Fashion follows function: what’s next for the phone industry

Fashion follows function: what’s next for the phone industry

The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is a totally normal phone with One Weird Trick: it folds. As Dan Seifert explained in our full review, it’s the beginning of a new phase for foldables, one where buying a folding phone is something that could appeal to anybody, not just techies.

Samsung is promoting the phone in the ways Samsung usually does, touting features and spec improvements. But it’s also doing another thing: promoting the phone as something stylish. A full-on music video ad with BTS joins online vertical video ads that are as focused on the clothing and pockets the phone fits in as the phone itself. In essence, it’s the latest in a long time of tech companies trying to make the case that their phones are fashion.

That’s nothing new, but it’s still notable because with the Z Flip 3, it’s so explicit. Sure, there’s a spec argument about how its improved pocketability is a good reason to buy the Flip, but really that’s not its central appeal. The Z Flip is interesting because it’s different and because it looks better than your average phone. And maybe, if Samsung is very lucky, the fact that it’s a flip phone could connect it to the Y2K fashion trend happening right now.

The smartphone industry operates a lot like the fashion industry. Both have seasonal lineups (often in the spring and fall), both have a wide range of prices for products that do essentially the same thing, both encourage you to put a premium on a brand label, both have big communities of people who obsessively follow every trend and an even larger group of people who couldn’t care much less, and, of course, both have entire industries of influencers and journalists whose job it is to track the changes in those industries. (Hi, welcome to The Verge.)

There are plenty of other parallels to draw, but the key difference between fashion and phones is that phones have been sold on the basis of their technological progress. This year’s phone performs better or is faster or has some new thing it’s capable of that last year’s phone can’t do. And though there are obviously technical enhancements to clothing, usually the main reason to buy the new stuff is to stay on trend.

With fashion, the impetus is to participate in what’s new and what’s now. Phones have usually been about participating in the future.

And though I don’t think the march of technological progress in phones is going to grind to a halt, I do think that we’ve reached a point where the differences between a cheap phone and an expensive phone aren’t about basic functionality anymore.

Expensive phones are about quality and brand — sure, the camera works better, but you’re also getting a nicer screen, better materials, and whatever cachet comes with that phone’s brand. Sounds a lot like fashion, doesn’t it?

Apple has, of course, been pushing its phones as fashionable objects (or at least as stylish ones) for some time. It has the stronger brand and cultural cachet — both of which matter in fashion! But Apple’s influence and the overall technological trends have led most phones to look basically the same: big flat glass on the front and back, metal rails, camera bump. The only places for expression are the shapes of the rails and the color of the glass. Yawn.

Is the Z Flip 3 more stylish than other phones? That’s something I’ll leave you to decide. At minimum, it’s a phone that breaks out of the boring flat-glass-slab sameness of every other smartphone out there. That is meaningful, and it (pardon the pun) communicates something about you to the people who see it.

The Z Flip 3 also has many other cultural connotations. It’s a green bubble, it’s a Samsung, it’s a techy thing, it’s not common. All of these are reasons to like (or dislike) this phone, and few have anything to do with the refresh rate of its inner display (which is great, btw). The tech of the Z Flip 3 is actually boring, if I’m honest, but the phone itself is not.

What would it mean for the next iPhone or next Galaxy phone to not have any technical improvements at all but simply look different? We already know that form factor changes drive huge sales numbers for Apple. We’ve already seen the same basic dynamic happen with the various iPods Apple cycled through year after year.

One more thing: like clothing, phones participate in our perception of ourselves. In some cases, that can arise from the physical thing itself — but more often, it’s how you choose to use it: what apps you keep on your home screen, how often you use them, whether you let yourself get sucked in for hours on end.

That’s one reason that cases are such a big and important business. It’s not just about protecting the phone; it’s about expression. Ashley Carman has written about just how big the case business is and how closely big carriers are following fashion trends to make cases that people will want.

[Helena Elicerio has] been the company’s phone case product manager for the past two years. She previously worked in fashion as a buyer-merchandiser for companies like Gap and Delia’s, where she did essentially the same job she does now — evaluating products, trend spotting, and designing — except with clothing.
“When I was in fashion, one of the things people used to always make fun of me for was that I always changed my phone cases,” she says. “I don’t think anybody tied [cases] immediately back to a fashion accessory. I have an iPhone, but it looks exactly like everyone else’s, so this is how I can show my personality.”

This whole analysis may seem overwrought, but I think a better way to put it is under-analyzed. I’ve long believed that we do not take gadgets as seriously as we should as cultural objects. It’s tempting to say “It’s just a phone,” but I believe that’s the equivalent of saying “It’s just a jacket” or “It’s just a dress.”

Part of the importance of clothing is what it communicates to others. But the more important part is how it makes us feel. Confident, comfortable, bold, fit, stylish, or simple: clothing is about more than simply covering our bodies. And after clothing, what other physical object is on your person every day? Why shouldn’t its features include those feelings in addition to its megapixel count? I would argue that it does but that we’re doing a bad job of talking about it.

I believe that when it comes to phones, we’ve been too set in a design mindset instead of a fashion mindset. We’ve accepted the idea that form must follow function but that truism doesn’t apply to clothing, not really. And as the functionality of phones ceases to be a significant differentiator, something else will take its place. If we don’t understand what that new differentiator is, why it matters, and how it operates, we’re setting ourselves up to be snowed by the companies that do.

Tech operates in our culture like fashion does. And when you get right down to it: clothing is also technology, just very, very old technology. The way we see ourselves is mediated — and has always been mediated — by technology. Phones are fashion and fashion is culture, and all of that is way more complicated than it looks.

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