Is the Fashion Wearables Love Affair Over?

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Is the Fashion Wearables Love Affair Over?
An Apple Watch displayed at CES 2018 in Las Vegas. Credit Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ssssh. Listen. Do you hear that?

That resounding silence emanating from the fashion world about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a.k.a. one of the biggest consumer tech product events of the year? It was only three years ago that wearables were the buzzword of the runways, predicted to trend in closets everywhere. Now they barely merit a mention.

It’s probably going too far to say that the love affair between fashion and technology is over. But it certainly seems to have cooled.

While there are still plenty of designer-name smartwatches coming to market — Fossil just introduced a style in collaboration with Kate Spade; Louis Vuitton entered the sector last year, teaming up with Google and Qualcomm Technology — they are not generating nearly the same flushed excitement that they once did.

Remember when?

In 2015, Brian Krzanich, the chief executive of Intel, gave the opening keynote speech at CES introducing a buttonsize computing system called Curie that was touted as a tool to change how our clothes function. It was part of a wearables push that included a smart bracelet made in collaboration with Opening Ceremony and smart glasses made with Oakley.

And that address followed the long-lead drumroll for the Apple Watch, which was introduced to the fashion crowd to great fanfare the previous September, just in time for fashion week. (There was so much breathless expectation over the product that some editors prioritized Cupertino, Calif., and the reveal over the New York ready-to-wear collections.)

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Marketed as a must-have accessory, the Apple Watch seemed a clear sign that Apple had its sights set on style, especially after the hiring of the former Yves Saint Laurent chief executive Paul Deneve and the former Burberry C.E.O. Angela Ahrendts in 2013, and the former Tag Heuer executive Patrick Pruniaux in 2014.

The next year, it was announced that Apple had teamed up with Hermès to create straps and watch faces. More brand partnerships were rumored. Apple sponsored the Met Gala in 2016.

But Mr. Deneve left Apple quietly late last year. Though the watch’s market share has grown, increasingly, it seems as if most of the focus on wearables has shifted to health and functionality, as opposed to aesthetics, and most of fashion’s focus on technology has shifted to production and manufacturing (3-D printing, A.I.), not new categories of items.

Maybe we should have expected it. I remember sitting in a Paris hotel room during the women’s wear shows as Jonathan Ive of Apple showed me the first Apple Watch and asking (I was skeptical) what it would do. He told me they didn’t really know; that they would have to see how people used it to understand what it would really become.

Presumably that’s what’s going on now.

When fashion and tech first started making goo-goo eyes at each other, there was a lot of speculation as to whether two such different worlds could ever really mesh. You could understand the attraction. Often as not they share the same consumer, who is making choices about whether to buy, say, a phone, or a coat. Design matters deeply to both sectors. There was a lot of talk about learning to speak each other’s language.

And they probably have, to a certain extent. Smartwatches were the beginning. But if this is going to be a meaningful partnership, that can’t be the end. Especially because no matter how many designers and brands get involved, the end result seems to look pretty much the same. There is only so much you can do, style-wise, within the engineering limits of the wristwatch form. As a result, you get what we have now which is … yawn.

The problem is still that, a few smart sportswear items aside, no one is really sure exactly what role technology should play in the rest of our wardrobe. What do we want our clothes to do, beyond what they already do? Maybe temperature control, often fantasized about. Maybe not.

Because here’s the thing: Fashion choices have always communicated — about identity, values, community — pretty effectively to the world. Even without Siri or Alexa to help.

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