Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.

The importance of being prepared

Yesterday, a young friend of mine met with a well-regarded academic in her field. He has been teaching for over 2 decades. When she went to see him, he was preparing feverishly for a one-hour lecture he was about to give to an audience of young undergraduates, who wouldn’t know better if he sneaked in minor inaccuracies.

And yet he was preparing.

She was floored.

“Shefaly, he was preparing so hard when he knows so much already!”, she said. Of course he was, I said. It reminded me of when I had started teaching undergraduates and used to spend 4-5 hours preparing for my 90 minute class. I teach Socratically, so it isn’t like I was going to control all the content anyway. A dab hand had, in fact, helpfully advised me that with our experience, we could probably teach with 15-20 minutes of preparation, something I just could not accept.

But we had clearly articulated learning objectives in the session. As the facilitator/ teacher, my job included steering the discussion, keeping it productive, managing attempts at deliberate or unforeseeable derailment, concluding in time, and keeping the students engaged and interested all the time. All that needs intensive preparation — and being focused and centered mentally all the time in the classroom.

Then another friend of mine was invited to speak at an event. “I bet you will be the most engaging and fun speaker on the panel”, I said to her. She said, “There is no panel, there is an open floor whatever that means”. I was surprised. “You mean there is no speaker briefing other than the headline topic?”, I asked her. She said there wasn’t.

This is the same situation but from the other side. Because she has no brief, she cannot prepare. Like her, the other invited speakers will be speaking ex tempore.

Just as a minuscule proportion of people are actually good speakers, an even tinier percent of them are good ex tempore speakers.

In fact, good ex tempore speaking takes even more preparation. One does not just need to be focused and centered mentally at the lectern or stage. One also needs good self awareness, an ability to abstract one’s life experiences, and tell the story in a way that others can take with them and consider before accepting or rejecting. One is also required to be engaging, while not sounding like one is reading off a script, never mind it is one’s own life script. This works not just for autobiographical topics but also for technical or specialty topics. I can speak ex tempore on decision making, design thinking, the cusp of strategy and culture and a host of other things but I prefer not to. Even after 20 years or more of professional immersion in these things.

In his biography of CK Prahalad, the late management thinker, teacher and writer, Benedict Paramanand writes about his obsessive and meticulous preparation, whether speaking with Thinkers 50 or 10000 high school kids in Chennai, or teaching. His wife discusses how he threw away his notes and started afresh every time he taught his course.

Speaks for itself, I think.

Preparing and giving someone enough notice and time to prepare are both hallmarks of respect — for oneself, for one’s profession or specialisation, for one’s audience.

Not doing either doesn’t say much for anyone involved. The audience is being treated with derision and condescension by a soi disant “expert”. The organisers or coordinators of such events are merely interested in ticking boxes. The speaker should not even agree to be there, if he or she has an iota of self-respect.

If we know ahead, this is a situation none of us would wish to find ourselves in.

To understand the things that are at our door,” wrote Hypatia, “is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

Isn’t that the whole point of all teaching and speaking? To be able to understand — and deal with, may be — what lies beyond?

How do we expect to do it without preparation?

Is care in design exclusionary and elitist?

The monograph last week generated much conversation. And some observations that caring in design and craftsmanship was all about expensive pieces made for the few, not for the masses. Seeing the examples that I cited, it is not entirely inconceivable to think of caring and craftsmanship as the preserve of the few.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because to think of care as something that only the few, the elite deserve is to believe that the relatively poor, the everyman does not deserve the respect that such care implies.

But isn’t such care expensive? I’d posit it is not.

Is it feasible to create an organisation whose fabric has caring woven into it? Yes, it is.

Mujifounded in 1979 — on the principles of minimalism in design and in wastage in production and packaging, recycling and no branding is a beautiful example. The philosophy is summed up as “no brand quality goods”.

Muji makes and sells a range of products from stationery, to utilitarian goods such as ear-buds and portable mirrors, basic clothing such as cotton dresses and t-shirts, storage such as bottles and boxes, kitchen articles and electronics. The products use very little, just sufficient packaging. The stores themselves are marked by a simple layout, minimalist shelving with goods on display, the absence of colourful or loud banners and “offers” or any other point-of-sale tools.

