Doing something new doesn’t matter at Apple, says its chief design officer, Jonathan Ive. “Creating something that’s new is very easy – we can do that in half an hour. So rather than pursue newness, we make something that is better,” says Ive. “If we do manage to make something that’s better that solves a problem that it didn’t before, by consequence it’s new. Newness should be consequential to something that is bigger and more important.”
It’s September, and we are sitting in a quiet room above the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, in San Francisco, where Apple’s greatest minds have just unveiled its latest products to the world.
While collaborations between fashion and tech brands are growing by the day, it’s often said the two industries make strange bedfellows. Take, for instance, the exclusive keynote presentation I’ve just attended – considered a Mecca for tech geeks in much the same way as fashion week catwalks are for style aficionados.
In place of coiffed celebrities, lining the front row are programmers, technology reporters and Silicon Valley executives. The dress code is strictly casual: polo shirts, jeans and trainers. There’s not a hint of glamour or a high heel in sight. The auditorium, accommodating about 7,000 people (the average fashion show audience might stretch to 700), is jam-packed. And the proceedings are live-streamed to tens of millions around the world.
Over the course of two hours, Apple execs take the stage to unveil countless products coming to a store near you soon. They include the highly anticipated iPhone 7 but the one luxury consumers have their refined eyes on is the Apple Watch Hermès collection.
Launched last year, the collaboration was the perfect marriage of high fashion and hi-tech. It marked Apple’s first partnership with a luxury brand and the technology company even broke its own rules to seal the deal, approaching Hermès long before the project was made public.
Fast forward 17 months to this unveiling of its Apple Watch Series 2. Aside from a range of new features and apps (including a much-heralded wellness app), it is waterproof to a depth of 50 metres and GPS trackable.
This Hermès collection has two new, artfully designed leather straps – the Double Buckle Cuff and the Single Tour Deployment Buckle, which is a feat of technical design. Collectors can also invest in one of many new Hermès mix-and-match straps, while all of the Hermès Series 2 watches come with a flexible waterproof sport band in the brand’s trademark orange.
An avid watch collector, it was Ive who initiated the Apple Watch project in 2011. Jony, as he’s known to friends and family, is the creative mind behind countless Apple products and since he joined the company in 1992 it has sold 1.5 billion Ive-designed items.
“In some ways the progression was very natural and obvious,” says the 49-year-old, recently knighted Briton, lounging on a grey couch. He’s dressed in a denim shirt and jeans, and wearing a Series 2 ceramic watch (he alternates this with the 42mm Single Tour in natural Barenia leather from the Hermès collection). “Since the 1970s, Apple has been taking powerful technology and making it personal. The way it becomes personal is that it gets smaller, it gets more reliable and more affordable. The watch can do things the phone can’t and we saw it as a natural evolution for our technology.”
Like many pioneering partnerships, the Apple-Hermès collaboration sheds light on deeper questions – in this case, issues of integrity facing the fashion industry. Now more than ever, technology is shaping how designers and brands work. At the same time, it requires us to re-evaluate the very notion of craftsmanship, which has always been associated with creating things by hand.
“If I look at craft, technology has changed how people work,” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’ executive vice-president in charge of artistic design, speaking from Paris. “Through technology we’ve evolved from working with pencil and paper to 3D rendering and now 3D printing in product development. We can work faster and do more. We have new materials launching every day so the [challenge] is how to absorb that and combine it with our traditions.
“The question we have to ask ourselves is what does it mean to be a craftsman in the 21st century? A craftsman is someone who pushes his interaction and understanding of the material to its limits and know how to master it. What’s more important are ideas … you can have the best hi-tech in the world but if you don’t have a good idea it won’t make it for you.”
Ive has his own take. “I would actually say the discussion is more about if something is well made. You can make something by hand really badly with no care, and we can make something in huge volume but with a craft-like attitude and approach, with enormous care. To me, it’s less about the practical part of how it’s made and more about your attitude and approach to making it,” he says.
While the debate will continue to play out, there’s no denying the Apple Watch is the pioneer in the smartwatch sector. Despite growing competition, it is now the second best-selling watch brand after Rolex, a remarkable achievement in under two years.
Apple’s match with a design house rooted in timelessness, when the very nature of technology is disruptive and ever-changing, might seem odd at first glance. Apple has, though, increasingly turned to the fashion world for inspiration. Hires in 2014 included Angela Ahrendts as vice-president of retail and online stores after she spent eight years as Burberry chief executive. Australian industrial designer Marc Newson – a friend of Ive’s who also designs fashion for G-Star Raw – joined as a consultant the same year.
And Dumas asserts that there is a shared philosophy.
“Function is a religion at Hermès, as it is with Apple. We also share with Apple the same passion for care, which is another word for quality,” he says.
Ive adds: “What was interesting working with Hermès and Pierre-Alexis, aside from the fact that it was just really enjoyable, was that we share such similar values. Yes, we clearly work in different spaces, with different materials and schedules, but we both share the same obsession, which is the pursuit of sincerely making excellent products.
“When we started this project it was with trepidation. We were very mindful that it was a new space because the products were worn and that changes a lot. Now there’s a criteria that’s new for us, one that is associated with style and fashion … I think our work in this area, while we are just getting started and have lots to learn, it’s a very authentic space for us to explore because of our huge history of design.”
For his part, Dumas is adamant that it takes more than just technology to leave an indelible mark on fashion.
“There is a lot of buzz around what technology can do – people come up with ideas all the time and suddenly it seems like the digital world will be able to do everything and anything at any moment. At the end of day, we do change, but we change slowly.
“What Apple has achieved, which is incredible, is that they’ve been able to introduce a new behaviour, a new language, which happens only a few times in a century. I have yet to see something in fashion which has become as universal as the accessories that Apple has created.”