Plenty of people ask if wearable tech is ever going to be truly wearable. Sometimes that question is about practicalities – will it be too heavy, too big, or too bulky? But more often, it’s about the aesthetics of the product – will people genuinely want to wear it? Lovers of all things retro will remember the ’80s boom in calculator watches, which were rather unwieldy and weren’t always the most attractive of items. The new Apple watch is technologically nifty but – as some have already pointed out – looks a bit like a mini iPhone with a strap attached. Has wearable tech progressed since the days of strap-on calculator wrist-watches, or are we doomed to a future where our wearable tech looks like a prop from Star Trek?
To provide perspective on the merging of fashion and technology, I have enlisted Nicole Desir, Executive Director of our consulting division, Blueprint – Powered by Beanstalk, to answer some questions on the subject.
Michael Stone: What is your opinion on the new Apple watch – would you wear it? Does the look fit in with the Apple brand overall?
Nicole Desir: Apple has always branded itself as a company whose products are very clearly design-inspired. The sleek, streamlined look that consumers associate with Apple products should be easily transferrable to the fashion world. Apple has also made some strategic hires from Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry, which suggests an understanding that fashion is not purely about aesthetics, but about the mindset of the fashion industry, which runs to its own calendar and product cycles.
The opportunities for personalizing the Apple watch are interesting: providing buyers with the choice of seven different straps and two sizes, not to mention the endless possibilities of personalized watch face visuals. It’s more customization than you’d usually be offered with a traditional mid to high-end watch, and far more than Apple usually offers with its other products. The three distinctive editions of the device mirror traditional fashion collections aimed at different demographic groups. They have clearly made an attempt to reach a wide variety of consumers, and I think it’s paid off. Would I wear it? Yes, I’d try it out – it might not be the same kind of wrist candy you’d get with a Rolex, but it’s still about making a statement, while being technologically connected.
MS: Do you think classic watch brands (from luxury brands like Rolex to mass brands like Timex) have anything to fear from Apple?
ND: So far, traditional watchmakers, particularly the Swiss contingent, have been unimpressed with the Apple watch. A number of luxury watchmakers, including LVMH’s Jean-Claude Biver, have been particularly vocal in their questioning of the product’s usefulness and appearance. Their argument is that a watch is a luxury heirloom that can be passed down through generations. This directly contradicts the Apple watch, which, by nature of its technology, will become outdated within a few years (or, perhaps, less than a year!). And given that there is a significant price jump between smartwatches and their classic equivalents (an Apple watch is priced at $349, while Swiss watches can cost upwards of $250,000), on a whole, the two industries will not be competing for the same market.
However, mass brands have begun to develop their own smartwatches to counter Apple: Swatch is developing its own smartwatch for release next summer, and Fossil is collaborating with Intel to develop a co-branded smartwatch. Whether going at it independently or through partnerships with tech brands, mass watchmakers need to decide if their product is going to woo customers with superior technology, or offer more fashion appeal. Ideally, a smartwatch combines both factors in equal measure. But I can see the market splitting into two groups: the function-poor but aesthetically stylish; and the technologically brilliant with zero fashion appeal. Whichever path they choose, mass-market watch brands will have to work hard to stay relevant.
MS: What’s a healthy and productive way for fashion and technology to intertwine? Can they learn anything from each other?
ND: There is no doubt the technology industry has invested heavily in wearables, and outwardly it could appear tech companies are primarily the ones showcasing their devices on the mass market – after all, they bring the “tech” knowledge to “wearable tech.” But given that the overwhelming feedback surrounding the wearable technology trend seems to be that the aesthetics of these products must come first, the fashion industry has a lot to teach tech brands.
An example of this is Rebecca Minkoff’s gold studded bracelet, which uses Bluetooth technology to alert its owner to any calls and texts, and debuted at New York Fashion Week. The bracelet’s technology is discreet and the bracelet doesn’t look out of place next to pieces from her non-tech collections. I think this approach is really interesting because the tech component is fairly subtle – the branding is about Minkoff’s aesthetic, not the technology. It’s style over function.
Similarly, the HP watch is a great example of fashion and functionality coming together. The HP watch looks more like a traditional watch than a tech gadget, but will have significantly more capabilities than the typical timepiece – it will display text messages and push calendar reminders, as well as provide information about weather and sports. It was developed in partnership with designer Michael Bastian, and his influence shows: it resembles a traditional watch, so it is more in tune with a consumer’s notion of a fashion accessory but still has all the functionality of a smartwatch. Apple clearly can position itself in the “design” category, but other tech companies should look long and hard at the HP collaboration model.
A bigger point here is whether technology will always be limited by functionality – for example, if everyone in a room lined their cell phones up on a table, the designs would all look pretty similar, because ultimately a cell phone’s design is limited by a need to be practical. But if you imagine an Alexander McQueen dress next to an Issey Miyake dress, it’s two completely different and distinct looks – and those looks aren’t necessarily about practicality! The fashion industry could teach the tech sector a lot about having fun.
MS: Where’s the smart money in wearable tech – if you were an investor, what would you be looking for right now?
ND: Healthcare is a big one to watch in relation to wearable technology. We are already so health conscious – following fad diets, workout trends, and monitoring our calorie intake and fitness activities at every opportunity – that the natural next step is to use technology to develop personalized healthcare and enhance patient engagement. One example is the recent deal between Google and Novartis to develop a smart contact lens that monitors the level of glucose in the wearer’s tears to help tackle diabetes.
However, investment isn’t just about following the right trend or sector, but also taking into account a company’s business model. For private equity firms, it’s often not about who has the best idea, but rather who has the best business model. So I’d look very carefully at a brand’s business model and whether that model is robust enough to fight off competition in its own sector, but also versatile enough to expand into other sectors or markets too, because that’s one surefire way of building a brand’s growth.