Apple has become the world’s biggest company by dreaming up devices that consumers regard not just as a stylish but as luxury items that enhance their look and reflect their good taste. Indeed the company’s late founder Steve Jobs realised early on in his career that the tech industry could learn a lot from the high-end fashion manual, in terms of first cultivating slavish desire and then feeding it with ever-pricier seasonal upgrades. The company has signalled its ambitions in this potentially glitzy new arena by hiring high-profile executives from Tag Heuer, Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent during the last couple of years.
This is an arena that Apple will not have all to itself. During the last year there have been several tie-ups between tech and fashion firms. US designer Tory Burch has incorporated a Fitbit tracker band into an elegant gold bracelet that would look more fitting in a jeweller’s cabinet than inside an electronics retailer. New York start-up Ringly launched some gold and jewel rings, which, via Bluetooth, buzz the wearer when she get emails or calls. New York fashion jewellery brand Rebecca Minkoff tied up with Case-Mate, a maker of mobile accessories to launch a new range of techie jewellery.
According to a new report by market analysts Beecham Research, the fashion-led wearable tech market alone could hit US$9.3 billion by 2018. Too many wearables up to now, says report co-author Saverio Romeo, have been “technology focused” and are “completely cut away” from other considerations such as the devices look and feel or branding. Many start-ups “assume people will buy them because of the coolness of the tech”. He adds: “Wearables are not only technology devices.”
Romeo cites Google Glass (which has just had a prototype withdrawn) as the most glaring example of technology being rejected by some of the public because it doesn’t appear to be aesthetically pleasing. Intel has looked to circumvent this issue by focusing on female consumers. With hip fashion brand Opening Ceremony and upscale department store Barney’s, the chip-making giant created the MICA bracelet (My Intelligent Communication Accessory) to “fuse luxury jewellery with wearable tech”. Intel also struck a deal with clothing and accessories brand Fossil and headphones maker SMS Audio to develop other funky wearables. Michael A Bell, general manager of Intel’s New Devices Group, says: “There is a tremendous opportunity to engage in partnerships across an entirely new ecosystem of players outside of Intel’s traditional business areas. It’s safe to say you can expect more unique partnerships.”
Not all the technological developments are coming from the tech side either. CuteCircuit, a fashion brand in Shoreditch, London, has created garments that can change colour and design controlled via an iPhone app. US and Australia-based Wearable Experiments is harnessing electricity from body heat and researching the process of dyeing battery into fabrics, thus making our body a power generator and our clothing a capacitor. Luxury brand Ralph Lauren recently unveiled the Polo Tech shirt. This uses conductive threads woven into the shirt and a small snap-on module that weighs less than 1.5 ounces to relay heart-rate and breathing data to a Bluetooth-connected iPhone or iPad. According to David Lauren, who’s in charge of company’s global advertising and marketing, the first-generation shirt is a public showpiece for a new Polo line-up coming in spring 2015.
Not everyone is convinced that the fusion of tech and fashion at the high end of the market is such a good idea. “Maybe Apple will sell watches but a lot of this sounds like desperation both by the tech players, who need to differentiate their products, and the fashion companies, who constantly need a new marketing edge,” says luxury market expert Pamela Danziger at Unity Marketing. “Fashion needs to be market-driven, while gadgets, by definition, have to be product-driven,” says Danziger. “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 may be right. But even the most traditional names in the luxury sector cannot afford to take the chance that she is not.