This summer, chic European women swooned over the fashion-forward look of the pink cell phone earpiece. In time for the fall season, a U.S. designer released a black patent-leather thigh holster that stows a phone. Ooo, la la! And for the men: a new collection including Oakley sunglasses with a Bluetooth wireless microphone attachment.
Companies are trying to take the geek out of gadgetry, rendering the old cell-phone-on-a-belt look permanently passe. The aim is to drive up sales in the phone accessory market, which already generates $5 billion annually in the United States.
Techno-fashionistas say that it is the culmination of years of experimental design and that companies are finally finding a comfortable middle ground between form and function, mostly by exploiting ways to make devices smaller and therefore more wearable -- much like Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod Shuffle or Nano. Those trends, in turn, are creating a new category of accessories that make it even easier for consumers to keep their digital goods close to, or on, their person.
High-end designers are already covering that ground. Louis Vuitton sells a $305 "international telephone case." Dior sells a $315 case for iPod Minis, as well as a $295 travel case for all of iPod's accessories.
"As things get sleeker, it's going to be something that's more and more important" for mainstream fashion, said Robin Sackin, chairman of the fashion merchandising management department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. But it takes time for things to gain enough acceptance to become a mainstream wearable item, Sackin said.
Indeed, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder.
Ken Eisner thought his wearable Razrwire was cool, for example, but it recently brought him face to face with the fashion police.
A guard at Reagan National Airport did not like the look of Eisner talking to himself and wearing sunglasses indoors with a suspicious attachment dangling near his sideburns. The attachment was the latest version of wireless Bluetooth technology that enabled him to use his cell phone without hanging a black cord from his ear.
"Though considered geek wear by some, it's considered fashion-forward by others," Eisner said in his own defense. The guard's "concern was that I was a complete weirdo," said Eisner, who is an executive at Simply Wireless Inc., a cell phone retail chain.
In the industry, the Razrwire qualifies as runway fashion. CTIA, the cellular trade association, has featured fashion shows at its annual trade show in recent years, with lanky models wearing bowling-ball-sized helmets trotting down catwalks. To showcase its new line of hats, helmets and jackets with built-in cellular microphones, Motorola Inc. hired snowboarders to slide down a 60-foot ski jump outside the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.
"In 2002, we produced a wearable technology fashion show to try to find out what the potential was," said Pablos Holman, designer of the cell phone thigh holster for Tsaya, the Seattle-based company that started selling the product online in August. "They were all totally impractical and totally dorky," he said, and only now is the sub-industry making great strides.
The thigh holster, Holman said, "turned out to be really practical and really sexy," but that's not a status easily achieved by most wearable devices. "It really has to be thought about deeply."
Cell phone maker Nokia Corp. flirted with purely decorative accessories such as the Medallion I, a necklace-type accessory with a small screen displaying images downloaded from a mobile phone. The company's Web site advised wearers to "go bohemian with an abstract close-up from a favorite painting, your garden, or your body."
Now, said Nokia product manager Marika Patto, the company is no longer focused on devices that just "show off" but ones that serve a function, like the new Nokia Wireless Image Headset, which includes a small screen that hangs around the neck and displays call information or images.
Wearable technology is big business for companies because accessories generate retail profit margins ranging from 60 to 80 percent.
The accessories market could grow 10 to 15 percent every year, according to Roger Entner, an analyst with Ovum, a research firm. At Simply Wireless, the number of accessories in the chain's 50 Washington area stores tripled in the past two years, now including items such as leather cases and animal-print bags for cell phones.
For cell phone carriers, the benefit is also additional talk time. Making the phone inseparable from its wearer makes it possible to make more calls from the ski slope, the convertible and other places that have not been hospitable to talking.
Timothy Towster, for example, dons a Bluetooth headset while mowing the lawn and listens to music streamed from a cell phone inside the house.
The number of cell phones that come with Bluetooth capability is in the 55 percent range, and by the end of the year, most phones will have it built in -- which, in turn, means a bigger market for wearable stuff, said Towster, Cingular's senior director of devices and accessories. "There's talk, discussion and development around [clothing] products as well," he said. "It's easier to use when integrated with everyday items that people already use."
To that end, Motorola plans to sell its Burton Snowboards ski wear line early next year.
"We showed an ad with a guy mountain biking and holding a conference call," said Scott Martin, global marketing director for Motorola's accessories business. And this summer, the company partnered with fashion designer Frostfrench for a promotional giveaway of the designer's scarves that matched the pink Bluetooth headsets. The items sold out ahead of schedule in stores across Europe. "The goal is to make it look cool and stylish and all that."
Such devices will gain even more acceptance as prices come down and more people buy them, analysts and retailers said. Ovum's Entner, however, is a skeptic of Bluetooth couture: "You look like a half-assimilated borg."
Garments and technology just do not make a good combination, he said. If you leave the device in, "you wash your sweater and it's toast. Or you have to charge your sweater or jacket. It's kind of silly."