COLUMN-Apple: 'Early adopter' as fashionista

Reuters

By Wendy Steiner

Oct 18 (Reuters) - To much fanfare, Apple announced Tuesdaythat Angela Ahrendts is resigning as chief executive officer ofBurberry and joining the inner circle in Cupertino, California."Apple-polishing" has become the headline du jour. Picturing thesoignée Ahrendts surrounded by geeks in jeans and hoodies, wemight be forgiven for wondering why Apple feels in need of afashionista buff-up. After all, there is hardly a product linemore shiny-bright than Apple's - or one with less affinity tothe cold exclusivity of the world's great fashion houses.

But the extraordinary affection that iPhones inspire isdifferent from the anxious ostentation surrounding high fashion.

However sublime couture may be, it is neither lovable norpractical. Nor does using it feel like participating in a majorhuman advance. There is something wondrous about Apple productsin the ease and pleasure they afford their users, connecting usin unprecedented ways to other people, to our surroundings andto the world of ideas.

In contrast to beautiful, yet exclusive and oftenunaffordable fashion products, "Apple was the first company thattook high design and made it mainstream," Phil Libin, Evernote'schief executive officer, explained. "It taught the world taste."

A new influx of fashion executives, however, may be changingthe taste of Apple. Ahrendts is only the latest fashion import.Paul Deneve recently jumped from chief executive officer of YvesSaint Laurent to manage "special projects" at Apple (whichassumingly includes development of the much-anticipated iWatch).Jay Blahnik joined him from Nike's design stratosphere, afterspearheading the FuelBand initiative. Mickey Drexler of J. Crewserves on the board of Apple.

Nor is Apple the only tech company that cultivates fashionexperts. Julie Gilhart, former creative director at Barneys, isnow a special consultant to Amazon. Google turned to Diane vonFurstenberg to promote Google Glass in 2012. Anna Wintour, theCondé Nast artistic director and Vogue editor, featured GoogleGlass throughout her all-important September issue, withbeauties wearing the spectacles posed obliviously in a rustedwasteland.

What should we make of high tech's embrace of high fashion?Some might say that marketing is marketing - whether the productis an iPhone or Burberry's latest open-toed plaid booties. Untilnow, however, the images of these products could not have beenmore different. It is as if a health-food company had suddenlysought guidance from the marketers of Dom Perignon. Much as welove bubbly, we might fear for the future of granola.

This is by no means the first time in the history of designthat technology and fashion have been entangled. Art deco, asleek 1920s machine aesthetic, inspired evening gowns with thelook of automobiles and skyscrapers. The 1920s Bauhaus movementadvocated universal access to elegant design through the formsand economies of mass production. In the 1960s André Courrèges,trained as a civil engineer, "built" geometric fashions out ofplastic and metal. His miniskirts and space boots conveyed theglamour of NASA's rocket program, like the cartoon clothing ofThe Jetsons and the stylized uniforms on Star Trek.

In these various movements, fashion provided an instantreinterpretation of technological developments. But now the shoeis on the other foot: Tech companies are reinterpreting fashionby inventing "wearables."

The metaphor is worth considering. Fashion is worn on thebody. It reveals, hides, shapes and stages the body, as both apersonal and a social expression.

But what we wear is at the same time a technology - indeed,one of the oldest. When Courrèges promoted his tights as a"second skin," he could have been speaking of clothing ingeneral: Shoes are tech extensions of the feet, hats of hair,glasses of eyes and so on. As tech companies produce wearablessuch as Google Glass, Apple's iWatch, and eventually the endlessvarieties of computerized clothing that Corning's bendable glasscould soon make possible, the boundary between fashion andtechnology may disappear altogether.

Ultimately, some fear, tech devices will merge with the bodycompletely - as tattoos and prostheses andgenetically-engineered inserts - at which point the human bodywill have been "fashioned" beyond anything Burberry couldimagine. But before that bionic future, tech devices willfunction more like fashion.

"Apple has to stop thinking like a computer company," writesblogger Om Malik, "and more like a fashion accessory maker whosestock-in-trade is not just great design but aspirationalexperience."

No industry understands how to generate "aspirationalexperience" better than high fashion. We have only to watchDiane von Furstenberg promoting Google Glass to see the strategyin play. In the Glass video, we hear DVF's advice to her modelsas they strut the runway in their Google Glass: "The mostimportant thing is that you are yourselves and you think of thewoman you want to be and you just have fun and be beautiful."

The video is actual footage of the runway taken by a modelwearing Google Glass as she walks. We see what she sees -merging with this ideal creature - and so the aspirationalmessage of high fashion has come true: When you wear thisproduct you are most profoundly yourself; you are the woman youwant to be; you are licensed to have fun. You are beautiful. Anydevice that can deliver on these promises is worth its weight ingold.

It remains to be seen whether the marketing ethos of highfashion will work for i-devices. Certainly, Apple's andBurberry's products have much in common: They are expensive,beautifully designed - and quickly obsolete. The obsessivefashionista may have found a soul mate, too, in tech's "earlyadopter."

But with an iPhone, you do not have to lose weight or risesocially to be profoundly yourself, have fun or feel beautiful.We can hope that fashion marketing will not change all that.

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