By Wendy Steiner
Oct 18 To much fanfare, Apple announced Tuesday
that Angela Ahrendts is resigning as chief executive officer of
Burberry and joining the inner circle in Cupertino, California.
"Apple-polishing" has become the headline du jour. Picturing the
soignée Ahrendts surrounded by geeks in jeans and hoodies, we
might be forgiven for wondering why Apple feels in need of a
fashionista buff-up. After all, there is hardly a product line
more shiny-bright than Apple's - or one with less affinity to
the cold exclusivity of the world's great fashion houses.
But the extraordinary affection that iPhones inspire is
different from the anxious ostentation surrounding high fashion.
However sublime couture may be, it is neither lovable nor
practical. Nor does using it feel like participating in a major
human advance. There is something wondrous about Apple products
in the ease and pleasure they afford their users, connecting us
in unprecedented ways to other people, to our surroundings and
to the world of ideas.
In contrast to beautiful, yet exclusive and often
unaffordable fashion products, "Apple was the first company that
took high design and made it mainstream," Phil Libin, Evernote's
chief executive officer, explained. "It taught the world taste."
A new influx of fashion executives, however, may be changing
the taste of Apple. Ahrendts is only the latest fashion import.
Paul Deneve recently jumped from chief executive officer of Yves
Saint Laurent to manage "special projects" at Apple (which
assumingly includes development of the much-anticipated iWatch).
Jay Blahnik joined him from Nike's design stratosphere, after
spearheading the FuelBand initiative. Mickey Drexler of J. Crew
serves on the board of Apple.
Nor is Apple the only tech company that cultivates fashion
experts. Julie Gilhart, former creative director at Barneys, is
now a special consultant to Amazon. Google turned to Diane von
Furstenberg to promote Google Glass in 2012. Anna Wintour, the
Condé Nast artistic director and Vogue editor, featured Google
Glass throughout her all-important September issue, with
beauties wearing the spectacles posed obliviously in a rusted
What should we make of high tech's embrace of high fashion?
Some might say that marketing is marketing - whether the product
is an iPhone or Burberry's latest open-toed plaid booties. Until
now, however, the images of these products could not have been
more different. It is as if a health-food company had suddenly
sought guidance from the marketers of Dom Perignon. Much as we
love bubbly, we might fear for the future of granola.
This is by no means the first time in the history of design
that technology and fashion have been entangled. Art deco, a
sleek 1920s machine aesthetic, inspired evening gowns with the
look of automobiles and skyscrapers. The 1920s Bauhaus movement
advocated universal access to elegant design through the forms
and economies of mass production. In the 1960s André Courrèges,
trained as a civil engineer, "built" geometric fashions out of
plastic and metal. His miniskirts and space boots conveyed the
glamour of NASA's rocket program, like the cartoon clothing of
The Jetsons and the stylized uniforms on Star Trek.
In these various movements, fashion provided an instant
reinterpretation of technological developments. But now the shoe
is on the other foot: Tech companies are reinterpreting fashion
by inventing "wearables."
The metaphor is worth considering. Fashion is worn on the
body. It reveals, hides, shapes and stages the body, as both a
personal 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 in
general: Shoes are tech extensions of the feet, hats of hair,
glasses of eyes and so on. As tech companies produce wearables
such as Google Glass, Apple's iWatch, and eventually the endless
varieties of computerized clothing that Corning's bendable glass
could soon make possible, the boundary between fashion and
technology may disappear altogether.
Ultimately, some fear, tech devices will merge with the body
completely - as tattoos and prostheses and
genetically-engineered inserts - at which point the human body
will have been "fashioned" beyond anything Burberry could
imagine. But before that bionic future, tech devices will
function more like fashion.
"Apple has to stop thinking like a computer company," writes
blogger Om Malik, "and more like a fashion accessory maker whose
stock-in-trade is not just great design but aspirational
No industry understands how to generate "aspirational
experience" better than high fashion. We have only to watch
Diane von Furstenberg promoting Google Glass to see the strategy
in play. In the Glass video, we hear DVF's advice to her models
as they strut the runway in their Google Glass: "The most
important thing is that you are yourselves and you think of the
woman you want to be and you just have fun and be beautiful."
The video is actual footage of the runway taken by a model
wearing Google Glass as she walks. We see what she sees -
merging with this ideal creature - and so the aspirational
message of high fashion has come true: When you wear this
product you are most profoundly yourself; you are the woman you
want to be; you are licensed to have fun. You are beautiful. Any
device that can deliver on these promises is worth its weight in
It remains to be seen whether the marketing ethos of high
fashion will work for i-devices. Certainly, Apple's and
Burberry's products have much in common: They are expensive,
beautifully designed - and quickly obsolete. The obsessive
fashionista may have found a soul mate, too, in tech's "early
But with an iPhone, you do not have to lose weight or rise
socially to be profoundly yourself, have fun or feel beautiful.
We can hope that fashion marketing will not change all that.