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The seeds of Apple’s fashion ventures are falling on the right kind of soil

Ever since Apple unveiled the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, the tech and business communities have been aflutter over whether 2014 may finally be the year that Apple becomes not just a celebrated technology company but a full-fledged fashion house.  

After all, in the last year or so, Apple has made a notable series of high profile hires, many from among the highest ranks of haute couture. Paul Deneve, formerly of Yves Saint Laurent, and legendary industrial designer Marc Newson have been hired to work on “special projects;” Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, is now Apple’s Senior Vice President; and Dr. Dre and Johnny Iovine joined the fruit’s extended family when Apple purchased Beats by Dre last May (their official titles being “Jimmy and Dre”).

Even the brand’s presentations have felt more like runway shows than traditional gadget showcases. Take, for example, the recent Apple Watch demo, where dazzling product spun slowly on elevated pedestals as the curated guests—including Gwen Stefani,will.i.am and Dr. Oz—took it all in.

Of course, Apple always has been a luxury brand in almost every traditional sense of the concept. The only thing that’s had us confused for so long is that Apple just happens to be an innovative technology company, not a handbag or cruise ship line, and the guys running it (until now) have been middle-aged U2 enthusiasts. Luxury branding expert Klaus Hein describes a luxury brand as one that generates “associations about a high level of price, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness and a high degree of non-functional associations.” It’s interesting to think of Apple as “non-functional,” given that the brand’s whole philosophy is famously hinged on the marriage of artful design and cutting-edge functionality. But in truth, the “functions” an Apple product provides you with are imperative to very few people to living out a professional or personal existence.

So if Apple already qualifies as a luxury brand, and they’ve been doing fine for so long, why all the fashion industry guru hires?

Apple Watch

Apple Watch

What Apple is doing is may be the most obvious possible presumption: it’s preparing to enter the fashion industry. As “wearables” gain traction (and hopefully lose their terribly ill-advised name—which reminds yours truly of “Lunchables,” and consequently, “wearing Lunchables”), there will be a lot of failures and embarrassments, and Apple wants to make sure to be the one that gets it right—per usual. The company is gambling in a flimsy but potentially explosive market, as demonstrated by the fact that wearables are expected to be worth anywhere between 5 and 50 billion dollars by 2018. But Apple is clearly placing stock in the concept—stock, of course, being the one Apple product nobody ever regretted buying. If in 2001, when the original iPod came out, you had put $399 into Apple stock, instead of buying the gadget itself, your investment would now be worth well over $26,000.

Apple isn’t setting up a runway on their compound in Cupertino, and you’re not going to find Jony Ive with a pincushion strapped to his wrist, asking Tim Cook if he thinks the salmon stitching on the new retro felt wristband is too much. But they’re bringing in people who know what they’re doing. And of all the technology companies trying to make the crossover into wearable fashion, Apple is by far positioned the most ideally. The Apple customer demographic tends to be affluent, well educated, younger and living in urban areas—precisely the same social group most likely to buy into fashion trends. Fashion is, if not born in the big cities, at least appropriated by designers there, and then propagated to the public at large by the street style snapshots of celebrities we inevitably spend copious amounts of time clicking through.

Last April, Business Insider released a satellite study showing that tweets coming out of Manhattan were overwhelmingly more from iPhones or iOS devices than tweets from Newark, New Jersey, which is dominated largely by Android users. Even within Manhattan, the satellite images demonstrate that far more iPhones are being used in more costly neighborhoods—the East and West Villages, for example, than in areas like Chinatown. It may not be a big surprise that 80% of iPhones sold are over $400, and 60% of Androids sold are under $200 (0% of iPhones are under $200), but that disparity becomes more startling when you realize that 85% of all smartphones sold are Androids. Apple customers are among the top 15% of the nation’s consumers, the urban, coastal, crispy sugar shell of the socio-economic crème brulee.

Still, at the end of the day, these are just the numbers. There is something much more subliminal, more subversive, in the very essence of what Apple represents to us culturally. From the beginning, the brand defined itself against the mainstream. It’s managed to create an incredibly powerful identity cult in the still-nascent technology age—cementing an impervious wall between “normal” (read: cheap, utilitarian, PC), and “Apple” (agile, creative, personal). Everyone remembers Steve Jobs’ steady, commanding voice in the iconic 1997 commercial. “Here’s to the crazy ones—the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently…”

There are few ways that people more often strive to express their distinctiveness than by way of their fashion choices, and because Apple has always been about helping you be more you, their alliance with fashion makes sense.

Still, this is tricky terrain. Whatever functions an Apple product may have to aid you in your quest for individuality, the actual aesthetic of the products isn’t one of them. Their products are beautiful and pleasing to look at, but they all look the same. Given the ubiquity of cell phones, watches are now less about functionality and more about status or fashion statements. Fashion is entirely about aesthetic variety. We have to be convinced to give up individuality—or more likely, be convinced somehow that we’re not giving up individuality—for what we will get in return for all wearing the same tiny computers on our wrists. Sure, there will be varieties—really expensive gold ones, sporty waterproof ones, ones with interchangeable designer wristbands—but these accouterments are little more than glorified phone cases. 

In some ways there seems to be something of a difficult divide between fashion and technology. Fashion is largely cyclical, recyclable—always returning to us in unexpected and regenerated ways. Fashion elicits emotion; it plays with shock, cultural perception and more often than not nostalgia. But technology can’t afford to look backwards. It must press ever forward into the unfamiliar and unimagined.

And yet, upon closer inspection, the end goals of fashion and technology may be more closely aligned than we would initially suppose. The objectives of both fashion and technology are to offer you an experience—a lifestyle, a look, a fantasy version of yourself—that allows you to interact with the world enjoyably in your most becoming light. Whether you’re able to communicate more effectively using your phone or computer, or monitor your heartbeat with a watch, or feel more powerful walking into a room in your favorite outfit, the ultimate end goal is intangible. It’s just to help you be whoever you want to be.