Apple on the Runway: Getting into Fashion Tech

Apple has been on a hiring spree lately, and there's something of a pattern emerging that's all about fashion. The Mac, iPhone and iPad maker has brought on board two Nike alum with Jay Blahnik and Ben Shaffer, former Yves St Laurent executive Paul Deneve, and now Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. We may not have enough parts of the equation to the end result, but enough parts are in place to give us an idea where Apple is going.

Apple is making the move into the tech fashion marketApple is making the move into the tech fashion market

Just Do It
Apple brought two people with Nike ties on board this year when it hired Jay Blahnik and Ben Shaffer.

Mr. Blahnik is a well know fitness expert and was instrumental in designing the Nike Fuelband. He brings more knowledge about fitness technology to Apple than design fashion, but he clearly knows what people want from the fitness gear they buy, and what works well.

Mr. Shaffer designed shoes for Nike, but he was much more than that. He also happens to know a lot about fabric design, and ran Nike's Flyknit product design team in the Innovation Kitchen division.

Regardless of whether or not Mr. Shaffer works on any health or fitness-related projects, Apple has a strong designer on their hands.

Hit the Runway
Apple isn't saying what Paul Deneve from Yves St Laurent does at the the company other than he's involved in special projects. His former employer is well known in the high fashion industry, and he has a history with Apple, too, since he handled the company's European marketing several years ago.

Mr. Deneve has business and marketing savvy, intimately knows the fashion industry, and is already familiar with the Apple culture. That's an interesting mix.

The New Boss
Apple announced Tuesday morning that it hired Angela Ahrendts away from her job as CEO of Burberry to be its senior vice president of retail and online stores. She takes on her new job next spring, and she's bringing a strong background in fashion retail along with a good feel for how technology fits into selling products.

She has actively embraced using technology to help sell in Burberry's retail stores, and even has gone so far as to include chips in clothing to add interactivity when customers are trying on new wardrobe ideas. She also sees the value in online social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Burberry is successfully drawing in a loyal customer base and has over 16.5 million Facebook likes.

Ms. Ahrendts also took Burberry to a new level by growing the company's profits worldwide and especially in the Asian market. Apple is pushing for growth in China, and her experience will be invaluable.

Doing the Math
Here's what we know so far: Apple has hired a string of people with serious experience in the fashion world. Outside of Ms. Ahrendts, we don't know for sure exactly what job responsibilities any of the new hires will have, but it's very plausible they will have some involvement in designing at least some of Apple's wearable technology devices.

It's also clear that our technology has become part of our own personal fashion statements -- tech fashion accessories. Wrist top devices, like the Pebble smartwatch and Nike Fuelband have been fairly successful, while Samsung's rushed to market Galaxy Gear is a textbook example of how not to get into the wearable tech market.

While clunky, poor battery life, and limited functionality are OK for a subset of the tech-wearing community, that doesn't fit with mainstream trends or the general buying public's tastes. What does fit is style with useful functionality; something that makes a statement about who is wearing the tech without being overbearing.

That sounds like Apple's style, and it looks like the company has been busy lining up a team to help make that happen. The hirings that have surfaced so far show a group that gets how and why people wear technology, people that understand the fashion of technology, and people that get just how retail works -- especially in the fashion world.

Looking at Google and its Glass project gives us yet another idea into wearable tech, but isn't an approach that's winning fans in droves. Instead, it's obvious when someone is wearing Glass and the technology is even leading to distrust and privacy concerns. That's not a good way to build marketshare, and doesn't work well for instilling confidence in your product.

Instead, Apple has put together a group that can cater to its audience that's already interested in fashion-oriented technology, and can embrace the crowd that's interested in getting into some tech as a fashion statement.

It may be a watch, or it may be something that's woven into our clothes. Whatever Apple is working on it's a safe bet it'll take a different approach and we'll end up with a new product market that other companies will rush to copy, and that just so happens to be fashionable.

[Some image elements courtest Nata Sha and Shutterstock]