Why Beats, Apple and other companies are marketing wearable devices as high-tech fashion accessories

Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP.Musician Pharrell Williams wears his Apple Watch Edition while posing for photographers during a photo call for the film "Dope." Williams is one of many actors, musicians and athletes who were seen wearing pre-release models of the device prior to its launch.

Technology and fashion are not as distant from each other as it might first seem. The threadup and threaddown of the weaving process corresponds to the 0 and 1 binary logic of computer circuitry.

In February, Chinese researchers released the results of a poll asking consumers what luxury brand was the most attractive to the country's upper-class gift givers.

Both male and female respondents agreed on the front- runner, which beat out emblematic fashion houses such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel. The winner - and by a healthy margin - wasn't Prada or Giorgio Armani. It wasn't Versace.

It was Apple.

In recent years, the perception of high fashion and high technology as mutually exclusive spheres has eroded in the face of the growing mainstream popularity of fitness trackers, smart watches and other wearable devices. Not only can these products gain functionality when wirelessly paired to smartphones which have become nearly ubiquitous, they also happen to be worn in the same places typically occupied by traditional, analog fashion accessories.

According to an analysis released in June by researchers at MarketsandMarkets.com, the wearable technology industry is forecast to expand tremendously in the next several years and could be worth more than $34 billion by 2020.

These devices now are vying with traditional fashion companies for customers' attention, and Apple and other technology firms are taking their design cues from luxury brands to create wearable tech they hope consumers similarly will associate with style and desirability.

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The desire to integrate smart functionality isn’t limited to the consumer-friendly mainstream. The splendidly rich are getting their own brand of ultra-luxurious tech as well.In January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, luxury crystal jewelry maker Swarovski and elegant fitness tracker manufacturer Misfit announced the Shine, a collection of wireless activity and sleep-monitoring sensors that come in the form of solar-powered, crystal-bedecked pendants and bracelets.And compared to the handmade phones produced by boutique manufacturers Vertu and Savelli, paying $950 for an off-contract iPhone 6 Plus is a pauper’s steal. Costing tens of thousands of dollars, these luxury phones trade in mundane materials like aluminum and strengthened Gorilla glass for unscratchable sapphire screens, diamond-like carbon-coated steel cases, exotic animal leather cases and trappings of precious metals and gems. Vertu’s phones also come with a yearlong access to a 24/7 concierge service that can secure reservations and offer access to exclusive events.Many smartphones sell themselves on their technologic superiority — screen resolution, number of processors, the size of their app store — but Vertu and Savelli focus on the lavishness of the device’s appearance.Some of Vertu’s phones cost $20,000 but lack a touchscreen because their clinetele prefer the narrow design of a touch-pad-equipped phone that can slide into the jacket pocket of a tailored suit.A sales video for Savelli — which was established in Switzerland in 2013 to make ultra-luxurious phones exclusively for women — shows a model admiring herself in front of a mirror while holding one of the company’s phones. It is never turned on nor its features outlined.“Our smartphone is a modern piece of jewelry,” says Savelli CEO and co-founder Alessandro Savelli in a 2013 interview with the New York Times. “From the beginning, we agreed with Vertu’s approach: Our phone would not need to be revolutionary in its technology. Other companies are better positioned to do that.”

"Now, with a lot of the focus on design, it really has helped drive some of the innovation and make it more acceptable [for those devices] to be more widely used," says Strat Parrott, 33, a Chattanooga-based Internet marketing and brand-development specialist.

"Especially if you're trying to sell more units, you want your product to look cool," he says. "You also want it to have functionality, but more people will adopt something if it looks nice and functions well, even if that functionality is minimal."

Beat(s) it

Despite all the attention heaped on the burgeoning field of smart wearables, one of the devices that has seen the greatest integration of fashion-forward design and marketing is more than a century old.

In March 2014, researchers at NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service reported that the market for premium headphones - those costing $100 or more - surpassed $1 billion in 2013, a 21 percent increase over 2012.

