London - The dance between technology and fashion has always been a rather ungainly one, characterised by awkward stumbling, accidental toe-treading and unexpected knees in the groin. Neither world is really certain what it's supposed to be doing with the other. Products deemed to combine style with cutting-edge credibility tend to leave the public cold, whether that's a celebrity-endorsed gizmo (will.i.am's iPhone accessories, Polaroid camera glasses sported by Lady Gaga) or solutions to problems that don't exist (Bluetooth glove-phones, rechargeable handbag chargers).
But as technology shrinks, form and style start to become much more important.
In the old days, technology companies could chuck components in a black rectangular box, slap on a product code and launch it. Today you can get a 32-bit processor, flash memory, RAM and a clock in a chip less than two millimetres square; this has driven a mobile revolution that's spreading from handheld devices to wearables. And wearables present technology companies with a problem, because gadgets that we're happy to have sitting in our bags or on our shelves aren't necessarily ones we'd have on our wrist, round our neck or on our face. Suddenly, technology finds itself experiencing a fashion crisis.
“You welcome gimmicks from your phone,” says Carrie Tyler, editor of online fashion glossy Never Underdressed, “but you don't necessarily want gimmicks from your watch or your glasses. You just want them to look attractive and work.”
The fanfare heralding the arrival of wearable technology into the marketplace has been muted by this evident truth. There's little point in making wearables that people don't find alluring enough to wear, and while technology companies tie themselves up in knots over the functionality of, say, a smartwatch (Track your sleeping patterns? Take pictures? Monitor heart rate? Tell the time?) the fact is that we require very little from a watch. For most people, aesthetic appeal is more important. That's why a team of 100 designers is rumoured to be working on Apple's much-anticipated “iWatch”: while the mass adoption of wearable technology is primarily a social battle, it's one that can be won a whole lot quicker if the product looks cool and feels desirable.
Small wonder, then, that technology companies are beginning to court figures from the fashion world like desperate singletons at a speed-dating event. The departure of Burberry's Angela Ahrendts for a job at Apple comes only a few weeks after Yves St Laurent's Paul Deneve made the same move.
Google, still engaged in a long-term pre-launch battle for public acceptance for Google Glass, scored a coup when Diane von Furstenberg's models wore the futuristic spectacles at last autumn's New York Fashion Week. Samsung sent Galaxy Gears watches up the catwalk in Milan with Moschino; Kenzo designed covers for Google's Nexus 7 tablet at Paris Fashion Week, while those on the front row at Roksanda Ilincic's recent show in London were slipped a free pair of stylish Sennheiser Momentum headphones. With the attitudes of taste-makers so important in the often sniffy world of fashion, you can hardly blame those technology companies who suddenly find themselves plunged into the luxury accessories market for attempting such overt seduction.
But what do the fashion companies get out of this liaison? Does any kudos flow the other way? “The fashion and beauty worlds were very slow to the digital party,” says Tyler. “Until a couple of years ago there were barely any decent e-commerce websites, and luxury brands were in denial about what technology could do for them - mainly because they were steeped in heritage. But that's changing.
“You may not be able to buy Prada online, but they now embrace digital with all their wonderful videos and associations with the art world.”
That developing link with technology was highlighted at Dressed To Code, a “fashion hackathon” hosted by Glamour magazine last month at New York Fashion Week, where coders (split 50/50 between men and women) convened to merge the worlds of technology and fashion through the development of mobile apps. It's hardly a marriage made in heaven, but perhaps the geek and the chic are finally getting it together.
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One of the biggest transfers between the fashion and tech worlds came this summer when Apple hired Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) chief executive Paul Deneve as a vice-president. Mr Deneve, a 52-year-old Belgian, is a marketing and brand-image expert and is thought to have been picked to help to develop Apple's slated iWatch project, which some analysts see as the firm's next game-changer.
Mr Deneve's role is to ensure any new product has design appeal and can compete for wrist-space with established luxury brands such as Rolex. He also had a great track record at YSL, where revenues nearly doubled under his tenure - and it helped that he had served as a sales and marketing manager at Apple Europe from 1990 to 1997.
The current chairman and chief executive of J Crew, one of Michelle Obama's favourite fashion labels, also sits on Apple's board. Millard Drexler was formerly the chief executive of Gap, turning the company into a global powerhouse in the 1990s before being kicked out in 2002 as sales began to slide. He was added to Apple's board by Steve Jobs in 1999 to improve the company's retail operation. Mr Drexler repositioned J Crew as an upmarket brand, and revenues have more than tripled since 2003.
The fashion house Burberry has collaborated with Apple in the past. In September, Burberry used iPhone 5Ss to capture images and video of its spring/summer show. Christopher Bailey, Burberry's chief creative officer and Angela Ahrendts's replacement, is said to be friends with Sir Jonathan Ive (below), Apple's senior vice-president of design.
Elsewhere designer Diane von Furstenberg sent models down the catwalk at last year's New York Fashion Week wearing Google Glasses (and even took to the runway herself with Google co-founder Sergey Brin), while Yahoo!'s chief executive office, Marissa Mayer, is a fashion fan who has appeared in Vogue magazine.
The sportswear giant Nike also has links with the tech world. Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, sits on its board, and recently hired Jay Blahnik, an adviser on Nike's FuelBand project (a wristband that tracks and logs the wearer's activity). Also now at Apple is Ben Shaffer, the director of Nike's “Innovation Kitchen”, which develops new products such as the FuelBand and new running shoes. - The Independent