Apple's YSL hire: One size fits all?

“Fashions fade, style is eternal.” -- Yves Saint-Laurent

Does the phrase "connected device" excite you? Do notions of wearable computing warm you up? Do your lips wet with anticipation at the prospect of IPv6 or HEVC? Then you are a technologist. Meanwhile, in the wider world of the mass market, people's arousal response is stimulated by more primitive reactions to beauty, utility and trend. Apple [AAPL] hire of Yves St Laurent CEO, Paul Deneve suggest it's planning to turn the latter market on.

Loving spoonful

Just like the most ardent lover, Apple has a tendency to woo the masses. The iPod became the world's most popular gadget; the iPhone stood on the shoulders of that success and itself fostered an environment that begat the iPad. These success stories may have spawned a series of successful imitators, but few offer the same kind of visceral sex appeal. Few, if any, truly manage to capture and reflect the trend.

Fashion is trend. Fashion is fickle. Fashion is a conundrum, both transient and permanent. At best it could be considered a creative articulation of individual identity within the morass of the mass, a designer-driven expression through which any individual with the right attitude (and the right credit) can attempt to stand out from the crowd.

It's all in hip-hop culture, really, where poor boys and girls from the projects can define their own identity by slavish affection for designer labels. Merely because the society they find themselves in rejects them for their area code doesn't mean they need to feel completely locked out of participation and self respect within the culture they find themselves accidentally born into. They have Gucci, they have Reebok, Nike, Stall & Dean, even Yve St Laurent.


Fashion is personal expression. Think about this and it makes perfect sense for Apple to bring in talent from the world of fashion; it is, after all, clearly positioning itself as THE premium technology and design brand.

So what will the former fashion chief (who also worked at Apple for a period in the '90's) be doing at the company? In a statement the company tells us: "We’re thrilled to welcome Paul Deneve to Apple. He’ll be working on special projects as a vice president reporting directly to Tim Cook.”

This is interesting; particularly in light of Apple's continued attempts to perfect a device we call "iWatch". The company has been working on this for some time, but I believe we should widen our expectation of the thing: it isn't just about one single product, the effort most likely also involves creating the technological, software-based ecosystem from which to breed a future family of mass market connected devices.

These need to combine advanced technology and design. These devices need to be items that in some way reflect the zeitgeist. They need to straddle a point at which the arts meets technology meets mass market fashion.

We are devo

Look, no one in the real world wants to walk around their yard wearing some over-obvious technology gadget -- looking like an obvious geek just isn't cool, cool geeks are understated.

The only people you'll see wearing Google Glass in the toughest urban areas will be the smug middle classes too full of their own sense of entitlement to realize the target they have become, and gangsters ready to fight if anyone tries to take those things from them.

Google Glass might be a technologist's wet dream, but is far too indiscreet for the mass market. These things need to be cool -- and probably not designed by technologists.

"It's ripe for us all getting excited about," said Apple chief executive Tim Cook on the wearable computing segment. "I think that there will be tons of companies playing in this. I think wearables is incredibly interesting, it could be a profound area."

Apple's focus on the iWatch tells us it is looking to develop new families of device which match some or all of the following considerations:

  • Discreet
  • Small
  • Connected
  • Ubiquitous

Where Google Glass is a statement, iWatch will be an understatement. Where Google Glass will be immediately noticeable, the iWatch will be ubiquitous, but discreet. You'll be able to wear an iWatch anywhere, while the fate of Google Glass will be that of being left behind in the bar and sat on in the car.

The big picture

Apple's move to hire fashion house talent suggests a wider plan. I'm speculating it seeks to broaden its franchise for future connected devices. These won't be called "connected devices", of course, because it's not the technologists Apple is pursuing. These things must match trend. Fashion is trend.

There's plenty of scope in this concept, for example:

  • Jewelry (such as rings) equipped with voice call features.
  • Clothing that integrates a washable and robust mobile device, equipped with things like heart sensors and personal safety alarms.
  • Belts that might incorporate antenna, processor and graphics capability designed to provide the system to drive smaller ancillary devices.
  • Decorative and attractive earrings -- good to wear these may also include tiny microphones and speakers. That small silver stud earring may be all the headphones you need.

You get the idea -- basically anything you wear might benefit from the addition of a little connected intelligence. What's important is that you can throw all the technology you like into such solutions but no one will use them if they aren't good to wear: well-designed, comfortable and cool. Fashion statements are only effective if they are fashionable, after all. Anything else is made of fail.

What does this mean? Among other things it implies we'll see some Apple products marching down the catwalks at fashion shows. It also suggests that in future you might pop into your local Apple retail store to explore what's available in the apparel section. Those retail stores also mean Apple is in a unique position to bring its future product families before millions of people each day.

The eventual goal within these future adventures in wearable computing won't simply be fashion, of course: Apple will seek to define a style, to set the bar from which all other wearable technologies will draw. Like Levi 501's are the classic style statement for jeans from which most others are descended, Apple will seek to ensure its systems are the quintessence of cool. And will likely put them into the world at a price to match.

Top tier

While other wearable solutions will be available, Apple will attempt to characterize these as cheap, utilitarian and second rate in contrast to its articulate expressions of cool.

Will it succeed? That's not something I can predict, but I do believe it is in a pretty good position to try, leveraging its iDevice range, OS advantages, design leadership and customer satisfaction ratings alongside its high street retail presence and the value of its brand in the attempt.

Will we see all of this happen in the next 12-months? Of course not, this scenario will take years to play out. However, when you do look at the iWatch once it does appear, don't just look at the product, but look at its fundamental design paradigms, because these are the key foundations to the company's future adventures in the wearable computing space.

Style is eternal.

Also read: 5 wearable ideas Apple could borrow from sci-fi

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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