Where the runway meets the street

Smartwatches and wearable tech are capitalizing on the athleisure trend, but where does that leave them in a watch market that prides itself on longevity? 

There used to be a time when watches that doubled as a GPS tracker or glasses with digital displays seemed like something right out of a “James Bond” movie or childhood fantasy. But if the rise of products like Fitbit, Google Glass and the Apple Watch are indicators of anything, it’s that the stuff of 20th-century science-fiction has finally come to fruition. That isn’t to say that wearable technology is anything new. After all, we’ve had calculator watches since the 1970s. Until now, the major issue with wearable technology becoming part of mainstream lifestyle and culture has been an aesthetic one. Heart monitoring wristwatches (like the black, chunky apparatuses made by Polar) and products like Google Glass may optimize utility, but they often do so at the cost of good visual design. As much as I enjoy the ability to track my pulse and take photos with my glasses, I’m not exactly willing to do so if it means looking like a tool. This is a problem that a lot of wearable tech producers have caught on to. Increasingly, we’re seeing wearable tech that’s created with the style-minded in mind. There’s a reason Apple has been poaching execs from the fashion industry in the ramp-up to the Apple Watch launch.

However, the growth in wearable tech isn’t just about streamlined design. The fashion industry and mainstream culture have undergone an aesthetic shift as well, with high-fashion merging with the worlds of health and fitness. Consumers are increasingly seeking out functional fashion; clothes that reflect a growing interest in health, wellness and functionality. That is to say, we aren’t just trying to be healthy, we’re trying to look healthy. Part of this movement is the growing influence of streetwear, with designers like Alexander Wang and Public School taking sneakers and sweatpants to the runway. Thanks to the awkwardly-termed “athleisure,” it’s now standard fare to see adidas and Nike kicks at Fashion Week alongside oxfords, brogues and stilettos. As a article explained late last year, “It’s never been cooler to be seen looking like you’ve been working out.”

As streetwear and athletic wear come to the fashion fore, it’s not only more fashionable to be healthy, but health products are also increasingly becoming more fashion-minded. It’s at this critical intersection between style and utility that products like Fitbit and Apple Watch are flourishing. We’re finally seeing products — like Moto 360 and Vector — that are both style-conscious and seek to streamline our day-to-day: these watches track our heart rate, count our steps and calories, tell us when our next appointment is and even allow us to place our lunch order on the fly.

The Apple Watch is probably the most well-known product of its kind thanks to the company’s seismic hold on public consciousness, but there are other options in the smartwatch industry for various budgets and needs. Motorola’s Moto 360 offers a customizable watch made with stainless steel, leather straps and scratch-resistant glass. In a platform reminiscent of Nike iD, Motorola’s website lets customers choose the watch case, band and face configuration they prefer, providing a serious range of watch styles for any personality or style. Starting at only $179, the Moto 360 is placed below Apple Watch’s $350 baseline asking price. And for those looking for a standard smartwatch to meet their basic notification and fitness tracking needs, Pebble’s smartwatch comes in at a reasonable $99 dollars. For the market that emerges from the athleisure and fitness currents today, the Apple Watch and its competitors are perfectly placed. Products like those of Apple and Motorola are elegant and sophisticated solutions for the urban dweller on the go.

Where smartwatches might run into trouble is in their attempts to break into the luxury watch market. Moderately priced smartwatches like like Pebble and Moto 360 are perfectly placed to capitalize on the athleisure trend. Trying to bring that product into the luxury market is where things go awry. When people turn to brands like Rolex and Omega, it’s often with the intent of making a long-term investment. As Pateke Phillipe likes to remind its customers,  “You never really own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” How else can you justify spending tens of thousands of dollars on a timepiece? It’s the same kind of mentality that drives the market for vintage watches, where heritage, history and craftsmanship are prized above all else. The technology industry on the other hand lives on constant innovation, where new products are rendered obsolete while they’re still fresh in their consumer’s hands. When you pick up your new smartphone, you do so with the expectation of replacing it within the next two to three years.

Despite technology’s relatively short shelf life, Apple is still venturing into the luxury watch price bracket. The Apple Watch Edition starts at $10,000 dollars, a price higher than a Rolex Submariner or an IWC Portuguese. In an industry where watches are built with longevity in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how the expendable and breakable characteristics of technology will come into play. Apple releases a new iPad and new iPhone every couple of years, which is normal in the tech world that is constantly reinventing itself and launching new products. But when I’m looking to invest my hard-earned savings on a high-quality timepiece, I’m not so sure it’s Apple that I’ll be turning to. As sleek and elegant as the Apple Watch is, it’s not a Rolex, nor should it try to be.

Words by Adil Habib
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