On the Runway: Will.i.am Moves Wearables Off the Wrist With the Help of Kendall Jenner and Apple

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On the Runway: Will.i.am Moves Wearables Off the Wrist With the Help of Kendall Jenner and Apple

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Vanessa Friedman

Vanessa Friedman

ON THE RUNWAY

Wearable technology is finally beginning to go beyond the wrist.

“Why should you have to take off your earphones when you finish listening to something and put them back in a box or bag, instead of just wearing them around your neck like jewelry?”

That was Will.i.am, the musician/TV personality/entrepreneur, co-founder of the Black Eyed Peas, and founder of i.am+, a wearable technology company with a focus on youth education, during an interview by telephone while traveling by car from Manchester, England, to London.

It is the kind of question that, when voiced (especially by a coach of “The Voice UK”), seems enormously obvious, but, apparently, has not occurred to any of us to ask. And it clearly reflects some of the issues in bridging the gulf between fashion and technology: It’s not the products that are the problem, but figuring out what the products should be and what we want our stuff to do.

The question did occur, however, to Will.i.am, whose full name is William Adams. So he created an answer.

Called i.am+ BUTTONS, it is a pair of Bluetooth headphones backed by magnetic metallic discs that, when in the ears, look like a cross between ear plugs and giant studs in the shape of old vinyl records. When not in use, the discs connect via the magnets to form a necklace of sorts.

“You know, we all love buying shoes to match our outfits and bags to match our outfits, but for some reason we don’t expect our technology to match our outfits,” Will.i.am said. “Why not? Why should we just accept that? What I want to do is change that.”

He’s not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. Originally made as accessories to his first i.am+ product, a bangle/smartwatch called Puls, he was test-driving the Buttons one day when he ran into Angela Ahrendts, senior vice president of retail at Apple. “What’s that?” she said, pointing to the earphones around his neck. He told her, and she told him that he should sell them as products in their own right. In Apple stores.

(Will.i.am has a history with Apple, being involved in the company’s first foray into original television — he is a mentor on the reality series “Planet of the Apps” — as well as “The 411 with Mary J. Blige,” a show that streams on Apple Music).

So he will: Buttons are being produced in four colors that match the iPhone 7, and are to go on sale in Apple stores beginning on Wednesday; additional shades will be available on the i.am+ website and through stores such as Max Field for the holidays. The Buttons also work with Android products, have a battery life of six to eight hours, and are priced at a luxury level: $229.95, with a percentage of sales going to benefit the i.am.angel Foundation, which focuses on teaching inner-city youth about technology and core subjects.

Aesthetically speaking, though, you might think of Buttons as the anti-AirPod, Apple’s wireless earphones that, when introduced in September, were compared to tampons and “ear cigarettes.” So it will be interesting to see how Buttons are received. To me, they seem like most first-run products: a great idea, but the reality could use some tweaking.

The discs, after all, are the most attractive, fashion-y part of the product, but they are also where the magnets reside, so when worn as a necklace they are inside what is effectively the pendant, and the ear piece is what sticks out. As a result, instead of looking like a medallion, which would be a cool addition to an outfit, giving it a 1970s edge, it looks kind of like a little rubber angel. Or a pair of earphones worn around the neck.

Still, my guess is that things may evolve: Will.i.am has enlisted a host of major fashion names in his cause. Kendall Jenner and Naomi Campbell joined the company as partners and ambassadors, and model the new product in its campaign.

“Kendall represents the new millennial face of fashion, and Naomi is the queen of fashion,” Will.i.am said, explaining why he asked them to get involved. Also adding fashion heft and taste is André Leon Talley, who has joined as style and fashion director. And Kering, the parent company of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, is an investor.

Together, they are gearing up for a series of introductions of connected fashion technology products in the next year that will include Button bomber jackets, with connected collars, and Button chokers.

Meanwhile, Will.i.am plans to involve other collaborators — musicians, athletes — to create an ecosystem of advisers on what people wear in all parts of life.

“I never wanted to do fashion from a me-too perspective,” he said. “I want to add to the conversation.”

Tune in to see who is listening.

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