Picture shows: Apple's iPhone 5s being used to shoot Burberry's spring/summer 2014 collection during London Fashion Week.
Since the news broke in October, Apple’s hiring of Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts has echoed throughout the fashion and technology worlds.
In light of this, and the ever-anticipated iWatch, Apple’s relationship with the fashion industry has come under more scrutiny than ever before.
But really, how closely are the two connected?
Though Apple is a technology company, they don’t much act like one, according to Liam Hamill, the Strategy Director for brand agency venturethree.
“Look at the way [Apple's late CEO and co-founder] Steve Jobs spoke about the way Apple is,” Hamill said in a phone interview. “He never talked about code. He just talked about neat stuff and cool stuff.”
Beyond that, though Apple has had its fair share of innovative products, the company itself didn’t invent the MP3 player—it copied the concept and made it better, Hamill said.
“What’s predicated their success is an incredible attention to detail, a timeless sense of cool,” Hamill said. “More than that, their DNA is creativity and ideas and originality and entrepreneurialism.”
All of which are traits of the fashion and creative industries, he points out.
Apple has been extremely successful in becoming a lifestyle brand of sorts—buyers think about what their iPhone says about them, much like the way a buyer would feel about his or her Louis Vuitton luggage or Gucci loafers.
Compared to the fashion world, which becomes more and more niche as you approach its higher end, Apple’s had a coup of sorts in that it has made its signature luxury and premium available to the mass market.
“Millions of people globally own these products, and when you think about it, they’re not cheap,” Hamill said. Apple manages “to strike a balance of being aspirational and exclusive in a way of being accessible.”
However, this could also be its downfall. The company is facing huge pressure from shareholders to continue growing and delivering—potentially compromising its ability to stay true to its design and creative ideals, Hamill said.
In many ways, the challenges Apple faces going forward are the same faced by a number of luxury fashion brands: namely Burberry.
In the ‘90s, Burberry lost focus on its product portfolio and became simply too accessible, Hamill pointed out. By trying to do too much, the company stretched itself too thin and cheapened itself, falling from its perch as a high fashion brand in the eyes of many.
There’s signs Apple is aware of this danger and is taking steps to prevent it. Case-in-point: acquiring Ahrendts, widely regarded as the person responsible for salvaging Burberry from its chav-tastic rep pre-Y2K.
Hamill said Ahrendts primarily used Burberry’s internal structure to rework its external perception.
“Brand, when used properly, is one of the most powerful things for a team.” Hamill said. “It’s about who we are and what we stand for and using it to change the way a business works.”
Hamill points to Ahrendts’ experience with balancing democracy and premium—making Burberry products available to those who want them, but also maintaining their exclusivity. This is done by selectively promoting products and maintaining a focused product portfolio, Hamill says—something easily continued at Apple.
“If they lose that premium look like the high fashion brands in the fashion industry, it’ll lose their appeal,” Hamill said.
Because she saw that turnaround at Burberry, Hamill said it’s likely Ahrendts will be able to identify so-called warning signs at Apple, and most importantly, keep them from falling down a slippery slope.
It’s easy to see parallels between Apple and the fashion industry. Just consider Apple’s highly anticipated product launches and consistent design language across products, plus unique in-store experiences more akin to a high-end retail store than a tech vendor.
Beyond that, the iPhone 5C’s colour options, featuring a pale blue, electric yellow, and other vibrant primary colours, bear a striking similarity to the colour trends for Spring 2014. Further proof? Vogue did a spread on how to match your accessories with your new iPhone 5C.
But don’t go calling Apple simply fashionable.
“I can see Steve Jobs turning in his grave at the thought of Apple being suggested as 'simply fashionable' and would suggest they are more consistent than we give them credit,” David Jenkinson, creative director at brand design consultancy Elmwood, said in an email.
“Let's not forget, the colours are merely casing for the product. Interesting that the new iOS is complementary to the casing. So a more holistic view of a product that is now visual as technical hardware - software matching.”
Jenkinson notes that though Apple will ultimately be judged for its tech performance in the long run, given that it's a technology company when push comes to shove. Though this slight shift emphasizing appearance could still end well for the Cupertino, California-based company.
“I actually think they're being smarter about the things that are easy to change,” he said. “The plastic casing costs nothing to produce compared to the tech development. If they can get people to upgrade for stylistic reasons, it's a massive coup.”