By Wendy Steiner
(Reuters) – 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 wasteland.
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 experience.”
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 gold.
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 adopter.”
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.
(Wendy Steiner is a cultural critic and librettist. The opinions expressed are her own.)