Fashion and gadgetry say, 'I do'

Is it the perfect union, or is one of the partners cheating on the other? Here's a peek at where this relationship is headed. Photos: Gadget cases don't have to be ugly Photos: Nokia's take on '20s glamour

A few years ago, I was working on a project and needed to carry my laptop around. The problem was that it didn't fit in the biggest tote I had, and I just couldn't bring myself to lug one of those ugly black padded computer bags--you might as well complete that look with pantyhose and sneakers.

Then a beauty-editor friend, with more swag than she knew what to do with, passed me a bag that had arrived full of products from Bliss: baby-blue leather, sturdy handles and almost the exact dimensions of my laptop. It was perfect, and every single time I carried it on the subway, women would ask me where I'd gotten it. It turned out I wasn't the only one who wanted to look more Bond Girl than "Working Girl."


The marriage of fashion and technology has long been touted as the perfect union, but one of the partners is usually cheating on the other. You have impractical little purses that can't carry more than a lipstick, or shock-absorbing shoes that make you look as if you were about to go on rounds at the hospital. And while the occasional artist constructs, say, an electronic skirt that tracks the stock market, for most of us, technological innovation has come down to one word: Lycra.

But there may be hope for this relationship after all. Modish personal gadgets have become ubiquitous, with everyone carrying at least a cell phone, often a laptop and a BlackBerry, and frequently an iPod as well. If you want proof that the tech companies are marketing to women, just look at the pastel-tinted iPod Minis, which Apple Computer calls fashionably compact. Wieger Deknatel, a marketing director at Philips, which is collaborating with Nike on MP3 players and clothing, says the company found that female consumers had just one additional demand when it came to personal technology: "that it looks nice on you."

When women are carrying that much gear, they're going to need a place to put it. "People were mentioning to the salespeople that they needed something to put their computer in," says Reed Krakoff, the executive creative director of Coach. "It had to be big enough, and they wanted padding, too." There was one item that fit the bill, but it was a diaper bag. They took it anyway. "It shows how people, when they need something, will figure out a way to make something work for their life," Krakoff says. "Now we call it the Multi-function Tote."

With accessories--meaning handbags--driving sales at many labels, designers can't afford to ignore their customers' demands for practicality. Some are even working off their own list of complaints. Tamara Mellon, Jimmy Choo's president, says that, having often rooted through her own handbag for her cell phone, laptop and BlackBerry, she knew she wanted something stylish that could carry them in a more practical way. And if fashion is going high-tech--with smarter bags; little cases for MP3 players; colorful "skins" that snap on to laptops; and loops, lariats and chains to keep hold of cell phones--technology is going high-fashion. Hewlett-Packard is sponsoring Proenza Schouler; Nokia is sponsoring Zac Posen.


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In a sign of just how seriously each industry is taking the other, Mary Alice Stephenson, the former fashion director at Harper's Bazaar (she's still a contributing editor there, as well as a sometime TV presenter), has crossed the divide to become a fashion consultant to Intel, a company known mainly for its computer chips.

I meet Stephenson, who's always been one of the more beautiful people in the front row, to talk tech over breakfast at Pastis. She slides onto the banquette next to me and opens her handbag, a Bottega Veneta with chunky inner pockets, to discuss how many images her PDA can store. Stephenson has become something of a technocrat, reeling off statistics, facts and products. Her newfound geek chic is impressive.

"I'm guessing you didn't go to MIT," I say, and she replies with a grin, "No, babes."

"I really think tech jewelry is going to start happening," she continues. "Chanel has a great bracelet, with the Chanel logo and a gem, that you hang your phone on."

"Who's going to wear these?" I ask. "Girls who are going out clubbing?"

"Absolutely not," she answers. "They're for women like you and me."


Photos: Nokia's take on
'20s glamour

Ha ha. Sure.

"I would never have worn my phone before," Stephenson says. "But then I started seeing really beautiful straps and chains--I mean, Bottega, Louis Vuitton--so when I'm running around across the globe, shooting, producing, I can hang my phone around my neck and it's elegant and chic."

Now that she mentions it, I actually don't have a good place to put my phone. One day I tossed it into the bottom of the baby stroller, where it got wet and died. Carrying it on a strap around my wrist suddenly doesn't seem so silly.

"The hands-free world is a really important world right now," says Gordon Thompson, the Cole Haan creative director, over the phone. Sitting at my desk, draped in Radio Shack wires connecting my earpiece, telephone and tape recorder, I sense that I'm not quite embodying this new wireless ideal. "So that's going to mean research into backpacks and cross-bodies," he adds. "I think that a classic top-handle bag is going to be pretty tough, particularly when it comes to travel."

Thompson isn't just thinking about what we'll be carrying. He has also conceived the G Series collaboration between Cole Haan and Nike, creating 21st-century stilettos with wicked little bows and waffle treads (the shoes make you wonder why every heel doesn't have Nike air).

"It's not just colors and trinkets," says John Jay, a partner at the advertising company Wieden & Kennedy, who works closely with Nike. "It is utilitarianism." In Japan, where he has an office, he's seeing jackets with slots for iPod headphones and pockets for cell phones that are reminiscent of the ammunition pouch on bomber-jacket sleeves.

As for the telephone itself, it helps if it looks good--because apparently others are looking. Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist who works on a team of social scientists at Intel, explains, "Cell phones are one of the mechanisms by which other people judge us."

Elise Co, a design consultant who wrote her master's thesis at MIT on fashion and technology, has just purchased a PalmOne Treo 650, the hot new phone/PDA. (Stephenson has it on her shopping list). "I definitely choose gadgets based on their looks," says Co, who also creates objects like a light-up raincoat and a bracelet made out of LED grids. These conceptual projects, she says, are "technology applied to fashion in an expressive way."

"The hands-free world is a really important world right now."
--Gordon Thompson,
Cole Haan

While it might be tempting to smile indulgently at an artist's whimsical obsession with fiber optics, I now know better, because Co has a surprise compatriot in the designer Narciso Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who says that he's tried to incorporate into his work techniques and materials "that are more applicable to athletic wear than high fashion," would rather go to Niketown than to any vintage vault. "I have this fantastic running jacket from Nike," he says. "I bought it because it had reflective tape on it, and then I discovered that it had a little tiny box with a switch. I didn't even know it was there--I thought it was my lighter! And inside the tape was a plastic fiber optic that can blink red or just glow red. I took it out and played with it for days."

For a reality check, I dial Katie Lee, the editor of Shiny Shiny, a British blog that does a girlie take on tech. Are we all going to be wearing fiber-optic jackets and dangling our phones from our necks?

In London, she tells me, everyone's playing one-upmanship with tiny "fashion phones" (some have screens that turn into mirrors when the light goes off) and hanging little charms from them--something she first saw in Japan. "It's women in their 20s to 30s," Lee says. "You've still got lots of disposable income and want the latest things. You go out with your friends and you get your phones out on the table." So, yes, she's seen our future, and there is phone jewelry in it: "I thought, my God, no one, surely, will wear this. And then a few months later, sure enough, there I am, strapping my phone round my arm." nFashion forwarding: the rising stakes of technological style have even Chanel hanging on the telephone.

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