Hewlett-Packard Taps Fashion for R & D: A long-term innovation strategy?

This weekend, Hewlett-Packard proved that it is committed to tapping the design world as a rich resource for technical innovation, and not merely aesthetics. On Saturday night in New York, the PC maker sponsored the runway show of fashion designer Vivienne Tam. Last year, she designed a stunning, deep-red netbook for HP, which she had sent down the runway as well in models’ arms, as a substitution for clutch purses. On Saturday, her models strutted with a new HP netbook, this time in a subtle gold color and emblazoned with softly hued butteflies that looked like they were hand-painted, but were mass-produced using a new manufacturing technique that Tam helped HP’s engineers and supply chain staff develop. The project proves that the fashion world can serve as an intriguing source of R & D ideas for tech companies. Here’s a look at the device, which won’t hit stores until Spring 2010:

I met Tam and Satjiv S. Chahil, HP's senior VP in charge of worldwide marketing for the Personal Systems Group, a few days before the debut of the new netbook. Tam admitted that she had set the bar high for herself with last year's richly hued netbook, which also featured an intricate design of multi-colored peony flowers and a lipstick red keyboard. "What could I do to follow up?" she said. "The new computer can be 'worn' with everything." In other words, she designed with the concept of the PC as a vital accessory and tool for women; making it more "wearable" could appeal to more people.

The first edition, HP says, has sold out. The company won't release production numbers, but will treat the Tam-designed netbooks as true fashion items. This means that they will be available for only a certain amount of time. The strategies behind this: one, to push HP to innovate more frequently by tapping Tam's ideas, and two, to create an object that is "coveted," said Chahil.

Chahil also said that the ongoing collaboration with Tam indicates that HP "has established a new lifestyle brand." The netbooks will be sold in Tam's New York boutique as well as high-end, non-technology outlets.