Fashion can’t be tech’s new big thing

I never cared much for the tarted-up Burberry. The upscale British clothier sells its wares at prices for which one might reasonably demand a classic style lasting through several monarchies. But that’s just me talking. Burberry is said to have turned its traditionalist label around thanks to fashion innovation. So that’s just me talking.

Apple Inc. has hired Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts to apply her fashion smarts to updating its 400 stores and online shopping experience. On this I feel better equipped to predict success or failure.

A number of tech businesses are now getting mixed up with fashion. That’s a dangerous trend, for tech.

It threatens to turn tech’s minimalist cool — a user-centered simplicity mastered by Apple’s founding genius, Steve Jobs — into something complicated, not to mention sexist.

Apple has enhanced the iPhone’s innards several times, but set an early model on a bar next to the latest and they look fairly alike. Only jerks sniff at someone holding last year’s iPhone.

A strange article in The New York Times portrayed the tech foray into fashion as good for tech and a means of empowering women in the male-dominated gadget business. At Google Glass, the reporter wrote, “women are leading hardware and business efforts for one of Google’s biggest-ever product gambles.” (Google Glass is a kind of computer on goggles.) The new female hires are advising Google on color and look.

Most horrifying is the headline, “Women at Google Looking Past the Glass Ceiling” over a photo of Google founder Sergey Brin slouching in old jeans and rubber sole shoes — surrounded by Diane von Furstenberg and models in metatarsal-killing spikes, chains wrapped around their ankles. Was gender equity ever such?

We appreciate that much of tech has a fashion-accessory angle. The cutting-edge tablet and video camera have become the hipster’s conspicuous consumption. And yes, Google sells computer glasses, and Samsung, computer watches. But true tech elegance rides on complex capabilities under a cover of effortless simplicity. Me talking.

Consider the Apple Stores, which Burberry’s ex-CEO is supposed to save from their allegedly outdated look. Most I visit are mob scenes. One is reminded of the Yogi Berra line about an old Italian restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Two things make the Apple Stores beautiful. One is they are a place of tech fantasy. Go there and leave convinced that with a few clicks of the keys you can make an entry for the next Sundance Film Festival.

Secondly — and this is even more important — they serve as clinics offering outpatient care for those in the midst of technical meltdown. If you’re an Apple customer with a software problem, hardware problem or don’t-know-which problem, you can limp into an Apple Store knowing that you will skip away with some kind of answer, if not a fix.

Apple’s most loyal customers are we who have spent hours on the phone being sent to three continents for help getting a gadget to work. We know that the greatest luxury isn’t fashion. It is service.

The Apple Stores have that hip minimalist vibe with a layout as predictable as a Sam’s Club. Also predictable are the employees in colorful tees, there to listen patiently to your tale of confusion and carefully trained never to make the customer feel stupid.

Fantasy married to utility was Steve Jobs’ brilliant formula. Don’t mess with that.

Computerized glasses in tangerine are not exactly the next tech must-have. They illustrate consumer tech’s problem. It needs to find the next big new thing. The place to look for that is not on a fashion runway but in a geek’s garage.

Former Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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