Apple is about to become a whole lot more fashionable.
During its second-quarter 2014 results, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, announced that Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, will join Apple next week (presumably starting on 28 April). Ahrendts will occupy a senior vice president role at Apple, becoming the first retail head since John Browett, former Dixons CEO, left Apple in 2012.
In recent months, Apple has hired multiple executives with backgrounds in either fitness, apparel or wearable-tech, causing rumours about an iWatch or some sort of wrist-type product to fill up the Twitter feeds. But the real question concerns why Apple is so focused on fashion in recent months.
Many of the company's decisions and hires as of late seem to bridge the gap between technology and couture. The obvious reason is that Apple wants to design fashionable and functional products, but what could those products be and does Apple have grander plans in store? Read on to find out.
Wearables: Nike FuelBand and iWatch
Rumours have circulated, spiralled, faded and re-emerged for years now in regards to a smartwatch product from Apple. Although analysts and tech bloggers keep dredging the story back up, Apple is actually one of the main instigators behind all the iWatch gossip.
Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, spoke at the D11 conference earlier this year and mentioned that the idea of a smartwatch or something on the wrist is both "profoundly interesting" and "natural". He dismissed all other wearable concepts, such as Google Glass, and showed off his own Nike Fuel Band integrated with iOS. While Cook does serve on Nike's board of directors, the executive emphasises that any type of wrist product is "ripe for exploration".
Beyond what Cook has alluded to during interviews, the company has made definitive moves toward a wrist product. It poached fitness expert and Nike FuelBand consultant Jay Blahnik, and it has more recently hired Nike's Ben Shaffer, according to 9to5Mac. Shaffer is the studio director for Nike's Innovation Kitchen, which developed the FuelBand and lightweight running shoe called the Flynit, and he could presumably play a critical role in the development of an iWatch-like product.
So, how does an iWatch or wrist product like the FuelBand correlate to fashion? It's wearable tech, of course. And anything that's wearable is therefore fashionable, though not always chic or stylish. Hence why Apple could be diving deeper into the world of fashion. If it's going to get into wearable tech, it's going to need to get it right. Otherwise, fashion autocrats like US Vogue's Anna Wintour might put up her nose to the whole idea, and no company would want that.
Yves Saint Laurent's CEO and the fashion boom
One of the most compelling clues to suggest that Apple has gone couture is the hiring of Paul Deneve from earlier this summer. Snapped up by Apple to work on "special projects," Deneve is the 53-year-old chief executive officer of haute couture fashion house Yves Saint Laurent. That's as pretty high fashion as one could get.
Many assumed that Deneve would take over Apple’s massive retail operations. After all, the senior vice-president position has been open ever since Apple fired former Dixons executive John Browett in 2012 after a brief nine-month tenure. But that idea quickly dissipated without any official word as to what Deneve will be doing in Cupertino.
Deneve is actually a former Apple employee, too. He served as a sales and marketing manager at Apple Europe from 1990 to 1997. He also had stints at fashion houses like Courreges, Nina Ricci and Lanvin. Let's not forget that Deneve also ran YSL during a time when the company and other major fashion houses finally regained their footing after years of battling economic hard times. Perhaps his tech experience with Apple and ability to oversee high-end goods means Apple is legitimately considering luxury, wearable tech.
It's also worth mentioning that the recent economic boom in fashion has led to a major influx of new fashion-focused tech start-ups. There's Fab, Pinterest, Pose, ShopStyle, Polyvore, Rent the Runway and many more. While they are mostly web-based, the point is that technology and fashion are converging at a speed never before seen, and there's a huge audience out there willing to hand over their wallets for happening-tech. Surely Apple has noticed.
Burberry CEO to run Apple Retail
Update: A report from last year claimed Ahrendts might start at Apple halfway through 2014 because of a bonus she was allegedly set to receive at Burberry. Cook’s statement during Appple's Q2 2014 results has set the record straight however. Ahrendts will join Apple Retail at the end of April.
Apple ended a year-long search for a new retail head on 15 October, announcing that it hired Burberry's Angela Ahrendts to run both its retail and online stores. Aside from the fact that she was poached less than two months after the Burberry Fashion show, one of the more noteworthy aspects to the hire is that Apple finally let a woman join its executive leadership team.
Ahrendts, 53, has served as chief executive officer of Burberry since July 2006. She previously worked at Liz Clairborne, Henri Bendel and Donna Karan International. She won’t take on the job at Apple until next spring, but she'll be responsible for the direction, expansion and operation of more than 400 retail stores (156 outside of the US) and Apple's online stores. Apple has 96 stores in China alone, so many think she could be particularly useful in that region.
