Contrarian views on the role of fashion in wearables

Don’t judge me. I’m one of the least fashionable people you’ll meet. (Though I do like Hamilton watches.) And I’m really just reporting here.

Many discussions about wearable devices – especially whether they’ll ever go mainstream – speculate on the importance of fashion, and the fashion industry, to the category. It is generally assumed that unless wearables can be stylish, they’ll be doomed to niche status. That line of reasoning often leads to tech handicappers giving Apple the edge over other device and platform suppliers.

But last week at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference, several smart designers offered decidedly contrary views to that conventional wisdom.

The case against fashion, and the fashion industry

At a conference kickoff event the night before, Gigaom founder Om Malik staged an interview with Gadi Amit, the founder of NewDealDesign, and a veteran contributor to stylish tech products like Fitbit, the Lytro Camera, and Google’s Project Ara modular phone. Amit pointed out that fashion is ephemeral and all about projecting personality, not to mention that it’s generally changed every day. He said that since a primary function for wearables will be health-monitoring, and thus everyday-indispensible, that would run counter to fashion industry practice.

His thoughts were later echoed by fuseproject CEO Yves Behar, who has worked on tech products like Jawbone and August smart locks, as well as design and fashion brands Herman Miller, Prada, and Puma. Behar said that fashion must find a way to be less disposable and technology to be more emotional. Currently, that’s a huge gap with some early signs of convergence.

Adobe VP of products Jeff Veen called fashion “the fastest-moving expression of meaningful superficialities.” Just savor that quote for a bit.

The case against Apple

Apple’s blockbuster wearable device – I’m discounting the clip-on iPod – has yet to ship, but the Apple Watch naturally dominates conversation. In a Gigaom Research Flash Survey immediately after its announcement, 64 percent of Gigaom readers said it “will revolutionize the category” while only 8 percent thought it would be a flop.

Om tried to make Amit favor design-centered Apple over data-driven Google, but Amit wouldn’t bite, saying he thought Apple had become risk-averse on design. Likewise, Behar didn’t think much of the Apple Watch design; he has said it lacked excitement. Behar noted that, now that Apple is so huge and highly valued, it has to do what’s right rather than what’s exciting. It has to introduce products that drive growth and establish ecosystems. To Behar, “exciting” meant the chance to put lots of technology on the body, particularly to create and monitor health and lifestyle data on a 24-hour basis. A smartphone, he said, was something else.

About a year ago at a Gigaom conference, we held a Mapping Session on what it would take to make wearables mainstream. Session participants reckoned that the most important factor in accelerating wearable adoption would be figuring out whether they should be general-purpose computing and communication devices – like a smartphone – or special-purpose devices. That issue overshadowed the fashion vs. utility debate, they thought. Is Apple’s first bet off the mark?

The case against screens

Nest founder Tony Fadell – who previously ran Apple’s iPod business and before that, smartphone precursor General Magic – said it’s a mistake to compare a fitness band with an information-rich display. (Amit offered a similar opinion.) Fadell figured we’re at the inflection point where the technology is small enough to experiment, and figure out what the real utility of wearables will be.

Behar said that the screen seems to be an obsession for smartwatches. He said we should question that. Behar was one of many designers at Roadmap who characterized design as editing. He advised removing the unnecessary parts of an experience. Interpret signals, predict intent, give screen-free feedback, he suggested.

Okay, it’s not as if Apple has stopped innovating on user interface. While the Apple fans that took our Flash Survey voted the overall look of the Apple Watch as the critical “physical” feature that would be the reason they’d buy it, over half rated its haptic notification system as “important.” And the fashion industry has been known to exhibit surprising resiliency. After all, it has managed to embrace IP mash-ups – not to say intellectual property theft – far better and more profitably than has the music industry. But let’s agree that fundamental assumptions about smartwatches and other wearable devices need close examination.