Could wearables ever be high fashion?


At one point, the fashion world had high hopes for wearable tech. In 2015, Louis Vuitton partnered with Google and Qualcomm, while a keynote at CES from Intel's chief executive focused on new technology for wearables, and the Apple Watch launched just in time for fashion week (after the former Yves Saint Laurent chief executive and former Burberry CEO joined the team).

But since then, these two executives from the fashion world have quietly slipped away; Intel has closed down its wearable tech division; Google Glass, one of the highest-profile wearables to ever launch, was discontinued; and although the market for Apple watches has grown, demand has focused on the device's functionality rather than aesthetics. Have the hopes for wearables as fashion items been dashed?

One issue hampering wearables is their uninspiring and functional design, when placed alongside non-tech equivalents such as analogue watches.

"The stuff that sticks is when the innovation and the aesthetics move together at the same time, and the interaction starts to come from the concept level," says Wendy Yothers, a silversmith who works for Tiffany & Co. and Kirk Stieff & Co., and a professor at the New York based Fashion Institute of Technology. "The worst way to design anything is from the reverse."

It could be the functionality-first approach of wearable design that makes them less desirable as fashion items. Apple was forced to discontinue its 18 Karat gold Apple Watch Edition line that was presented as a statement piece, with a price tag of between $10,000-$17,000.

The same problem plagued Google Glass whose adopters were swiftly denounced as 'glassholes'.

"There was a marketing problem; early users were not at all fashion or style influencers, and there was definitely a backlash," Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at the fashion tech lab told The Business of Fashion.

It may also be that while consumer tech such as phones can clearly act as a signifier of style, we simply hold wearable tech to different aesthetic standards, namely, the standard of clothing and jewellery.

Another issue could be that the technology offered by today's wearables just isn't that exciting. It's been demonstrated that people quickly tire of simple metrics such as step counters or sleep trackers. Data reveals that about a third of people abandon their fitness trackers after just six months.

However, an increasing number of fashion brands are launching hybrid watches that have the appearance of an analogue watch but incorporate some digital functionalities. For example, all new Michael Kors watches have an inbuilt fitness tracker. And despite Google Glass' high-profile failure, the company says it is still developing commercial eyewear.

Can we expect to see more fashion-geared wearables emerge in the coming years as the tech is improved? What's sure is that with the right marketing push, people can be nudged to buy almost anything.

"You're not going to know until you see it, and that's going to create the demand," says Yothers. "Did anybody know they needed a Beanie Baby until they saw a Beanie Baby? I don't think so."

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