And the goods last, delivering the promise of low wastage (wrought often by the need for frequent replacement of often-used goods) and caring and respect in design.

A portable, foldable mirror in aluminium I bought from Muji 8 years ago, and the loyal companion in my handbag on all my travels every day, is still intact and looks good as new. An average Muji cotton t-shirt has last me 5 years. I feel a twinge of sadness when I have to retire a Muji t-shirt from active duty.

Muji mirrorThe mirror, seen in the picture, if bought today, would cost me a princely sum of £3.95. Two plain t-shirts can be bought for under £10.

This is inclusive, affordable and respectful design.

Of basic goods that anyone — you, me, anyone — can afford and be confident that it won’t unravel or break within days of our buying them, leading to further expense and material wastage.

The philosophy scales beyond small household goods too. While Muji keeps private the names of its designers and manufacturers, in line with its no-brand policy, it has collaborated to produce a fuel-efficient, low-emission car with Nissan.

Can anyone create products with care and respect, for anyone, not just the few, to use and enjoy?

I believe so.

It does take commitment though.

Commitment to asking “what if this were me?” at every step of the organisation’s design.

Commitment to treating the other human, as well as materials we derive from the planet and through manufacture, with respect and consideration.

Commitment to engaging mindfully with what we do, create and deliver.

Is that too much to ask?

Caring — an antidote to mindless consumerism?

I disagreed with a few things that Jonathan Ive said in his talk at the Design Museum. But there was one thing he said with which I agree fully:

“It’s made better. There is an integrity there.

I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness.

And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.”

In practice, that integrity, that care, that respect all require — and drive — a few things in the process of making.

The maker or craftsperson, who knows his or her materials well, their limitations, their potential, is essential to this process. The craftsperson then translates this knowledge into making, well, well-made products.

These products may seem a bit pricey so we buy less of but use more of, more frequently.

These products bring pleasure not just in use but in ownership too. I am thinking of the Riedel wine glasses I bought over a decade ago. A flick on the edge of the wine glass creates a single note, like from a suzu gong, that reverberates for several seconds. It is not a bug, it is not a feature. But with every wine glass making the same sound, that sound is the hallmark of a design process, which deemed the beauty of the experience at least as important as the functionality.

These products don’t fall apart at the seams, nor do their buttons or hemlines unravel easily. Like that beautiful DvF silk dress I bought fifteen years ago. I wear it often, at every given chance, but I am yet to find a stray thread hanging loose.

Some of these products are so intuitively designed that they minimise the consumer’s need to “figure out” before being able to use them. Take the iPad. So intuitive a baby can use it.

Thoughtfully made, painstakingly crafted, beautiful things spoil us. So much that one can no longer bear to engage with mass produced stuff that screams to be replaced season to season.

They spoil us because we now have tasted the possibility of paying attention and putting care in the design process of a product we use daily.

They spoil us because we have now experienced excellence and human endeavour to perfection.

They spoil us because once we see beauty and profound care, we cannot un-see it.

Perhaps, this is the antidote to consumerism.

Uncompromising care, meticulous attention to detail, deep knowledge of sensual and practical aspects of materials, craftsmanship non-pareil and a great consumer experience — from finding, to buying, owning and using — all delivering us products that truly satisfy us.

Have you experienced such care and thoughtfulness in your entire interaction with businesses that sell you things? How did it make you feel?

More importantly, how has it changed you? Tell me your stories!

Digital (and the) luxury consumers

The web, as I see it, is Ginger Rogers to the world’s Fred Astaire. Just as she did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels, the web does/ has everything the world does/ has but visibly, frictionlessly, faster.

But then those two too were role-playing. In the make-believe world of celluloid. With its own rules, relationships, frictions and language. The web, a virtual world, is no different in that sense.

A vast majority of luxury consumers have, unsurprisingly, taken to the web to consider, evaluate, buy, and well, show-off. They are choosing convenience, breadth, quality, and where available, personalised delivery. They seamlessly move between the physical world of stores, and the online world of discount-retailers, consumer review sites, official brand pages and web properties, secret and public groups discussing shared interests in a brand.

