Let’s face it. Technology is fashion. We don’t update our operating systems to get tighter Twitter integration, or buy a new phone for the opportunity to display four more icons. We update them because the new one makes our present one look a bit, well, last season.
I’ve worked with many of the stars of the technology world and I’ve air-kissed with some of the darlings of the fashion world, too. Fashionistas and technologists deal with a lot of the same stuff: fickle consumers, fast turnaround of products, and diva designers with planet-sized egos. Fashion has been doing it for a lot longer, and in my experience it often does it better.
Here are five things I think the geeks can learn from the chic:
Some years ago, IBM had a problem. They made a giant mainframe computer, or Big Iron, as they call it in the industry. IBM’s Big Iron was acknowledged to be the best in the business, a generation ahead of its rivals. It was perfect, except for one thing: It wasn’t selling. So IBM’s ad agency did some one-on-one interviews with the kind of people who go shopping for Big Iron.
Big Blue reeled from what it heard. "Sure," said the CIOs, "this bad boy is the best thing for us to buy. But if I recommend IBM, the conversation in the washroom will go, 'Joe’s one of those old-school IT guys. We need somebody from the next generation.' And that’s game over for my career."
CIOs were buying a multimillion-dollar computer for the same reason that kids buy one pair of sneakers instead of another. They were picking the one the other kids thought was cool. You are a label. Start thinking like one.
Fashion designers become famous for a "key piece." Great designers become immortal after four or five.
Women walk into Chanel for that little black dress, some No. 5 perfume, a tweed suit, and a 2.55 quilted handbag. Or at least they dream of the day when they do—and when that day comes, Chanel better have that stuff in stock. Similarly, street-fashion fans go straight to the sportswear section of Niketown in search of Dunks, Air Force Ones, Windrunner jackets, and AW77 hoodies. Great labels know what their icons are and what makes them iconic.
Technology companies often don’t look after their icons, which is a tremendous waste. I used to aspire to own Sony’s Walkman and their Trinitron TV. Now, both those names are all but forgotten. Sony treated them as technologies to be boosted then retired. They weren’t. They were key pieces.
The ThinkPad range is a great example of a technology company getting its key pieces right. Those uncompromisingly square edges and Ted Selker’s little red trackpoint make them recognizable at a hundred feet. ThinkPads have looked like that since the mid-’90s, which is about a century in computer terms. Please don’t ever change them, Lenovo. Now just make three more product lines that good.
Imagine you’re Levi’s. You’re in the fashion business, but your core product, the 501 jean, doesn’t change from decade to decade, let alone from season to season. So what do you do? You give your audience a new way to think about it every season: Reference ’50s or ’70s Americana, strip-mine your cowboy, music, or workwear roots. Espouse a cause, like reviving America’s Rust Belt. The message changes, the look changes, the core product doesn’t.
Most tech players miss the big fashion point: You don’t have to make something new if you can get people to rethink it.
Hewlett Packard’s "Computer Is Personal Again" campaign is a luminous exception in consumer electronics. It helped people to re-imagine the role of PCs in their lives: You didn’t even see the products; you just saw what smart, creative people did on them. HP refreshed itself without having to do anything new to its products. Result: HP overtook Dell to become the No.1 PC maker. That’s thinking like a fashion brand.
Many of the big fashion houses have recently revamped their archives. Last year, Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent realized that the YSL 1970s look had been widely referenced by pretty much every fashion designer—apart from YSL. Fashion houses are getting smarter about their histories. They’ve realized that if they don’t reinvent their past, somebody else will.
Nintendo has done an amazing job of porting its decade-old games onto new formats: The Super Mario World on their 3DS is pretty much the same one you could play in 1990, except now it gives you a headache quicker.
In a world where the Beetle just got relaunched to compete with the Fiat 500, where grown men walk around in Atari T-shirts, you’d think more tech companies would get the message: Some old design was really, really good. And they still own it.
Hermès was a saddlemaker in Paris at the turn of the century. One day, Madame Hermès asked her husband to solve a problem: Pretty handbags were fragile, and durable handbags were ugly. Monseiur Hermès obliged, and made her a couple of cute, strong bags. He made a few extra to sell in the shop, and they sold pretty well. Most saddlemakers went bust in the age of the Model T Ford. Today Hermès is worth around $19 billion. Merci, Madame Hermès.
Great fashion designers cultivate muses. Muses are extreme consumers of fashion: They push creatives further, they misuse their ideas in unexpected ways. Kate Moss isn’t paid those big bucks just to look good in clothes. In 2010, she wore one of her own Top Shop designs backward—and created a sensation.
When you think about it, that’s the role Steve Jobs played at Apple. He was the superconsumer, the ultra-demanding customer who pushed Jony Ive’s design team far harder than any focus group ever would. There’s a cliché that Apple doesn’t care what consumers think. That’s not true. Apple cultivates developers, who are also cutting-edge users of its products. Apple cares what its muses think. It just doesn’t care what you think, any more than Karl Lagerfeld cares what you’re wearing.