The video above shows Ahrendts talking about stepping down at Burberry after 8 years, the thriving retail infrastructure that she helped build there, as well as her view that Burberry is now a fast-growing and "digital, luxury" retailer.
In an email sent to employees this morning, as posted on 9to5Mac, Cook called Ahrendts “wicked smart" and said he wanted one person to lead both brick-and-mortar and online stores. However, Cook never met anyone who he felt could lead both teams. That is, until he met Ahrendts.
Ahrendts was hugely influential at Burberry beyond the expansion of its retail stores. She helped cultivate the company in the modern era and bring it back to its major fashion house status, which is a talent that Apple could certainly use. In recent years, especially since the death of Steve Jobs, it has faced intense scrutiny in regards to falling behind and no longer innovating.
Cook admitted that he met Ahrendts in January - a full 9 months before the Burberry Fashion show that Apple's iPhone 5S helped film. Although the hiring of Ahrendts does explain why Apple suddenly had an interest in the fashion house earlier this autumn, it also suggests that the company certainly has its eye on the luxury goods and luxury retail space.
Burberry Fashion Show
Apple and UK fashion house Burberry teamed up this month to use the iPhone 5S to film and photograph Burberry's show for London Fashion Week. Some saw it as a PR tactic, but it could have been more about Apple forging relationships with top-tier fashion brands as it explores wearable tech.
First of all, Apple clearly understands the value of design. Jony Ive, the company's design boss, has taken Apple to new heights many times over in terms of hardware design, and software with iOS 7, but critics for its aesthetic approach have also noted the company’s marketing and advertising. Apple even has design awards for apps - just to reiterate how much the look, feel and experience of a product matters. That is after all what fashion is about, at its core.
Then there's the PR statement from Burberry, in which the company admitted its collaboration with Apple celebrated a shared foundation in design and craftsmanship as well as a mutual passion for creating beautiful products and unlocking emotive experiences through technology.
“We’re inspired by what this could mean for the future as we continue to explore the merging of physical and digital experiences," said Christopher Bailey, Burberry Chief Creative Officer, who is friends with Ive and rumoured to have influenced the iPhone 5S's new gold-colour option.
It's interesting that Bailey sees a future with Apple. His statement combined with the fact that design-conscious Apple has hired fashion executives from Nike and Yves St Laurent - while simultaneously commenting on the possibilities of wrist products - all seems to point to one thing: Apple is taking steps toward wearable tech, and it wants to market those future products as luxury gadgets.
And then there's the competition...
Any forward-thinking company watches its competition. While Apple has said it doesn't follow its rivals in terms of product choices, the company most likely keeps an eye on trends, what works and doesn't work and how consumers respond to the evolving markets. All of this information can help Apple make smart decisions about which avenues it wants to take. For instance, the company has refused to embrace NFC, even though NFC has been widely adopted, but Apple has decided to incorporate iBeacon technology into iOS 7 instead.
Quite similarly, Apple has mocked the idea of smart glasses like Google Glass, but it did follow Google’s example in terms of fashion events. High-end fashion design house Diane von Fürstenberg kitted out its runway models with Google Glass headsets in 2012 when showcasing a Spring 2013 collection during the New York Fashion Week. Each model paced down the catwalk, with the glasses recording what they saw and tweeting the results. Sounds a lot like Apple and Burberry's collaboration.
There's also - albeit more abstractly - Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's chief executive officer. She's been spotted at dinner parties with Jony Ive, and she's attended Apple keynotes and revealed her excitement for Touch ID in iPhone 5S. She's also a lover of fashion, having appeared in Vogue magazine twice. Mayer understands the importance of fashion and technology, so it's safe to assume that the executives at Apple do as well.
Of course, Apple does have its critics who've taken shots at its recent interest in fashion. Steve Ballmer, chief executive officer at Microsoft, made a dig at Apple during a company-wide meeting recently. He said Apple is about being "fashionable," while Microsoft is about "doing more." That may be true, but fashion industry insiders told The Telegraph that Apple's iOS devices are driving the way people consume fashion. There was no mention in the article about Windows 8.1 or Surface.
Lastly, it stands to reason that Apple is creating a fashion element not just to work on wearables and potential partnerships but also to stand apart from the clones and copycats. Ever since rumours first popped up about an iWatch product from Apple, many companies, including Samsung, have hopped on the bandwagon and scrambled to release their watch products first.
It's quite possible that Apple might not even go the wristwatch route now, as it wouldn't want to follow its No. 1 rival, but the company clearly has a unique interest in high-end, fashionable wearables that could help it to standout.
(This article was first published on 27 September but has been updated to reflect recent events.)