On September 9, Apple debuted its Watch in another attempt to close the gap between fashion and technology. The iconic tech company came out with three versions of the new device including the Watch Edition, which comes with an 18-karat gold case and may sell for as much as $5,000 according to one Apple insider. It’s too bad the fashion world was unimpressed.
Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for The Doneger Group, told Reuters that “It’s not pretty…It’s very future techno as opposed to feminine sexy.” According to New York Magazine, models Arthur Kulkov and Alexa Chung both gave Apple Watch a thumbs down for being too dorky and toy-like. Designer Todd Snyder said, “I would never replace my Rolex for that watch.”
Related: Can the Apple Watch Win the Wrist?
Despite coming up short in the eyes of fashionistas, Apple still forced the fashion and tech industries to again question the conflict between style and utility. This has implications that could stretch far beyond the watch industry -- if, and only if, designers are willing to take the risk of pioneering "smart fashion." It is potentially a multibillion-dollar opportunity but there is no guarantee it will work out.
With makers of textiles, handbags, jackets, shoes and jewelry now in a position to shape the future of all wearable technology, it’s worth asking two big questions: Why hasn’t fashion already seized this opportunity? And if they do enter the wearable market, how should they proceed?
Why fashion remains on the sidelines.
The fashion industry has a contradictory relationship with technology. Today, retailers are effectively tech companies that study and analyze shopping behavior. They have developed algorithmic personalization engines, mobile apps and social-media strategies well ahead of other industries. Yet, fashion designers have felt no competitive pressure to integrate technology into their products. This is why they remain on the sidelines.
Think about it: Why would Prada, Gucci or Burberry create "smart" digital handbags when women will already spend several thousand dollars on a single "dumb" handbag with tremendous profit margins? What would compel Giorgio Armani to make digital suits with built-in smartphone chargers and biometric sensors? Trying to force technology into high- end fashion products could backfire and alienate one of their core demographics who have not expressed demand for such features.
Fashion designers aren’t expected to solve practical problems. They create demand for their products on an emotional and aesthetic level. Even the techiest among us can't deny that fashion helps us define and represent who we are. When my wife wears a designer dress, or when my friend wears a solar-powered, smartphone-charging jacket (for real), both are expressing beliefs and values via fashion.
Technology has so far failed to address the desires of people who express themselves through style rather than functionality. The Apple Watch is the best attempt so far. Likewise, fashion has failed to serve the needs of people who express themselves through functionality before appearance. So, people who value both style and function -- probably the majority of consumers -- are arguably underserved.
Making a multibillion-dollar collaboration work.
Since fashion and technology have always existed as distinct entities, unifying the two is a risk even if there appears to be a widely underserved demographic. Overcoming this divide is impossible without collaboration. To win over the elite fashion crowd, Apple and other tech companies need the sensibilities of top designers (Google recently teamed up with Diane von Furstenberg for Google Glass designs). And if fashion designers want a piece of the multibillion-dollar wearable technology market, they need the capabilities and regard for user experience that tech companies bring to the table.
While Apple may be considered a guinea pig in this new smart fashion market, the press is now speculating that Intel and other companies will try to one up Apple in the high-fashion wearable market. But many famous fashion houses are noticeably on the sidelines of this competition, with a few exceptions. Tory Burch now produces metal and silicon-printed bracelets to hide the Fitbit’s rubber bands. Ralph Lauren just launched the ‘Polo Tech’ line of athletic shirts that measure heart rate, breathing and movement. They plan to put this technology into dress shirts later in 2014.
This is why there is such a huge opportunity for designers to partner with tech companies. If you’re a fashionista, would you prefer your smartwatch band to have the logo for Apple or Armani? If tech companies want wearable devices to gain acceptance with a wider audience, who could be better partners than designers who are so compelling that they convince women to buy five-figure handbags and endure the brutal discomfort of high heels?
The choice before the fashion industry is simple:Partner with tech companies and take a piece of the wearable market, or let tech companies flounder with design and style. Designers could make or break the smart fashion trend. My personal hope is that design houses join in and provide those of us who love tech and fashion equally with a higher degree of self-expression and choice.