The industry leader, with a 40 percent claim on all headphone sales and a 64 percent slice of the premium sub-market, is Beats Electronics, which was founded in 2006 by musician and record producer Andre "Dr. Dre" Young and music producer and chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Jimmy Iovine.

Beats headphones range in price from the $100 Urbeats wired earbuds to a $600 limited edition pair made in collaboration with German luxury leather goods manufacturer Modern Creation Munich. Despite their hefty price tag, audiophiles tend to dismiss Beats equipment for its over-emphasis on bass - "more like Timex with Rolex's price tag" according to a user posting on the Head-Fi online forum. But consumer tech analysts say the company's success was built on clever marketing and the understanding that consumers buy headphones to show them off as much as to use them for listening to music.

"Beats' great coup was in spotting that, for many shoppers, it was crucial for headphones to look stylish - after all, this is a gadget you have to wear on your head in public - why shouldn't it look good?" writes Luke Westaway in a 2013 article for CNET.

To boost its perception as a fashionable, luxury brand, Beats has heavily leveraged its association with celebrity, producing commercials that feature appearances by everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj to Ed Sheeran and Alicia Keys. The headphones are also often seen on the ears - and around the necks - of sports stars such as Serena Williams, Tom Brady and LeBron James.

"[Beats headphones] appear as fashion statements on red carpets and at special events all the time," says Marques Brownlee, a YouTube technology reviewer whose channel has more than 2.5 million subscribers. "These guys are geniuses at getting Beats to appear alongside people's favorite celebrities.

"Perceived value is really the name of the game that Beats Electronics is winning. The more people think your product is worth, the more they're willing to pay for it. And with the celebrities wearing them all over the place all the time, the design, the fashion statement it makes that's why they're able to charge $300 for these when I'd be willing to bet they cost less than $150 to make."

Other audio companies have followed Beats' path with products that either emphasize fashion-friendly looks or that were created through celebrity partnerships, such as Tim McGraw and JBL, Ludacris and Soul Electronics and 50 Cent and SMS Audio. And in 2012, Sennheiser, a company long associated with favoring studio quality sound over stylish design, shifted tack with its Momentum line of retro-chic headphones that "see the audio specialist getting seriously fashionable."

Apple of our eye

As evidenced by its top rank in the recent Chinese consumer poll, Apple has long been seen as a fashion-forward company that emphasizes elegance of function and top-trim design with a trademark look built around a largely neutral palette with brushed aluminum accents.

"I think it is only appropriate that the words 'Apple' and 'fashion' are used in the same sentence," Huffington Post writer Scott MacFarland says in a 2013 editorial. "Apple has taken design thinking and design innovation privileges to an entirely new level, far beyond what companies could have imagined.

"The question here shouldn't be, 'Is Apple about fashion or technology?' More appropriately, the question should be, 'How in the world does Apple keep coming up with new and different products that sell and are analogous to both fashion and technology?'"

In August 2014, Apple purchased Beats Electronics for $3 billion, the largest acquisition in the company's history. Analysts say the move was less motivated by the company's nascent Beats Music streaming service than the desire to capitalize on the cachet of cool surrounding the audio company's products.

"By now it should be obvious that Apple bought Beats for the charisma of its founders," Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes in a September 2014 post. "Their trick has been to sell grossly overpriced, mediocre headphones as a fashion statement."

The link between Apple's design philosophy and its appeal to stylish design was further strengthened in the eyes of some with the 2013 hiring of fashion industry mogul Angela Ahrendts - the former CEO of British luxury clothier Burberry - as its senior vice president of Retail and Online Stores.

