Pity the poor fashion editor. Life is so confusing these days. Half the time I am wading through Christmas presents and party dress copy, and the other half I am sitting in designer showrooms, looking at pre-autumn collections full of schoolboy stripes and nipped-in knits (Joseph Altuzarra); easy separates in mixed materials – hand-painted snakeskin and cashmere and leather and silk – (Reed Krakoff); and cosy, nightie-like cashmere dresses and coats (Calvin Klein). It requires an ability to time travel, at least mentally, that would put Dr Who to shame; one moment you’re thinking December; the next, May. Which perhaps explains why, amid all this, I have wearables on the mind. Not clothes, but technology that functions as clothes.
It began with smartwatches. After all, they resemble nothing so much as interstellar communication devices. Every time I see one, I imagine James T Kirk cocking his arm to whisper into his wrist, “Beam me up, Scottie.” Yet as I sit there on the sidelines of various pre-collection shows, it’s increasingly obvious that, no matter how cool the potential of the device, what they haven’t got is what is on display on runways. Which is, to be blunt about it, style.
From the Galaxy Gear to Google Glass (what is it with Gs?), wearables still feel like a gimmick, not a garment. Even when Google Glass was featured in Vogue, it was used more as a prop to scream sci-fi future than as an accessory readers would want to rush out and buy.
And yet it seems to me this has such an obvious solution, I don’t really understand why no one has tried it: tech companies should hire designers. Not industrial designers, fashion designers. Why not?
Fashion has clearly figured out that it’s important to be wired, and that to be wired it needs to hire experts, and it has gone out and got its own tech gurus. In turn, tech has begun to borrow liberally from fashion strategy, adding colour to its products or introducing seasonal updates, and it is beginning to borrow personnel too. Apple made a lot of news recently by poaching Paul Deneve (former YSL chief executive) to work on unspecified “special projects” and hiring Angela Ahrendts from Burberry to be in charge of retail. Still, tech has generally stayed away from the creative side.
But if you want to make clothes, and accessories to clothes, then you need someone who understands clothes. And, according to Leander Kahney, the author of the newish unauthorised biography Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, as well as the digital industry blog AllThingsD, clothing that computes is the Next Big Thing.
Designers think this too: earlier this year I was talking to Michael Kors about the future of fashion and he said: “It’s technology. There are too many chargers and devices; why shouldn’t we be trying to create products with chargers built in? It’s going to happen. And we have to do something about fabric. Weather has gone crazy, so we need fabric that can morph from hot to cold and back; that transcends seasons.”
Anyone else feel like a potentially really huge collaboration just hit them on the head?
Arguably Apple has a slight leg-up in this area, not just because founder Steve Jobs was obsessed with design and transformed our expectations of technology, but because Apple design guru Jony Ive also happens to be very good friends with that other famous industrial designer Marc Newson – together they just masterminded an enormous Sotheby’s auction in aid of HIV charity Project (RED). Newson has extended his brand into clothing (via a collaboration with G-Star) and also happens to be married to stylist Charlotte Stockdale, who works with Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi and was recently named fashion director of Garage magazine. So, theoretically, Ive/Apple have access to a fashion brains trust of a sort.
That’s only one brand, however. Given the competition in the market, it seems that getting a fashion designer on board would be a boon to any tech company going after this sector: both a great internal coup, in terms of expertise, and an external one, in terms of marketing; it would put a face on a brand, another effective fashion industry technique, as it personalises otherwise inanimate objects, hence creating an emotional connection for consumers, who might relate to your designer more than, say, a logo.
Designers themselves are getting more interested in this space – I once asked Christopher Bailey, the digitally savvy Burberry chief creative officer, if he’d like to make a phone, and he said immediately, “Why not?” Given that he already makes watches, a watch that behaves a bit like a smartphone makes even more sense.
It might be a welcome option for a designer, especially a young one searching for an alternative source of income to fund their own collection, or a more mature one tired of running on the collection hamster wheel that is the fashion world.
For both sides, it just seems kind of … smart.
More columns at ft.com/friedman