What Happened to the Apple Watch Being About Fashion?

From a luxury on your wrist to a popular tracker for health, fitness and more.

Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram
Sareena Dayaram Senior Editor
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia's financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
Expertise Huawei, Oppo, smartphones, smartwatches Credentials
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Sareena Dayaram
6 min read
Apple/Gif by Arielle Burton/CNET

Remember when the Apple Watch made its debut seven years ago? There wasn't a disruptive app or any groundbreaking new features (compared to what was already available on other smartwatches). Instead, Apple marketed its new wearable as a fashion accessory, complete with an array of swappable bands and even a solid gold edition that cost up to $17,000. The watch required an appointment to buy, landed a spot in Vogue, and appeared on the wrists (or Instagrams) of several A-list celebrities including Beyonce, Drake and Katy Perry. It was a luxury on your wrist.

When Apple launched the Series 9 on Tuesday, it was cast in a very different light. There wasn't a gold edition (that disappeared by the second Apple Watch) and the price range narrowed considerably since that first edition (even with the addition of the $800 Ultra 2). Apple also built, albeit modestly, on its suite of health and fitness features that had helped catapult it to being a leader in the wearable space. Apple leads the global smartwatch market with 22% of shipments in the second quarter of 2023, according to Counterpoint Research.

"Apple Watch is an indispensable companion that helps millions of people with their health, fitness, communications and safety," said Jeff Williams, Apple's chief operating officer in a press release for the Watch Series 9.


A sampling of some health and fitness features on the Watch Series 9.

Apple/Screenshot by Sareena Dayaram

The pivot to fitness: Self-improvement trumps self-expression

In the early days of the original Apple Watch, the marketing maestros at Apple positioned the now-iconic timepiece as a fashion accessory. It was more than just a gadget. While it could do smart things like track your heart rate and measure calories burned, Apple wasn't laser-focused on health and fitness at the time. After all, Cook shared the stage with model Christy Turlington in an indication of how Apple was positioning the product. 

It's worth examining the context around its arrival: The first Apple Watch arrived on the scene in 2015, when virtually every major tech company, as well as a wave of new startups, were creating a watch or fitness band. Apple wanted to elevate itself from the crop of competitors and invested heavily to position its wearable as one that makes a fashion statement, as opposed to one that's primarily for fitness tracking. It was also a major test for CEO Tim Cook, who was relatively new on the job and was leading Apple's foray into a new product line.


Apple CEO Tim Cook shows the Apple Watch to model Christy Turlington Burns after the company's event in March 2015.

Shara Tibken/CNET

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Apple is putting substantial effort into positioning its watch as a premium fashion item," Ben Wood, of CCS Insight, told CNET in October of 2014. "This is reflected in the people it has hired and the launch strategy that has seen the Apple Watch appearing at events like Paris Fashion Week and gracing the cover of Vogue and other fashion publications." 

But that fashion-first approach flopped initially, driving Apple to make some changes. By the time the Apple Watch went on sale in April, Apple had shifted its focus to fitness instead of fashion, and sales began flooding in. Apple later renamed that original Apple Watch model as the Series 0 when the company began debuting new versions of the watch. 

"Watch Series 0 was successful overall but the18k gold edition was not, because no matter how you dress it up, a smartwatch has an upgrade cycle, while a Patek Philippe is an heirloom," Greengart told CNET.

As the Apple Watch evolved with each new series, it became more focused on fitness and health features. When the Watch Series 2 was unveiled one year later, Cook referred to it as the "ultimate device for a healthy life." The Apple CEO's keynote introduced the second-gen wearable with a promotional video jam-packed with a range of sports including swimming, tennis, basketball, cycling. Nike's brand chief was also introduced on stage to unveil a standalone model (the Apple Watch Nike Plus), complete with its own set of bands and watch faces. It was touted as the "perfect running partner." 

