Benner on Tech: Balenciaga, Altuzarra, Apple?

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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The other day I stepped into the Apple Store on 5th Avenue, a white-walled, blonde wood, glass-topped temple built for iPhones and titanium laptops. I got overwhelmed by the crowds, loud music, bright lights and tech nerds in T-shirts selling and repairing Apple devices.

I walked up the street to Barneys for a sensory break. Sparkly jewelry and the sheen of expensive fabric pierced an otherwise subdued experience. Well-coiffed saleswomen showed off $24,000 crocodile totes. When my shock wore off, the similarly-shaped $2,500 models seemed relatively affordable.

With less than four weeks to go before the Apple Watch hits shelves, Apple is trying to inject a little bit of Barneys into its operations. 9to5Mac says the company has poached sales and marketing people from Yves St. Laurent, Louis Vuitton and, naturally, Burberry. For the most expensive watch models, Apple is creating a retail experience that includes a personal shopper and a shop-by-live-video option.

Some Apple watchers don’t think that the Edition, which starts at $10,000, should exist at all. It’s a bad idea. It’s a betrayal of Apple’s original commitment to make “high-quality products at a mass-market level.” It’s a watch for jerks. The Verge put it this way:

Most people spend thousands on watches for one of three reasons: they either collect watches, want to acquire an heirloom to pass down, or they want to make a fashion statement. Outside of collectors, the Apple Watch Edition doesn’t check any of those boxes.

These criticisms make sense if you’re selling electronics. But with the watch, Apple is trying to sell high-end fashion, which plays by a different set of rules. Luxury brands regularly create, say, a $24,000 handbag for a few rich customers who exude a special sort of wealth and taste. (This is why designers give this model to celebrities for free.) Then the (upper middle class) hoi palloi buys lots of $2,000 versions to try to capture some of that affluent glow.

Apple Watch owners will probably have to buy a new watch almost every year just to keep up with tiny improvements. Electronics buyers may balk at upgrading laptops and phones with such frequency, but even very expensive items are somewhat disposable in the world of luxe fashion. Shoppers snap up new shoes, handbags and clothes every season, even if they’re not all that different.

I don’t think the Apple watch is particularly good-looking. I prefer this. But if I see it on enough of the right wrists, I might change my mind. (I assume that’s how this sandal style got popular. Ordinarily sane people found it chic after seeing it on enough of the right feet.) Then I’ll be caught up in the particular cycle of branding, desire and consumerism that fuels labels from Alexander McQueen to Zac Posen. If enough people get swept away, Apple could become a true fashion brand, setting yet another trend in the hardware world. 

** Related: Mashable says that former employees of Apple, Google, Pixar, Hewlett-Packard, NASA and the luxury watch company Movado have created a smart watch that looks like a classic luxury timepiece. 

Ventureland

The Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins trial has come to a close. Kleiner was found not guilty on all counts, including gender discrimination and retaliation. I say that this is still an important and even victorious moment for women in tech. Lots of tech denizens agreed on Twitter, but some did not. Pao herself said that the battle was worth it. Reuters talked to jurors who said that her performance on the stand was uneven. One of the few jurors to vote for Pao talked about how emotional the trial was.

Airbnb is the “alternative accommodations” sponsor of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, reports the Associated Press.

Pebble’s Time smartwatch shattered two Kickstarter records, CNN Money reports. It was the fastest project to raise $1 million and the most-funded campaign.

Spotify could add podcasts to its service to compete with Apple, reports Bloomberg.

Uber has worked closely with Project 5 Starr, a program that helps deactivated drivers get reactivated. BuzzFeed says the relationship raises questions about whether Uber drivers are actually employees and not independent contractors. The company will pay for commercial passenger transport licenses for all of its drivers so that it can run a legal cab-hailing service in Germany, reports Reuters. Uber’s passenger account information is for sale on the dark web, Motherboard reports.

Healthy Ventures, a San Francisco-based digital health seed investment group, raised $10.7 million for its first fund, reports Fortune.

Michael de la Maza, a Boston-based startup mentor and investor, took Sam Altman up on his bet that we’re not in a bubble.

The on-demand economy is turning us all into shut-ins, argues Matter’s Lauren Smiley. Fusion says that companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates are spending tons on Craigslist ads to recruit workers.

Only five women made the Forbes Midas List, which is lower than the national average of female venture capitalists, reports Re/code.

People and Personnel Moves

Tim Cook penned an editorial in the Washington Post warning against the dangers of discriminatory laws like the “religious freedom” legislation passed in Indiana.

Ron Wyden, a Democratic Senator from Oregon, has become one of Congress’s leading voices on Internet issues such as surveillance reform, online privacy and cybersecurity, reports the Daily Dot.

Companies

Facebook is trying to get Chinese companies to advertise on its platform to reach an overseas audience, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nothing really changes for media companies if Facebook distributes their news stories, argues Eugene Wei, the head of product at Flipboard.

Google is working with Johnson & Johnson to develop robots that can help surgeons, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Security Watch

GitHub, the software development startup, was hit by a cyberattack, reports Bloomberg.

Leaking state secrets is OK for the government, but not for whistleblowers, argues the Guardian.

Post-Sony hack, the entertainment industry is embracing cybersecurity, the New York Times reports.

News and Notes

Carly Fiorina says that her chances of running for president are over 90 percent

Wall Street middlemen are helping startup employees cash out of their companies before an IPO, reports the Wall Street Journal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net