Brands and businesses, however, are slow to catch up. With such fragmentation of the consumer’s journey with the brand, it is hard to demonstrate hard numbers or directly attributable sales gains. So a traditional ROI led case for investing in social and web channels cannot be made easily.

It seems to me however that particular to the luxury and the creative sectors, some challenges are bigger than others.

The face-off between the “democratic” web and the “exclusive” nature of luxury

How do some of the well-established luxury brands deal with it? It is quite simple. They peg their expectations from the members of their various online communities correctly.

Not all fans are customers. In fact, as the Vacheron representative pointed out in Paris last week, most fans aspire to the brand and are therefore very valuable. Vacheron also has an owners’ club where current and future owners of their fine timepieces engage, converse, ask questions, answer questions, and indulge their passion for the brand.

The social media director of another aspirational luxury brand said to me, during the coffee break, that he finds questions about this “divide” offensive. After all, he went on to say, people may start with something small with us and grow with us. Of course, I agreed, having first bought just a belt from the brand when I was a young professional at 26. I have grown to admire the brand for their craft as well as cultural stewardship, over time.

It is safe to say that the democracy-exclusivity divide is short-sighted, parochial and patronizing. It may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

After all, aren’t half the advertising dollars wasted, as John Wanamaker pointed out? Why should luxury and creative brands be daft enough to expect half our social media dollars won’t be?

Finding the authentic voice of the brand

Aka how not to shill, plug, sell, cross-sell, up-sell at every opportunity?

My friend Euan Semple has written a book with a wonderful title – “Organisations don’t tweet, people do”. A succinctly stated, seminal piece of wisdom for all who wish to engage with their fans, prospects and customers on various social media properties or channels.

And people don’t just sell. They gossip, they share their joys, they show off things they bought, they share stories. Sometimes they complain. These are the moments where a brand has a great opportunity not just to be authentic but to showcase its authenticity. How would you feel in the customer’s shoes with a terrible product or service experience? Would you like to be sold-at or dismissed or barred from the community or the store? No? Then don’t do it to the customer! How hard is that?

It is kind of difficult to pick the best story about an authentic brand voice from the ones I heard in Paris. But Kenzo stands out in how it retains the spirit of the brand, while being playful, inventive and engaging all the same.

Finding an authentic voice does require brands to be comfortable with their own identities and their own DNA and their own values.

In others words — what do you stand for? And are you willing to speak up for it?

Influencers and the shades of grey

This is the most fun part. It is an open secret that luxury brands pay well-known faces and people with large social media following considerable sums to promote their products. It is however easy to see the payment dynamic when it is a celebrity talking about an overcoat or a handbag named after her.

What happens when it is a person on whom people rely for expertise and knowledge? Do brands pay her too? If they do, where is the disclosure? And what is her trade-off? Is she willing to trade-off her own brand’s hard-won reputation to build a luxe brand’s reputation? Does a full disclosure hurt or harm her “recommendations” and her influence? How does a consumer trust the “recommendation” of someone who is being paid to say nice things about a brand? What if there is no full disclosure? What about trust?

Then there are the mass influencers. Brands don’t give straight answers about them. Some say they pay these bloggers in kind. All very nice, but when did anyone last pay their rent in perfume bottles, or pay for their grocery by swapping a handbag or a pair of worn-only-once shoes? This is an unreal and unsustainable – and dare I say, arrogant – way for brands to think.

I asked some of these joyful (read: squirm-inducing) questions in Paris last week. Um, no joy. The jury is out, it appears. Brands must consider the hard choices carefully and in my view, plump for full disclosure from influencers.

So here is what I think about this “digital consumer” thing.

In the pre-web world, brands could tell their stories and consumers would listen passively.

Now it is a conversation and like any conversation, there are disagreements, segues, detours, tangents as well as commiserations, empathetic moments, Aha-moments and moments of sheer joy.

I think things have changed for the better, don’t you?

PS: For my full notes from the Luxury Society event in Paris, please see this.