LONDON, United Kingdom — Apple is clearly making efforts to engage with the fashion world. Immediately following Monday's special event in San Francisco, the company revealed to BoF that its forthcoming Apple Watch will be sold at custom-designed shop-in-shops at luxury department stores Selfridges, Galeries Lafayette and Isetan, as well as at speciality retailers Dover Street Market (London and Tokyo), Colette (Paris), The Corner (Berlin), 10 Corso Como (Milan) and Maxfield (Los Angeles).
But the design of Apple’s Watch needs work.
Set to ship in April, the device will surely generate significant buzz and good upfront sales. But in order to sell at the volumes required to satisfy investors, the Apple Watch will have to work as a fashion accessory as well as a tech device.
Consumers don’t expect all that much from the aesthetics of their technology devices, allowing a design-focused company like Apple to eclipse competitors with clean and elegant products like the iPhone and iPad. But with the debut of the Apple Watch, a device worn on the body, the company is venturing into the fashion and accessories market. And fashion is very different ballgame.
In fashion, consumers demand a dizzying range of aesthetic options, which they use to send complex signals about their personal style and the social tribes to which they belong. What’s more, they demand these options at a tempo that far exceeds the pace at which consumer electronics companies release new devices.
Apple understands this. Unlike its approach to the monolithic iPhone and iPad, which both come in a very small range of aesthetic options, the company has put aesthetic customisation at the core of Watch, offering consumers a choice of two different screen sizes (38mm and 42mm), sixteen different straps (made from rubber, leather and steel) and six different watch casings: stainless steel, space gray stainless steel, aluminum, space gray aluminum, gold and rose gold. (In advance of the launch, an unofficial website called Mix Your Watch has popped up, allowing people to explore all the possible combinations).
Is this enough? As currently conceived, Apple Watch offers a framework for personal expression that is far more constrictive than what consumers have come to expect in the wider fashion and accessories market.
The iPhone and iPad have been huge success stories, not only because of the superior design of Apple’s hardware, but because the company turned them into platforms, enabling an ecosystem of third-party software developers to generate an explosion of apps that run on the devices and significantly extend and enrich their capabilities, an approach Apple is set to replicate with Watch.
But for Watch to succeed as a stylistic product — as well as a tech device — Apple will need to enlist a similar ecosystem of fashion and accessories designers to develop a much wider range of aesthetic options for the product, turning Apple Watch into a legitimate platform for fashion as well as apps.
For products like the iPhone, third parties have fueled a thriving accessories market comprised of everything from protective cases to health-tracking wristbands to special camera lenses, many of which are sold at Apple Stores. But for the Apple Watch to really work as a stylistic proposition, the company will need to go one step further, giving third-party fashion and accessories designers access to the device’s core components, including the strap and the casing.
Will the company embrace third-party designs of core Apple Watch components with an official ‘Made for Watch’ programme, much like the company’s ‘Made for iPhone’ and ‘Made for iPad’ (MFi) programmes, which certify products that are specifically engineered to be compatible with other Apple devices? Will they be sold in Apple Stores? The success of Apple Watch depends on it.