Where form meets function

Who’s leading the way in wearable technology? The fashion/lifestyle brands or the technology giants?

In fashion, the musical chairs circus, i.e. designers leaving one brand to join a competing House, has gone into overload over the last few years. Every once in a while someone quits or gets fired, and an avalanche of social media speculations are launched about where they’re off to and who their possible successor is. It’s part of the celebrity-obsessed personality cult that today grips everything from music to politics, and fashion is no exception. Traditionally, less coverage is dedicated to the career movements of fashion brand CEOs, and other high ranking administrative staff. Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are more likely to report on it than Vogue and Elle. Only the Business of Fashion will delve on it.

In the last few months, established fashion houses have started losing CEOs to Apple. Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts and Saint Laurent’s Paul Deneve have both left to take up Vice President roles in Silicon Valley. Ahrendts as head of retail operations and Deneve to look after special projects. Cue a flurry of speculations about what Apple is up to with these two high-flying fashion execs onboard.

Around the same time, Nike announced that they’re downgrading the staff numbers working on their FuelBand project, their most forward-thinking project in terms of wearable technology. Simultaneously, the South Korean phone company Samsung is pushing ahead and developing a similar project, the Gear Fit, which combines a fitness band with a smart watch.

It begs the question: who is leading the way in wearable technology, the fashion/lifestyle brands or the technology giants?

At the moment, all points towards the technology brands who, obviously, have the expertise and know-how when it comes to developing new ideas. But they lack a fundamental understanding of style and, to a certain degree, the physical and active aspect of the product.

Hence, the design of Nike’s FuelBand is more aesthetically pleasing compared to the Gear Fit. The style to substance ratio is indeed important as only a few dedicated technology obsessives will buy these products if the design isn’t right, and the whole concept of “wearable technology” is so new that no one actually knows exactly what it will look like in the future. What is known, though, is that certain levels of sophisticated design and elevated image qualities will be necessary.

Based on Nike’s decision and the Ahrendts/Deneve move, it seems the fashion industry won’t be leading the fight – it has to be the technology sector. Apparently, Nike didn’t want to invest more money in developing products that, although they looked better, were arguably inferior or not competitive enough with respect to other products, such as the Samsung Gear Fit.

The advantage of Samsung and Apple is that their wearable technology can be hooked up to their entire world of communication: be it phone calls, emails, chats or social media. Nike, on the other hand, doesn’t have access to such a technologically advanced network.

Though both companies employ top-notch designers, Jonathan Ive in the case of Apple, they need help in order to break into the hardcore wearable market. Google Glass is a good example of a digital and high-tech company developing a complicated product and asking for help when it comes to introducing the technology into the mainstream market. Recently, Luxottica, the Italian eyewear company that works with several world-leading design brands, announced that they are teaming up some of their brands with Google Glass. Ray-Ban and Oakley, two classic eyewear brands operating in both fashion-led and sport dominated markets, will soon be compatible with Google’s digital eyewear technology.

Google would not have been able to achieve mainstream success (and it’s still unclear if they will) had they approached the consumers on their own. Sure, their in-house designed glasses are not that bad, but they are still Google glasses, far less respectable and recognized compared to Ray-Ban, for example. Apple and Samsung need to look toward Google in that respect. Whatever it is they’re planning in terms of wearable technology, people will interact differently with this product as opposed to iPhones and iPods. Even Nike might not have the know-how in terms of developing a FuelBand that can compete with, for example, Samsung’s Gear Fit, but they have an intricate and inherent skill to produce well-designed products that are hype-friendly. And in this day and age that’s crucial.

On that note, there have been hints offered by Samsung that they’re launching a Google Glass competitor called “Gear Blink.” It will be interesting to see what, if any, established eyewear brands they approach. Of course, the kind of collaborative brands the technology experts see as suitable also says a lot about themselves and where they see their own brand; whether that be mainstream and commercial, high street, cheap or luxury fashion.

In the case of Ahrendts and Deneve, the two ex-fashion operatives were obviously not hired by Apple for their design skills. Again, who can compete with Ive? But, as head of retail operations, Ahrendts will use her Burberry experience (as well as having worked for Donna Karan and Liz Clairborne) to bolster both the brick-and-mortar and online shopping experience at Apple.

Paul Deneve’s brief is slightly vague, which, of course, makes it more interesting. What kind of “special projects” will a former Saint Laurent CEO work on for Apple? Well, look at his track record, what was his biggest achievement at Saint Laurent? The clue is in the name. Deneve helped rebrand the company by losing Yves. It was Deneve who hired ex-Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane, knowing that Slimane would completely change the design direction – at least compared to Stefano Pilati – and alter the classic YSL logo.

Like it or not (and lots of people don’t), but a few seasons in, it seems to be a commercial success. The fashion consumer is buying into it. They understand and appreciate the visual language of not only the clothes, but also the new store design and overall brand communication.

This is why Apple wanted Paul Deneve and Angela Ahrendts; they know the importance of collaborations, they know how to sell expensive luxury products, they are able to make money on handbags, sunglasses and perfumes on the back of catwalk collections; they can spot talent, they take risks, they dare rebrand classic names (look at Burberry’s transformation in the last decade), they have contacts in Paris, not just Silicon Valley, they speak to magazine editors on a daily basis, they live fashion.

By taking on leading fashion CEOs, Apple is increasing its chances of success when it comes to developing wearable technology. You don’t trust Google when it comes to glasses (the frames, not the technology) but you would buy Ray-Bans and Oakleys.

Samsung needs to get on the case. There are few companies that can compete with Apple and Samsung is one of them. They have less of an association with stylish design a la Apple, so already they are fighting an uphill battle. Samsung needs their own Ahrendts and Deneve. They need to look towards Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci. Which CEOs are left to pinch?

Rounding it off, one real example of a design-led company taking on not just high-end fashion but also high-end technology is Studio XO. The north London-based company, headed up by designer Nancy Tilbury and engineer Ben Males, have a track record of fusing technology and fashion. Due to the showmanship and stage potential of their products, XO studio has been welcomed with open arms by the music industry. Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas and Azealia Banks are all happy customers. Tilbury and Males provided Lady Gaga with the flying dress that she took for a live test drive at a press conference last year, and previous achievements include LED-accessorized suits and digital mermaid bras.

With ambitions to move their clothing off the stage and into ordinary peoples’ wardrobes, Studio XO is living and breathing wearable technology, operating at the “crossroads of physical-digital media.” The difference between Nike and XO is, obviously, the sheer size but it’s also worth noting that the likes of Nike, and other fashion/lifestyle brands that have ventured into similar areas, are not fully dedicated to this kind of product. They’re in the business of selling trainers and apparel, not smartphone technology.

Studio XO, though, was founded with one purpose and one purpose only, to marry aesthetically pleasing garments and gadgets with the technology of tomorrow. Maybe that’s where the future of wearable technology lies.

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