"Apple switched its initial focus from fashion to health because it wasn't working." Greengart said. "Once Apple shifted its focus to more utilitarian benefits, tweaked the user interface and improved performance, the Apple Watch exploded in popularity."

Today, millions of people around the world wear Apple Watches to remind them to take breathing breaks, stand up during their workday, and squeeze in one last workout before calling it a day. Once a fashion accessory, the Apple Watch is now widely considered an essential tool or enabler for health and fitness. Going a step further, the Apple Watch has also been credited with saving lives by alerting users of potential health issues or emergencies.

An Apple Watch Series 9 Hermes edition

Hermes designs a multicolor leather strap for the Apple Watch as part of their years-long partnership.

Apple/Screenshot by Sareena Dayaram

Even with the fitness pivot, Apple Watch hasn't abandoned fashion entirely. The Watch Series 8 can be personalized digitally with watch faces and physically with bands that come in many colors, materials and sizes. Apple also maintains its years-long partnership with Hermes, the heritage French fashion house, that crafts luxurious straps for the Apple Watch in chic colors and designs. Apart from Apple is a vast third-party accessory market, which includes brands like Casetify creating casings and straps that serve up even more avenues for self-expression. 

"Apple Watches remain extremely stylish, and Apple offers plenty of materials and bands to customize the look and feel," Greengart said.

Apple seems to be exploring an even more futuristic way to personalize your watch. This year alone, Apple was granted patents for watch straps that change color via an iPhone app and watch faces that can color coordinate based on what the wearer wants to match it with. In theory, the latter could mean holding an object of choice over the Apple Watch display (say your T-shirt), pushing a button to activate the sensor and then witnessing the watch face color change to match your hue of choice.

Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch Ultra made its debut last year and has since drawn praise for its useful features.

James Martin/CNET

Apple Watch Series 9 and beyond 

The headline features of Apple Watch Series 9, unveiled Tuesday, include a faster processor and the ability to double tap your fingers to execute tasks like answer calls or start timers without ever touching the watch. Although a bigger health upgrade is expected to arrive next year for the 10-year anniversary of Apple's popular timepiece, the Series 9 is still an indicator of the company's commitment to health and fitness.

New to the Series 9 is the ability for Siri to pull up your Health app data. You can also log your state of mind into the Mindfulness app and measure time spent in daylight using its ambient light sensor. This builds upon Series 8's capabilities, which let you measure blood oxygen levels, take an ECG, monitor heart rate and detect falls. It also integrates with other Apple devices and services, such as the iPhone, AirPods, Apple Music and Fitness Plus.

For those who want a more rugged and capable version of the Apple Watch Series 9, there is the Apple Watch Ultra 2. This model is designed to withstand harsh environments and extreme activities. It has a stronger case, a longer battery life and more sensors. It can also track additional sports, such as skiing, surfing, and climbing. 

Watch this: Apple Watch Series 9 with Double Tap: First Look

"As Apple has leaned in harder on health and fitness, consumers responded -- the Apple Watch Ultra has been a hit, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its more utilitarian looks," Greengart said. 

The Ultra also has attracted celebrity fans, but for different reasons than the original Apple Watch. Musician and watch collector John Mayer reportedly showed off 2022's Watch Ultra in an Instagram story weeks after its launch, praising the timepiece for its utility.

"This is the first Apple Watch that has excited me as a mechanical watch collector." Mayer wrote in a photo of the watch after sharing he had been using it for a week." It's loaded with capability and what I call 'aspirational functionality.'"

However, the Apple Watch faces many rivals that offer competing features, such as Samsung, Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and others. Some of them have advantages over the Apple Watch in terms of price, battery life, compatibility or customization.

Either way, the Apple Watch has undergone a steady transformation in the past seven years and managed to dominate its category. It's widely considered to be a versatile and reliable device that can do more than just tell time. After the launch of the Series 9 and Ultra 2 Tuesday, we can look back at its evolution and wonder what Apple will do next year for its 10-year anniversary.