An essay on why tech needs fashion by Liam Brophy
In the wake this year’s London Fashion Week, journalists were quick to herald the collision of the worlds of fashion and technology. Jimmy Choo’s virtual showroom, a host of social media integrations and the announcement of the new Apple Watch a week before all conspired to advance the idea that technology was now in the spotlight. Diane von Furstenberg seemed to capture the mood well: ‘The definition of fashion is ‘l’air du temps,’ the essence of the time we live in, so it is absolutely normal that it meets technology.’ The impressively vague term ‘digital first fashion’ was bandied about. The idea that fashion and technology had finally come of age together was invoked so often that it seemed as if many were trying to wish the combination into existence. There’s a good reason for that.
Fashion and technology is a strange and uneasy marriage. There was a time, in the dimly- remembered neon wonderland of the 1980s, where the two could have seemed like natural enemies. Back then, the design of most wearable technology was proudly ugly. Not even ugly in the brutalist sense that might appeal to a particular kind of aesthete. It was unadorned plastic radiating raw ugliness. In many ways, it was a statement of intent from Silicon Valley. At heart, the tech world is utilitarian; most comfortable when it can yolk all known human experience and moods to stats and metrics. Given that mindset, it’s small wonder that the tech world has, for a long time, shown nothing short of contempt for fashion. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s recent endorsement of his refusal to change his ubiquitous grey t-shirt: “I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
Leaving aside the scary consideration of whether anything except a robot masquerading as a human could sincerely utter that sentence, this is not a novel attitude. When it comes to criticisms of fashion, it’s the old standard. Fashion is frivolous, it’s an obsession. The (Wikipedia-endorsed) definition of obsession is: "A strong attachment to a person or thing, especially such an attachment formed in childhood or infancy and manifested in immature or neurotic behavior that persists throughout life." Typically, obsession is associated with weakness and immaturity. Obsession is an accessory of the incomplete person. The obsessive puts herself in proximity to an object of obsession, and its radiation quells the sensation of insecurity roiling away inside. The old standard criticism of fashion is that it’s flippant; a whimsical distraction for insubstantial people. Pretty girls are obsessed with pretty dresses. That more or less seems to be the Zuck’s take on what fashion can offer the world.
It seems slightly unfair that the tech-bros of Silicon Valley should be allowed to knock fashion for its immaturity. Tech is an industry that is easily as prey to faddishness as fashion. Having worked in a tech firm, there’s a particular sensibility to the place: an air of boyish conspiracy to everything in the office. An overt excitement that "It's so cool that we can wear sandals to work!" with the obvious subtext of "Finally we don't have to wear grown-up clothes anymore!" left unsaid. Every superhero t-shirt, every ill-fitting pair of jeans, every meeting conducted pacing around in socks solving a Rubik’s Cube is a snub to the demands of a scary adult world looming outside the tech bubble. And yet, in a very real sense, these stupid-faced manchildren and the toys that they have foisted on us rule the world. Technology is our obsession, and it snuck up on us. The smartphone delivers us to a dreamy, decentralised state of comfort. It’s a kind of perpetual refrain of modern interaction; what we revert to whenever the texture of life becomes boring.
If that is the case, and tech is an inescapable part of our lives, does that mean that tech is in fashion? Does it maybe mean that technology has supplanted fashion? While writing this article , it’s been pointed out more than once to me that the iPhone is the most ubiquitous accessory on the planet. That is very true, but in no real way could it ever be considered a fashion statement. In one sense, the iPhone is a marvel. In its design, it is pitched perfectly: ‘designed’ just enough to appeal to everyone while alienating nobody. If you were setting out to create a product that could be regarded as genuinely world-changing, that has an almost universal appeal, you couldn’t do better than the iPhone. It’s an amazing achievement in mediocrity. That’s not to invoke mediocrity in a bad way. It’s the kind of high-end mediocrity that you’d associate with Christopher Nolan films or Coca-Cola. The iPhone is in one sense one of the most remarkable achievements in design ever created. In another sense, it’s also a very boring product. The current aesthetic of tech is a homogenising dead end. If the tech world has a deficiency, it’s that it’s unwilling to embrace frivolity. All great fashion is in some way alienating. It’s the essence of fashion’s appeal.
If one were to reconstruct Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a modern audience, you’d probably place wi-fi access as the foundation of the pyramid, the kind of basic necessity that allows all modern human interaction to flourish. If technology is going to be so densely interwoven into the fabric of human experience, it’s important that we be able to enjoy it; to tune it to our own particular habits and preferences. At the moment, we all experience technology in much the same way. That way of experiencing technology works well for the people who live and breathe tech, but not for the rest of us. Kate Losse has described it well: “Tech’s obsession with making everything from one’s dishwasher to one’s heartbeat connected to the digital cloud isn’t necessarily freeing. After all, much of what fashion is about—a mood, a culture, an experience—cannot be registered or shared by a metric, and what's exciting to the technophile may seem sterile to the artist.” The great promise of letting fashion confront technology is as much about importing the mindset of fashion into technology as it is about attacking bland design itself. The result of all of this intensifying collaboration will ideally be a way of experiencing and living with technology unique to all of us, which is certainly a net win for everyone outside of Silicon Valley.