Angela ahrendts | photo credit: blog.fuzzfind.com

Ahrendts to Apple: Notes on Fashion and Technology 

Or, why a great product is like a well-tailored suit.

On October 14th, Apple announced that Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, will be joining the company as senior vice president of retail and online stores. Back in July, Apple hired Paul Deneve, former CEO of Yves-Saint Laurent, to lead special projects. I couldn’t help but take a few minutes to reflect on what these two moves mean and our evolving relationship with technology products. Consider the following musings me thinking out (very) loud.

“So we don’t think of a product as just a product. We think about the environment it’s going to sit in, the way we’ll communicate with it, the ways somebody might interact with it.” Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design said this. Of course he did. It sounds so Ive-ish. He was talking about the way Apple sculpts more than products, how the designing of a new device is actually the crafting of a personal experience for whoever will use it. That type of thinking couldn’t be more Apple. Except that Ive didn’t actually say that. In fact, it was Christopher Bailey, the Chief Creative Officer of Burberry, the British luxury retailer, who just lost CEO Angela Ahrendts to Apple, where she will lead retail and online stores. This is the second CEO of a fashion house that Apple has poached within the last three months. Seriously—there’s something going on here.

I say we start recognizing the many once cloudy, but now sharply in focus parallels between how we relate to our clothing and our technology and all of the other material things we buy. Certainly, I think Gary Vaynerchuk was onto something recently, when he wrote “If people fail to understand that technology is now functioning the same way as fashion and music, they are missing the boat.” I’d argue that he was more reminding us than enlightening us, however. The point he was making in his piece was that value is subjective. This is nothing new. Fashion has always been about taste. Good taste, to be sure. But before the remarkably elegant iPhone—“Designed by Apple in California”—you didn’t need to have good taste to make phones. You needed superior technical skills. Consumers were more concerned with what their technology did rather than how it looked. But now we care about the whole of our technology. We want to know what it stands for. “People want the soul in things,” Bailey has said. (You might think he should be the one headed for Cupertino). “They want to understand the whys and the whats and the values that surround it.” In other words, we’re concerned with what it means to own a certain device, because we’ve come to a point where our gadgets have leapt to the same realm as art in our high culture.

I remember when the BlackBerry Pearl smartphone was released in 2006, just a year before Apple announced iPhone. It was thin and slick, and because I didn’t know anyone who owned a Pearl, I purchased the new device. It was my first BlackBerry, and I pretended to love it, but I was immediately dissatisfied with it. It worked fine. I loved receiving emails on it. The keyboard was satisfactory. But it looked nothing like previous BlackBerry models so no one could immediately tell what it was. I found this totally upsetting. I thought, What good is this if no one knows that it’s a BlackBerry?

It is our natural human tendency to show off—even if it is for naught. Recently, Jenna Wortham at the New York Times recounted an interaction with a barista who wished to purchase a new, colourful iPhone 5c, explaining, “I want people to know that this is a new phone.” In the piece which talks about the allure of purchasing new products, Wortham concluded with this: “Apple isn’t just about ownership—it’s about shownership, and inspiring desire and jealousy in those around you that you’ve got the latest device.” And while she is one-hundred percent right in her observation of how many consumers think about their purchases, it must be considered that the concurrent idea that people care at all about the kind of phone, scarf, glasses, shoes or sweater you own is bullshit. And deep down, I think we all as individuals know this. Nobody cares what you have. But Apple has done something—something impossible to replicate—to make people still care deeply about showing off their products. They have ingrained into us the notion that Apple products are perfect. We think Apple products are great. But we mostly think they are great because they are made by Apple.

It is true that in terms of talent, Apple’s designers are second to none. With Apple, you the consumer can have all the apps in the world. Apple products “just work,” as Steve Jobs used to say. But it’s not about what their devices do; it’s about how they make us feel. A well-made piece of technology, an iPhone, if you will, is like a well-tailored suit. You feel like it was made precisely for you—because it kind of was. And after you know what that feels like, you can’t imagine anything different.