October 15, 2011 12:07 am

Steve Jobs: fashion inspiration

Without the Apple co-founder, would it have occurred to anyone that technology could be an aspirational accessory?

I arrived home from the Paris fashion shows last week to hear the news that Steve Jobs had died. Strangely, in all the thousands of pages devoted to Jobs since then – including a 25-slide pictorial ode to Jobs’ turtlenecks on the Huffington Post – there has been surprisingly little attention paid to his influence on fashion. Design, yes; industrial design, you betcha. But fashion, no.

By “fashion”, I am not talking about men’s wear and how Jobs’ penchant for turtlenecks and jeans changed the Silicon Valley dress code. He understood that if you wore the same thing every time you appeared in public you became both instantly identifiable and the owner of a look. This idea, which means no one else can wear the same clothes without referencing you, owes much to fashion figures such as Coco Chanel and Anna Wintour.

And I am not talking about his influence on retail, though clearly all that stuff about store “experience” the fashion industry loves to spout has its roots on some level in the Apple stores, which are hang-out amusement parks as much as tech emporiums. Indeed, Eight Inc, the company that designed the original Apple stores, recently designed the new Madison Avenue flagship of the luxury watch retailer Tourneau.

No, by “fashion” I mean the industry at large. It owes an entire product category – and possibly more, possibly the whole concept of brand extension – to Jobs. Without him, would it have ever occurred to anyone that technology could be an aspirational accessory that would itself spawn more aspirational accessories that could be changed season to season, niche collection to niche collection, ad infinitum?

Put another way: would the attendees at L’Wren Scott’s spring/summer show during New York fashion week have arrived to find Hewlett-Packard mini laptops open at their seats, designed by Scott for the technology brand, or would Smythson have created a mock-croc patent Kindle cover in emerald green, or Valextra made an iPad case, or Vivienne Tam a special, limited edition version of the Square, Jack Dorsey’s nifty pay-as-you-go device (Dorsey, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the founder of Twitter)? Would Liberty have lent its floral prints to a tablet’s frame or Pierre Cardin announced he was making his own laptop?

It’s possible but I doubt it. After all, until Jobs and the iEverything came along, computers and their ilk were purely functional products: clunky pieces of technology whose value lay in their ability to perform, not to telegraph a personal value system. It’s hard to remember now but back in the days BJ (Before Jobs), conventional wisdom had it their value lay in what was inside (their circuit board), not what was outside (generally uninspiring grey plastic), and certainly not in the seamless way the two went together: the jacket and tie, the sweater and skirt.

As a result, to the fashion world they weren’t that different from an air conditioner or a can of peas. They weren’t part of the vaunted “dream”; they were part of the consumer goods world: stuff you bought because you had to, not because you wanted to and, therefore, stuff that you only replaced when necessary. None of which has anything to do with fashion.

. . .

But just as Jobs made consumers see technology differently – as a friendly, fun thing to interact with that could also look nice while sitting out on public view, hence identifying its owner as a hip individual who cared about style – he made the fashion world see it differently: not just in terms of desirability but in terms of how it could be used to fashion’s own ends. He made them understand that they had something to bring to the table, because he used their language.

Jobs effectively co-opted the rules of fashion and applied them to product design, insisting on clean lines and tactile attraction for his offerings, and updating them with a seasonal slant, not to mention a trend-driven vernacular – the next generation of whatever was always sold as being thinner, sleeker, brighter; the newest model, the prettiest computer in the room – thus allowing fashion to look at what he was doing and co-opt it in return. If he could use a style stratagem to transform technology, why couldn’t style use technology to extend its own influence on the world?

In this way Jobs’ famed “reality distortion field” distorted not just Apple but fashion’s relationship with all technology. It’s hard to think of a style brand now that doesn’t include phone/ tablet/computer cases as a core part of its accessories collections, along with keychains, wallets and handbags. You dress up your technology the way you dress up yourself, depending on emotion and what you are doing every day. A new iPad holder or phone case is a holiday gift item, just like a new pair of shoes or a nice woolly scarf. That transformation didn’t happen because consumers suddenly woke up and demanded it but because fashion realised it could make them want it.

Follow this to its natural conclusion and it’s possible to posit such realisation as the first step down the slippery slope that has led to so many other fashion collaborations and brand extensions: this understanding, which began small but has grown exponentially larger, that style has a part to play in every industry. Hotels, restaurants, condominiums, yachts – fashion is now claiming part ownership of all, eroding the boundaries between disciplines. Like Joshua at the battle of Jericho, Jobs loosed the first brick and the walls came a-tumblin’ down.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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