How Fashion and Tech Tightened Their Bond in 2015

From the rollout of the Apple Watch to former 'Lucky' editor Eva Chen joining Instagram's team, this year brought the two industries closer than ever.
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Eliza Brooke
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From the rollout of the Apple Watch to former 'Lucky' editor Eva Chen joining Instagram's team, this year brought the two industries closer than ever.

Though fashion and technology go way back — from advances in manufacturing and fabric capabilities to more aesthetically motivated displays, like Alexander McQueen's use of robots on the runway for spring '99 and Hussein Chalayan's animated dresses — the two industries aligned themselves with notable care in 2015. That was especially true of the major players in each, with Apple strengthening its ties to the fashion world at large, LVMH's Tag Heuer teaming up with Intel and Google to put out a luxury smartwatch and Facebook-owned Instagram hiring Eva Chen as its first head of fashion partnerships. Clearly, we have a lot to look forward to in 2016.

Read on for the biggest developments in fashion and technology's relationship this year.

Christy Turlington Burns and Tim Cook demoing the Apple Watch. Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Christy Turlington Burns and Tim Cook demoing the Apple Watch. Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The Apple Watch

As far as the intersection between apparel and technology is concerned, no single event made as big a splash as the release of the Apple Watch in April, thanks to Apple's deliberate and multipronged approach to courting the fashion industry. In February, the company took out 12 pages in Vogue to advertise the device; at a live announcement in March, Apple CEO Tim Cook recruited Christy Turlington Burns to help demonstrate its capabilities; in April, we learned that Karl Lagerfeld was rocking a custom gold Apple Watch; and this fall, Apple further elevated the watch's standing by adding Hermès-crafted bands to its offering

Apple's blossoming relationship with the fashion industry isn't a one-way street built to sell a specific product, though. While the company has a rich history of poaching executives from the luxury world, LVMH sought to harness Apple's technical prowess right back, and hired Apple Music's Ian Rogers as chief digital officer in September. A month earlier, as though to underscore Apple's relevance to the style sector, Vanity Fair elected Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive to its annual best-dressed list.

Fashion loves novelty and it loves power players, so it's not too surprising that editors and brands would get behind the Apple Watch. But will that interest ebb or grow with the second generation of the device? Sit tight. Word has it the Apple Watch 2 will arrive some time in 2016.

The Tag Heuer Carrera Connected. Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

The Tag Heuer Carrera Connected. Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Tag Heuer, Intel and Google

Speaking of LVMH and smartwatches, this year delivered another competitor to the Apple Watch: Tag Heuer Connected. The $1,500 device, which came out in November, results from a collaboration between LVMH-owned Tag Heuer, Google (whose Android Wear system powers the watch) and Intel, which has entered various fashion partnerships over the last few years. Compared to the smart bracelet Intel created with Opening Ceremony in 2014 — a piece that emphasized design over functionality, much to the chagrin of some tech reporters tasked with reviewing it — Tag Heuer Connected is a much more serious offering, and one that makes us hopeful about the smart glasses Intel is working on with Luxottica.  

Kevin Systrom and Diane Von Furstenberg at the CFDA Awards. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Kevin Systrom and Diane Von Furstenberg at the CFDA Awards. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Instagram

Fewer than six years after Instagram launched — and under four since it was acquired by Facebook — the photo sharing app has come to exert no small influence on how fashion folk do business. That manifested in many ways this year. In August, a month before Public School's Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne presented their first collection for DKNY, the label deleted all of its past Instagram photos to signal a creative reset. Looking to set herself apart from the overcrowded pack, designer Misha Nonoo opted out of a runway show and instead debuted her collection on Instagram during September's New York Fashion Week. For the first full year, the powerhouse modeling agency IMG ran a formal Instagram scouting program, a testament to the development team's belief that the platform is a game-changer for discovering new faces. Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez said in November that Instagram has become their best resource for visual research — they used to visit the library, apparently.

As a tool, Instagram is remarkably flexible, and there are dozens more ways that designers, models and editors have made the platform work for them — Marc Jacobs, for one, found in it a new channel for letting loose his feisty, fun personality. But as a company, Instagram significantly deepened its connection with the fashion industry this year, too. Back in June, the CFDA honored Co-Founder and CEO Kevin Systrom with its Media Award (presented, fittingly, by Kim Kardashian), and just a month later, Instagram hired former Lucky editor Eva Chen as its first-ever head of fashion partnerships. (Doubling down on her participation in the fashion-tech scene, Chen joined Yoox Net-a-Porter Group's board of directors this month.) If recruiting one of fashion's most likable and well-respected editors isn't an indication that Instagram has big plans for the industry, we don't know what is. 

The Outdoor Voices pop-up in New York. Photo: Outdoor Voices

The Outdoor Voices pop-up in New York. Photo: Outdoor Voices

The start-ups winning over fashion and tech investors

I've heard some disgruntled tech reporters complain about online-first fashion brands like Warby Parker and Everlane getting called "tech start-ups." They contend that e-commerce is just how things are done these days; the product, being an analog one, disqualifies it from the "tech" designation. Still, many of these brands derive their funding not from grants and prizes for young designers, but from investors whose portfolios are otherwise full of companies like Plated and Duolingo, placing them in a diverse, growing pool of venture capital-backed fashion start-ups that also include wearable tech makers, mobile shopping apps, beauty appointment booking services and secondhand e-tailers.

So who got funded this year? The young, aesthetically understated activewear brands Tracksmith and Outdoor Voices did, no doubt benefitting from the broader popularity of "athleisure" and athletic clothing. The online consignment category built on its growth from 2014, with The RealReal, ThredUp and Poshmark raising $40 million, $81 million and $25 million this year, respectively. And perhaps no player with a foot planted in apparel and beauty raised as much money as Jet, the Amazon competitor that launched in July with $225 million and added another $350 million to fuel its growth this November. 

In addition to gaining the support of big-name tech VCs, a number of these start-ups attracted fashion world investors, too. Outdoor Voices, for instance: Its backers for the $7-million round it closed in October include General Catalyst, Forerunner Ventures and APC, with which it's now working on a collaboration — a meaningful vote of confidence. In April, Reformation raised $12 million from Stripes Group, 14W, Theory's Andrew Rosen, Miroslava Duma and Karlie Kloss. The data-heavy e-commerce aggregator Lyst, already funded by a handful of venture capital firms, brought on Groupe Arnault as an investor that same month, cracking open its access to the upper echelons of the fashion world.