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For the Fashion Set, the Jury Is Still Out on the Apple Watch

To launch its latest device, Apple wooed editors, retailers and other influential figures in the fashion industry. Are they buying in?
Apple's 18-karat gold "Edition" smartwatch. Photo: Apple

Apple's 18-karat gold "Edition" smartwatch. Photo: Apple

On Friday, Apple opened pre-orders for the Apple Watch, its first wholly new product since the iPad was released in April 2010. According to analysts, 1 million pre-orders were placed the first day — a solid number, if less impressive than the 4 million pre-orders placed for Apple's latest iPhone model. Consumers, clearly, are interested in the device.

But what about fashion consumers, and the people who influence them? As the first Apple device to be worn on the body — and the first that would put it in competition, not just with other PC or mobile phone manufactures, but watchmakers ranging from Swatch to Tag Heuer — Apple actively sought to align itself with fashion and luxury tastemakers. The company invited an "unprecedented" number of fashion editors to the announcement event in Cupertino. The device — which comes in three versions, ranging from a $350 "Sport" model to a $17,000 "Edition" in 18-karat gold, all with interchangeable straps —  made its first store appearance weeks later not at an Apple location, but at French boutique Colette during Paris Fashion Week alongside vocal Apple enthusiast Karl Lagerfeld and Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour. It made its debut editorial appearance on the cover of Vogue China; in the months since, it's popped up in half a dozen fashion editorials, plus a 12-page ad spread in Vogue. And this time, was among the outlets that released an early hands-on review of the watch.

These moves were coupled with all of the traditional Apple tactics that whip gadget aficionados into a frenzy: The daily torrent of rumors and reports about who got the contract to manufacture the chip and when the device would be unveiled; the live-streamed announcement event in Cupertino that suspended the web for an hour; the wait between the device's unveiling and when that device went on pre-order, then on sale; and the careful issuing of devices to various gadget reporters, all of whom, in agreement with Apple, simultaneously released their reviews two days before pre-orders went live.

No doubt about it, these tactics have driven a huge amount of awareness among tech and fashion enthusiasts alike. But besides myself, I only know of one other person in the fashion industry — our Editor at Large Lauren Sherman — who is committed to buying one, mostly because we're both curious, and because we're likely to write about it.

That's not to say the product won't be successful, or that Apple's efforts to align itself with fashion weren't smart. No one is betting Apple won't move a lot of units initially — some analysts have forecasted that Apple will sell between 20 and 22 million units in its first year — but whether the watch's appeal will extend beyond existing Apple fans and through multiple iterations depends, ultimately, on how good the product is. (The same can't always be said for pure fashion accessories, where marketing alone can make the difference between a successful $1,000 shoe and an average-selling $100 one.)

"Right out the gate it's going to sell like hotcakes, because it's a new Apple product, and people are practically evangelical in their support of Apple," says Adam Wray, editor of popular industry newsletter FashionRedef. "I don't see that their aggressive fashion-heavy marketing alone is going to encourage the fashion set to buy in right away. Whether is sticks around and penetrates beyond the tech to the fashion world depends on how functional it is, whether it improves people's lives in a measurable way."

The Apple Watch made its first editorial appearance on the cover of "Vogue" China. Photo: Vogue China

The Apple Watch made its first editorial appearance on the cover of "Vogue" China. Photo: Vogue China

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Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle, echoes his sentiments. "Positioning it as a fashion item is a clever marketing tool that adds an element of desirability to it… But that's not what's going to cause people to buy it," he says. "It is a really expensive product, in a category that people don't have very much need for. But I think fashion people are very excited about it, and interesting in checking it out and [perhaps] buying one."

No one I interviewed for this story is planning on buying an Apple Watch, though everyone I spoke to has either already tried one out, or plans to. Generally, people just don't know whether the device will be useful. No one was thrilled by its appearance, either, though that wasn't as important of a concern.

Wray, who doesn't wear a watch and has no particular desire to, doesn't find the device appealing from an aesthetic or functional point of view. "I find the whole concept of the smartwatch weirdly conservative," says Wray. "To me, one of the amazing things about smartphones and cell phones is that I don't need to wear a watch anymore." The iPhone, he argues, became popular with the fashion crowd because it's a beautiful, useful product. (That said, it's worth pointing out that it didn't catch on until the third version or so — fashion, for all its obsessiveness with newness, isn't always an early adopter when it comes to tech.) The Apple Watch has yet to prove it's up to the same standard. "If I were to buy a watch, I'd buy a 'fuck you, I'm rich' statement watch," he says, naming Supreme's Rolex Submariner in particular.

Wilson says he had been seduced by Apple's marketing leading into the launch, but after trying one on over the weekend, he decided he didn't want to buy one. While he says he likes the concept of a device that frees people from their phone screens, he was unimpressed by the watch's appearance and did not find it intuitive to use. The watches he tried on felt too heavy or tight — the magnetic strap felt "like wearing a handcuff," and the Sport version looked cheap and out of step with what's happening in the sport market right now, particularly for women. "Personally, I'd rather spend my money on a cool pair of shoes or a suit," he says.

Rachel Arthur, global senior editor of digital at trend forecaster WGSN and a frequent early adopter of wearable tech, says she's planning to wait for a later, more developed version. "Overall, it's just clunky," she says. "If I was really sporty, I might be more inclined. It's certainly the best version of what's out there."

The Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch Edition and Apple Watch. Photo: Apple

The Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch Edition and Apple Watch. Photo: Apple

Fashion tastemakers may not be convinced yet, but that doesn't mean they won't be — or that Apple's collaborations with the fashion press and high-end retailers like Dover Street Market and Selfridges, both of which will be carrying the watch, won't help sell devices. For one, it's generated a lot of press. It's also helped position the watch as a fashion and a luxury product — and gotten the attention of traditional luxury watch makers who, by designing smartwatches of their own, have formally acknowledged Apple as a competitor, something that's ultimately beneficial to Apple.

"I thought it was a bit cliché to gather up all the fashion editors and get them into one room," says Arthur. "But in terms of marketing, it did work, if you look at the amount of press coverage it got, that it was on the cover of Vogue, that it's appeared in all these editorials." Wray points out that the editorials have been important part of Apple's strategy to persuade consumers that the watch can work with their outfits.

Apple has done a good job of getting the fashion crowd's attention ahead of the launch of the Apple Watch — certainly more than any other product in the space to date (cases in point: the Samsung smartwatches and Google Glass). Now it has to sell.