Cell phone Makers, Users heed Fashion Worldís Call
By Christopher Rhoads WSJ 03/18/05
Since the introduction of the devices in the 1980s, what has distinguished one from another is whatís inside them, such as battery life, messaging and other functions. Now, their outsides are becoming increasingly important. Shape, color, screen images and sounds are no longer incidental-theyíre among the "it" features that are starting to drive the industryís sales and growth.
Users, particularly trend setting sorts, view their phones not just as communication devices, but as extensions of their identity, much like wristwatches or cars. "Itís not about the minutes or the service," says Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the rap and hip-hop music impresario and occasional actor. "Itís about how the person is defined."
On Monday, Mr. Combs gave a keynote speech at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association convention in New Orleans, and spoke about the fusion of hip-hop and handset cultures. He also hosted a fashion show where the models grabbed on cell phones. In an interview, he said he plans to design his own line of cell phones.
Mr. Combs, usually known as a first mover in fashion and music circles, will be amplifying a trend thatís already well underway in Europe, and parts of Asia. Beginning last summer, for instance, Siemens launched three limited-editions cell phones together with Escada AG, the Munich-based fashion house. One iteration, called Denim and Diamonds, was outfitted in denim and Swarovski crystals and came with a string of (real) pearls attached. Price tag: $1,040, without a contract. All 7,000 of those handsets sold out within two months, an Escada spokeswoman says.
The cell phone "is not just a functional thing," says Sabine Eisenreich, an Escada spokeswoman. "Itís become an accessory, like shoes, bags, belts or jewelry."
Though not completely new in the U.S.-Phat Farmís pink Motorola flip phone has been a fashion bauble for nearly two years-the trend toward bling rings has gathered steam in the U.S. in the last 12 to 18 months.
At Fashion Week in New York
in February, Samsung Electronics Co. launched a new cell phone with
designer Anna Sui. The duo unblinkingly calls the purple and black handset
a "couture phone," owing to its "flirtatious rosettes, a
butterfly and a whimsical charm.
"Last fall, the South Korean cell phone maker teamed up with Diane von Furstenberg, the Belgium-born fashion designer famous for her wrap dresses. The joint cell phone creation was festooned with a reproduction of an Andy Warhol painting-one featuring a likeness of the designer herself.
While cell phones and fashion might seem unlikely partners, that has changed as mobile phone use has become commonplace, creating a desire for individuality. "Cell phones have become the ubiquitous accessory-every woman has a mobile phone by her side," explains Ms. Sui on her Web site. "I wanted to create one that makes a statement with a signature look."
At he time of her cell phoneís release, Ms. von Furstenberg waxed existential, saying that the mobile phone had become "part of a womanís body language."
Since U.S. carriers now offer steep discounts on handsets as part of a one-or two-year service contract-with some models costing little or nothing for the user-cell phones are often cheap, easy to discard items.
But with fashion and other types of self-expression influencing cell phone development, that commodity perception is changing. "We could have a new business model," says Andy Mattes, president and chief executive officer of Siemens Communications Inc., the North American cell phone division of the German electronics conglomerate.
Believers in this movement compare whatís happening with cell phones to the evolution of the wristwatch. Once upon a time, having a watch on oneís wrist was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. The distinguishing characteristic of early watch models was their reliability. As quality improved and prices sank, the wristwatch became commonplace. With dependability a given, other features-such as designer logos and styles-became the new emblems of status, and manufacturers developed a huge array of watches to meet differing tastes and budgets.
The idea that cell phones could be an extension of the userís personality began with the explosion in popularity of ring tones, which created a $3 billion industry nearly overnight.
That "was a wakeup call for the industry," says Siemensís Mr. Mattes. "After the mass deployment of cell phones, people wanted their identities back."Now, handset makers and other companies are scrambling to provide other ways to customize cell phones, such as wallpaper on the screen and new ring back tones that allow users to choose the ring their callers hear.
In the U.S., the trend toward differentiation has lured an array of unlikely entrants, like Dow Chemical Co., based in Midland, Michigan. Four years ago, the company launched a business unit called Inclosia Solutions to make housings for cell phones-out of everything from wood and metal to leather and felt. Since then, the industry for cell phone housings alone has more than doubled to $10 billion, according to an Inclosia spokesman.
Now, buyers are spending an extra $60 on top of the cell phone price for their designs, and an additional $150 for laptop coverings, says Tom Tarnowski, the companyís global marketing manager. "Whatís on the outside counts, whereas before it was an after-thought," says Mr. Tarnowski. "All of this sounds obvious to someone who sells shoes or purses or cars."
There are still doubters about how quickly and whether cell phones will become fashion statements. Most of those driving the trend remain the young, and teenagers in particular. And cell phone makers still havenít made accessing images and ring tones on phones easy enough to be commonplace.
"A critical barrier keeping this from truly taking off is that such things are still not easily discoverable on cell phones," says John Jackson, an analyst with the Yankee Group. Unlike in the U.S. where users buy their phones directly from carriers, Europeans buy their phones mostly in retail stores, which offer a much greater choice. The new, fashion-oriented handsets in the U.S. are mostly available only online. In most cases, designer phone marketers have arrangements with service providers.
But some, including Mr. Combs, think Americans will soon demand more choices. The arrival to the cell phone "party" of Mr. Combs and others will bring even more individuality and self-expression to the handset picture. "The coolest cell phone out there I have yet to design," says Mr. Combs.
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