The Apple Watch will be released April 24 and is being heralded as a major shift for the most profitable technology company of the modern era. As touchscreens move from our pockets to our wrists, it’s being said that Apple’s identity is moving from fashion-forward tech to tech-forward fashion. But Apple, however stealthily, has been a fashion brand for over a decade. Only recently has the company made obvious, aggressive moves into the fashion industry. Its high-profile hires have included Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry, to lead its retail and online stores, and Paul Deneve, former CEO and president of Saint Laurent, to lead “special projects” – presumably fashionable ones. Meanwhile, in the few interviews given by Apple’s famed lead designer Jonathan Ive, he has waxed poetic about his team’s admiration of luxury watches. A recent 16,000-word piece in the New Yorker noted that Ive had developed other Champagne tastes , too, but next to his chauffeured Bentley and private jet, a gold Rolex hardly seems ostentatious.
All of this has been a shrewd business play: while Apple has the best margins in the technology industry – their retail prices are about twice production costs – they can now reach for the stratospheric margins of the fashion industry, where companies don’t need to invest billions of dollars in microchip or materials science to make their next hit product. There’s just one snag: if Apple is now officially staking its position as a fashion company, the Apple Watch had better be fashionable. It may have made the cover of Vogue China and popped up at Paris Fashion Week, but Google Glass also appeared in the pages of Vogue and on the runways of international fashion weeks, until it flopped so hard that Google pulled the plug.
NOT ALL “FASHION” IS FASHIONABLE
The Apple Watch costs upwards of £13,000 for some of its 18k gold versions, yet includes a Mickey Mouse graphic as one of the default face designs, chubby fingers pointing jauntily to the hour and minute. It sits on your wrist timidly, with a lifeless dial reminiscent of a dead television set . It’s ironic that for all the time Apple spent on its new aluminium, steel and gold alloys, it couldn’t fix the watch’s lousy battery life – it manages only three hours of talk time (and requires two and a half hours to recharge). And in failing to make the technology efficient to the point of invisibility, it has made the object less fashionable. In fact, the Apple Watch isn’t even the company’s first foray into accessories. Since the release of the iPod in 2001, Apple has been marketing what we now call wearable technology. Remember the ads? Dancing silhouettes were frozen on neon backdrops, their white earbuds cutting through the frame, marking iPod listeners as a sort of pop-culture elite . I remember walking around my college campus in the cornfields of Iowa, noting my fellow earbud wearers, as if we were the first adopters of music or even electricity itself. But sleek white earbuds fell out of fashion and fat Beats headphones came in. When Apple bought Beats for $3 billion (£1.8 billion) in 2014, it was a tacit admission that it had lost touch with the very trend it had more or less founded a decade earlier. It hadn’t updated its product, so customers flocked to another brand that would take large sums of their money and turn them into walking billboards.
BIGGER THAN FASHION
Questionable design aside, the Apple Watch’s bigger hurdle may not be its appearance, but its poor user interface. What do you actually do with it? It has been billed as a sort of iPhone for your wrist, to save you reaching for your pocket now and again. Instead, you can squint at tiny text messages or the first few lines of an email, and browse a postage stampsized version of Instagram. Wearable technology’s greatest promise, however, isn’t the delivery of lightweight notifications, but unlocking new experiences between a person and the world around them. Thus far, Apple has given us a taste of this with Apple Pay, which is integrated into the Watch and allows users to pay for items at select stores by waving their hand rather than reaching for their credit card. But the real-life scenario isn’t a magical, hyper-connected world in which you can just walk into a store, grab something off the shelf and walk out, with your watch paying for it automatically. You still have to stand in line to pay. As with those text messages, the Apple Watch doesn’t save you a task – it merely moves it from your pocket to your wrist. Undoubtedly, there’s a market for today’s Apple Watch. It will sell millions of units through marketing force alone. But is it a jaw-dropping paradigm shift equivalent to the iPhone, the first smartphone you could actually use thanks to its ingenious touchscreen? Will it send every competitor back to the drawing board? Will Apple sell 100 million in two years, like it did with the iPad? No. When you strip away the gold, the Apple Watch experience is nearly identical to others released by competitors such as Android over the last year. Even the development of killer third-party apps – with only a small selection currently available for the Watch, as compared to the million-plus for the iPhone – can’t change that fact.
LOSING THE MIDAS TOUCH
But the real shame of the Apple Watch isn’t that Apple is trying to stake its first public claim on fashion with an indifferent product. It’s that Apple has abandoned the egalitarian nature of industrial design to do so. iPods and iPhones have never been cheap, but they have still been attainable for most of us – a best-level product that nearly everyone wanted and could afford. No celebrity, royal or dot-com millionaire desired, or owned, an iPhone that was better than the one bought by a teenage girl who still shared a plan with her parents. Under Apple’s powerful, unifying brand, the upper, middle and working classes, the hipster and the grandma, the star athlete and the couch potato were all the same market. Apple built the world’s best something, and everybody could have it. It was the greatest possible triumph of industrial design: to duplicate a good idea unlimited times, for the whole world to enjoy. Even companies who have accomplished similar feats have rarely achieved this extraordinary ratio of price to quality to usefulness to desire. Eames chairs were gorgeous and high-quality but expensive. Volkswagen Beetles were affordable and practical but utilitarian. And it’s hard to imagine either of these design icons on a 13-yearold’s Amazon wish list. As soon as its first watch was dipped in gold, Apple relinquished its Midas touch. The universal demographic of “global consumer” was forever split asunder. A £299 aluminium and rubber Apple Watch wearer will be immediately distinguishable from an £899 stainless-steel Apple Watch wearer and a £13,500 gold Apple Watch wearer. No one will ever own an Apple Watch; they will simply own a reflection of their own socioeconomic status.
Text by Mark Wilson