One of Ahrendts' first orders of business was to redesign Apple's retail stores to better suit the aura of fashion-friendly luxury the company envisioned for customers interested in purchasing an Apple Watch. In the weeks leading up to the Watch's April 24 release, 9to5Mac reported the Cupertino company was subjecting its retail store employees to crash courses in fashion to help guide customers through selectking the band and watchface combination that best suited their individual style. Prices for the Apple Watch range from $350 for the entry-level Sport edition to $17,000 for a gold alloy-accented Apple Watch Edition.

Apple now has shuffled Beats into its corporate fold, but the tech giant has long followed a similar practice of using celebrities to enhance the aura of cool fashionability surrounding its products, whether by selecting Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon as the co-spokesmen for the iPhone 6 or having Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson showcase the capabilities of its digital personal assistant Siri.

In the leadup to the launch of the Apple Watch, pre-release models began making appearances in social media on the wrists of fashion icons such as Karl Lagerfeld and Christy Turlington, as well as a slew of musicians and celebrities, including Kanye West, Beyonce Knowles, Neil Patrick Harris and Katy Perry, who is currently Twitter's most popular user with more than 71 million followers.

Analysts say these seemingly nonchalant cameos were likely as carefully planned as they were unsurprising, given the device's inherent competition with established luxury jewelers and watchmakers.

"The Apple Watch, after all, is the Beats headphones of the emerging wearable computer industry: Technologically modest but inexplicably attractive," Bloomberg's Bershidsky writes.

Chattanooga's Parrott was one of the earliest adopters of the Apple Watch - he bought a Sport edition - but says his decision was unmotivated by its design.

"I don't care for the look of it," he says. "Some of my favorite watches are some of the Android watches, because they look a little more traditional. I don't think [Apple Watch's] square form factor is the right form factor for a watch. They haven't got the right proportions yet."

Building bridges

The desire to merge form and function hasn't just set tech companies against established fashion dynasties. In some cases, the move to bridge the gap has lead to partnerships between designers and developers.

In March, Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer announced it was collaborating with Google and Intel to create what they are billing as the world's first luxury smartwatch, a device that offers smart functionality while retaining the company's tradition of elegant craftsmanship. When it debuts later this year at an estimated cost of $1,400, company executives say the Carrera Wearable 01 will slot nicely into the design milieu Tag Heuer has cultivated since its inception in 1860.

"Silicon Valley and Switzerland are going to conquer the market of the connected watch," CEO Jean-Claude Biver said in a March press conference. "There is no other choice for Tag Heuer than to have all its DNA, all its watchmaking emotion and flair into the connected watch."

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel also unveiled the Curie, a low-power module with a built-in sensor suite and Bluetooth functionality that can provide integrated smart features into practically any object, from rings and pendants to fitness trackers and buttons.

"We're trying to show what's possible, to help get fashion and tech talking together, to seed the market and get it going," says Michael Bell, the Vice President and General Manager of New Devices Group, in an interview with Venture Beat. "Wearables are as much about the way they look as what they do. Maybe the tech industry hasn't quite caught on to that as much as it needs to."

When it debuted in 2013, the unappealingly cyborg-like look of the Google Glass head-mounted augmented reality headset was featured almost as often in coverage of the device as its technological capabilities.

"[Google Glass] is a bold look at a direction the future of mobile computing might take, [but] when tech is wearable it's also got to look good, and that's where Google Glass falls flat on its awkward face," writes Kirsten Strauss in a 2013 post to Forbes.com. "I also can't help but wonder what such a device would look like were it made by Apple, a company long committed to style as much as substance."

Last year, in response to this criticism, Google announced a partnership with Italian eye wear giant Luxottica - the parent company of brands such as Oakley and Ray-Ban - to develop a new version of the headset with more refined styling.

"Through this relationship, Luxottica and Google, who are setting the pace in their respective industries, will match up high-tech developers with fashion designers and eye wear professionals," a Luxottica press release reads. "In particular, the two corporations will establish a team of experts devoted to working on the design, development, tooling and engineering of Glass products that straddle the line between high-fashion, lifestyle and innovative technology."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.