With the metaverse looming, a shift in designer could make a big difference.
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So Jony Ive, the former Apple chief design officer and consultant, and the man most responsible for the visual allure of Apple products — the man who helped transform computers and phones into objects of desire, who made them more than mere vectors of functionality, but rather badges of identity — and his erstwhile employer have reportedly agreed to sever their last ties.
What does this mean for the “mixed reality” headset, that doorway to the metaverse worn over the eyes that, rumor has it, Apple could release in the second quarter of next year? What does it mean, in other words, for those of us whose willingness to engage with alternate reality could be transformed by such a device?
After all, if ever a company could solve the problem of how to design a piece of equipment that would make you want to put a contraption on your face that would allow you entry to another world while your body existed in this one, it would be Apple.
If ever a company could surmount the precedent of Google Glass and even Oculus to make a wearable computer that didn’t look like a computer, it would be the company that had done it with laptops, music, earphones and, above all, the smartphone. If ever a brand could solve the challenge of making entry to the metaverse fashionable — a different problem, after all, then making fashion for the metaverse but one that is just as crucial to making the metaverse meaningful (and accessible) — odds were, it would be Apple.
Except maybe not anymore.
Without Mr. Ive, is the time of Apple as the bridge between hard and soft wear finally, truly, coming to an end? Are we at a tipping point between old Apple and new — between Apple as it was and a different Apple as it could be — like Phoebe’s Céline vs. Hedi’s Celine?
The origins. The word “metaverse” describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
An expanding universe. The metaverse appears to have gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. The term today refers to a variety of experiences, environments and assets that exist in the virtual space.
Some examples. Video games in which players can build their own worlds have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token, virtual-reality headset or some cryptocurrency, you’re also part of the metaversal experience.
How Big Tech is shifting. Facebook staked its claim to the metaverse last year, after shipping 10 million of its virtual-reality headsets and announcing it had renamed itself Meta. Google, Microsoft and Apple have all been working on metaverse-related technology.
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
Either way, it heralds a paradigm shift of another kind.
For most technology companies, a designer’s departure wouldn’t cause a blip in the public eye, but part of Apple’s brilliance lay in the way the company borrowed from the fashion world to drive consumption.
It was Steve Jobs’s understanding that the strategies of fashion could be co-opted and applied to previously dull and boring consumer electronics, so that they became tactile and visually seductive — thinner, sleeker, chicer — and helped the company transcend its industry. It was Mr. Jobs who embraced the value of a new model for each season; who understood how planned obsolescence, an essential premise of fashion, could be applied to function; and how a value system could be embedded in the aerodynamic lines of a device so that it became more than the mechanical sum of its parts.
And it was Mr. Jobs who formed a partnership with a young designer named Jony Ive, a Briton from London who joined the company in 1992 and defined the look of Apple for decades, inspiring an entire fashion week’s worth of brands to create accessories (iPad covers, iPhone covers) for the offerings.
It is not insignificant that after Mr. Jobs’s death in 2011, Mr. Ive stepped out of the shadows, along with Tim Cook, the chief executive, to become the face of the company. If Mr. Cook was the unassuming technocrat, Mr. Ive was the visionary: friend of Marc Newson (designer of the Lockheed lounge) and the designer Azzedine Alaïa, proponent of the merging of tech and fashion that took place around the Apple watch’s debut in 2014.
First came a hiring binge — Paul Deneve, the former chief executive of YSL, to be the vice president for special projects in 2013; Patrick Pruniaux, formerly of Tag Heuer, as senior director, special projects, the following year; and, also in 2014, Angela Ahrendts, the former Burberry chief executive, as senior vice president for retail — and then the rollout.
There was an unveiling just before New York Fashion Week; a dinner party in Paris at Mr. Alaïa’s and a reveal at the concept store Colette; a starring role on the cover of China Vogue; and, ultimately, an appearance by Mr. Ive as a host of the Met Gala with Anna Wintour in 2016.
Yet ultimately (and despite a collaboration with Hermès), the watch became not so much a fashion disrupter as a health and wellness gadget. Mr. Deneve left in 2016; Ms. Ahrendts and Mr. Pruniaux in 2019, the same year Mr. Ive became a consultant.
Since then, Apple has had no chief design officer, and there has been no design voice among the chorus of upper echelon of Apple executives; no single, presiding visual point of view. Instead, Mr. Ive’s remit was divided between Evans Hankey, the vice president for industrial design, and Alan Dye, the vice president for user interface design.
Fashion itself has largely dropped its foray into connected this and wired that (smart garments never really got mainstreamed) in favor of metaverse everything. Reports were that the look of a thing was less and less a priority in Appleland.
Still, Ms. Hankey and Mr. Dye worked alongside Mr. Ive for years on such products as the MacBook Air and the watch, and it seemed as if at least nominally Mr. Ive had maintained his ties as keeper of the flame and the aesthetics.
Until now. Which is why the coming headset and how it will look matters so much. Perhaps, given the potential timing, it will be the last product to have Mr. Ive’s fingerprints on its design. But perhaps it could be a sign of something more.
Both Apple and Mr. Ive declined to comment on their relationship for this article. But if Apple is to prove that this may be the beginning of a new era, and not the beginning of the end of its commitment to style as a signifier — not the beginning of watered-down versions of what came before, with the almost clichéd rounded edges and a sleek silver case — this will be the first real test. It is an opportunity to redesign not just a product, but to examine how we think about the product, and Apple itself. And though Mr. Ive reportedly had been noodling on the headset over the last few years of his contract, it may be preferable to not iterate as much as redefine.
Indeed, the fact that the watch did not prove a game changer or industry mover means there is opportunity for Ms. Hankey (or someone else, who knows?) to assert herself by creating something new, the way designers do when they take over a brand.
Think of it this way: Gucci and Celine or MaxMara? Upend everything we think we know and remake it for a new reality or just go through the motions reliably, if uninspiringly, again and again? All the signs point to the MaxMara model, but if there’s anything fashion teaches us, it’s that brands can survive a change in designer, as long as the company actually cares about, and empowers, that designer.
Once upon a time Apple learned some valuable lessons from fashion. We’ll see if it can do it again.