“People aren’t ready for the that,” says Xavier, Jacob’s 24-year-old supervisor, another fashion obsessive who nevertheless is just as certain regarding what will and won’t work as technology makes its way into the apparel world. “Apple makes a lot of stuff that’s more accessible and more reliable, and I believe their whole concept is to make life easier. That’s why I think the Apple Watch is a perfect idea. It’s a fashion piece.”
“Our approach to wearables — like watches and Glass — is to build things that you use when you need and forget about when you don’t,” a spokesperson for Google’s Android Wear team told me when asked about the market viability of wearable tech.
Wearables should help you connect with others, get stuff done and improve your life
Wearables should help you connect with others, get stuff done and improve your life, rather than being one more device that demands your attention, or distracts you from what you really love to do.”
But in the minds of the public, that mission — to recede into the background as an invisible assistant — apparently wasn’t accomplished by Glass, and now the first version has been discontinued, with no specific date set for a follow-up version to be released.
Similarly, pop singer Will.I.Am’s Puls smartwatch, a device he describes as part of a line of “fashionology” products that merge fashion and tech, has largely been deemed undercooked by tech reviewers, and is all but invisible in the trend-obsessed conversations taking place on social media. Even employing the authoritative voice of former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley hasn’t been enough to help the device gain traction.
And that’s just the hardware. Such forays into making tech tools part of our wardrobe don’t address the more experimental attempts in the nascent space, like 3D-printed dresses and accessories, shirts and blazers embedded with sensors to track your health or give you directional assistance and a raft of Bluetooth-enabled jewelry.
But where Google’s and Will.I.Am’s attempts to woo the fashion cognoscenti have largely failed, the sports apparel world has found a far more receptive audience.
“There are certainly a lot of companies that want to be viewed as on the leading edge or maybe start to define a new category of wearables from a product perspective, but it’s still pretty early when it comes to fashion and apparel and how consumer-ready they are,” says Robin Thurston, Under Armour’s senior vice president of connected fitness and digital. “There are lots of big challenges: washability, how long something lasts, battery connectivity — all of those things are still really big hurdles for where things are today.”
Despite those challenges, the trend toward positioning one’s fashion brand as “tech-centric” has taken hold, resulting in myriad demonstrations of fashion-tech hybrids that range from the wildly impractical, to the ingenious.
“For tech to work in fashion, it can’t be tech for tech’s sake but needs to actually enhance not only the value of the technology but the overall lifestyle of the individual,” says Kegan Schouwenburg, the CEO of SOLS, a maker of custom 3D-printed insoles. “We are integrating sensors into SOLS footwear so you don’t have to wear anything extra. To create a positive interplay between technology and fashion, it has to be an extension of yourself.”
The company’s proof-of-concept prototype, the ADAPTIV 3D-printed shoe, which will have embedded gyroscopes and sensors to adapt to the foot of the wearer, was on display at a wearable technology event earlier this month in New York featuring Intel executives and NBAstar Carmelo Anthony, himself a new entrant into the tech investing field.
During the event, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich echoed Schouwenburg’s sentiments, which espouse a strategy of downplaying the “techie” aspects of wearable technology in order to smooth the path toward consumer acceptance.
“It’s not about bringing technology into the space,” said Krzanich. “Go back ten years ago or more, the phone was ‘a phone.’ What people did was they brought intelligence, they brought capabilities to the phone, they brought smartness [to the device]. What we’re trying to do now with the next wave of devices is do that same thing, just bring smartness to the things you wear everyday.”
However, while many agree that technology has to “disappear” to make any real headway in apparel, how to accomplish that feat remains the central challenge for many companies.
Even the most successful, well-funded high fashion labels have yet to offer something that truly marries fashion with technology in the same way that our smartphones provide utility. During this year’s Fashion Week, most of the technology employed by brands was used to market fashion, rather than fundamentally enhance the garments.
QR codes were used to confirm invitations at the main event hall; Rebecca Minkoff’s runway show was laced with GoPro cameras for a future virtual reality experience; Rihanna designer Adam Selman used HP’s Spout scanning technology to prep his latest fashion show; and designer Emilio Sosa showed off clothing that used Epson’s digital dye sublimation technology during a “digital couture” event.
Compared to just a few years ago, the fashion world has embraced tech at rapid clip. Even if only used for marketing, the industry is becoming increasingly comfortable with using technology innovation to frame its products and message.
But still, where are all the circuit-laden shirts and sensor-packed shoes?
For now, in the realm of consumer-ready apparel, that job falls to the sports vertical of fashion, an area where athletes, amateur and professional, are embracing wearable tech as they endeavor to quantify the performances.
The problem in the fashion space is that you’re likely to get to the point where you or I are wearing all kinds of wearable devices
The problem in the fashion space is that you’re likely to get to the point where you or I are wearing all kinds of wearable devices,” says Thurston. “You have to still build an experience for the consumer with all that data coming together. It’s not very useful in an isolated segment.”
To that end, earlier this month, Under Armour acquired the nutrition-tracking platform MyFitnessPal for $475 million. The idea behind the acquisition, says Thurston, is for Under Armour to facilitate other wearable device makers and software developers. In so doing, the company hopes to boost the overall footprint of wearable technology until it becomes the norm — a network effect that will, presumably, aid the commercial efforts of the entire apparel and wearable accessories industry.
Fueled in large part by the analytics movement in sports, further popularized by the hit book and subsequent film Moneyball, which held out data as the holy grail of sports success, technology and sports apparel appear to be a perfect match.
“Technology is going to play a massive part in the next wave — the next five to ten years — of athlete performance, which ultimate drives [consumer apparel] selection,” says Thurston.
Does that mean fashion’s tech aspirations are on the backburner for the foreseeable future?
Not so fast.
Apple will have a few things to say about that in April.
“People are paying like $10,000 and $15,000 for a Rolex watch just because it doesn’t tick and it has an old, household name,” says Jacob, when asked if he thinks people will pay the rumored $5,000 to $10,000 for the solid gold, top tier version of the Apple Watch. “You have now a watch that design-wise — because with Apple they always do top notch level design — something that’s going to be super high end and is going to have top of line computers inside of it. Why ‘isn’t’ it worth that much money?”
Hints that the pricing rumors might be close to the mark are apparent in the audience Apple has spent the most time courting — the wealthy and fashionable — as well as the fact that, in recent months, the company has leaned heavily on fashion insiders and retail intelligentsia to pave the way for its first wearable product.
Apple also hired away Burberry’s CEO, Angela Ahrendts, to lead the Apple Watch charge, and Apple’s Jony Ive recently made a point of introducing the device to legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld and Vogue editor Anna Wintour in Paris.
Apple’s smartwatch isn’t technically “apparel,” it’s an accessory. But in the same way that the iPhone paved the way for all smartphones to become staples of mobile culture and, eventually, status symbols, it could be that the Apple Watch will be the accelerator to truly kick off the era of “smart fashion.”
At least one research study indicates that this may turn out to be true. Despite the relative scarcity of major brand-backed wearable products on the market, according to a 2014 consumer survey conducted by Accenture, 46% of consumers are interested purchasing a smartwatch.
“The product is so high quality that I think you’ll have continuous, ongoing use, which other smartwatches have failed at because they haven’t been super high quality,” says Thurston, “that’s what I think Apple is differentiating on.”
But unlike many wearable technology products, beyond form and function,
the most important thing that the Apple Watch has already tapped into, and has in common with the fashion world, is our imagination
the most important thing that the Apple Watch has already tapped into, and has in common with the fashion world, is our imagination— our fascination with luxury. Most consumers are unsure what, exactly, the device will do, but there are already conversations about who will pony up the supposed thousands it will cost to buy the top tier version of the Apple Watch.
Like $1,000 shoes, $5,000 purses, and $10,000 dresses, when it comes to luxury, no questions are asked. You just pay.
“It’s like the Vogue ad, they’re not selling you the [the device] anymore, they’re selling you the bands,” says Jacob. “They’re selling you the look, they’re not selling you the actual tech parts.”
And that may be the lesson the Apple Watch has to teach the rest of the fashion and sports apparel world looking to cash in on the elevated status technology now enjoys: Make it beautiful, make it work, but first and foremost, sell us the dream.
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