As the lights went down for the launch of the Apple Watch, a video played to set the tone for an event that the company seeks to pitch as the dawn of a new age.
Dubbed “Spring Forward”, Apple hopes this is the launch that people will look back on as bigger even than when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007.
And how did it start? With a film about Apple’s latest flagship store in China. Big, beautiful and spacious, the glass building’s cantilevered floor seems to hover in mid-air. It looks at night like a space ship landed from a new planet, albeit one with an aesthetic that has overtones of mid-2000s Canary Wharf. It wasn’t that long ago that Apple aiming all its mighty resources at expansion in China seemed no more outlandish than space travel itself.
Apple has opened six stores in China in the last six weeks, aiming to roughly double its footprint by the end of next year. The new, gold iPhone was in large part aimed at the Chinese market, although it has found huge success elsewhere too. Now Apple is to make a gold laptop, the new Macbook, unashamedly bling and aimed squarely at China too. Bling is in.
So the question is obvious: can Apple smash China? The Watch has already featured on the front of Vogue, in the demo it was China’s WeChat messaging app that was shown off. And unlike the iPhone 6 the Watch will go on sale in China on the same day as it does so in America.
But as China’s growth slows slightly and officials crack down on bribery scandals, all that gold may not actually be the most appealing feature. Apple’s plan looks likely to depend more on the idea that those who buy the Watch are showing great and slightly economical discernment, at least when compared to the Rolexes that have been associated with officials landing in trouble.
The $750bn (£506bn) company’s next phase of growth will depend on two parallel tracks: first it will simply expand ever further into what was once the developing world. As China and India and much else of Asia get bitten by the Apple bug – and locked into its ecosystem – the company’s economies of scale become unassailable even for a company such as Samsung. No wonder every major motor manufacturer has now signed up to CarPlay.
But the second level is the much more interesting: Apple knows that phones and in not too long a period smartwatches too will simply be commoditised panes of glass. The differentiating factor will be as much software as it is fashion.
The company, now with former Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts, is not the only one to notice that global brands with bigger margins and greater reach than technology are in fashion and luxury.
Putting the two together heralds the launch of a new kind of mass-market luxury, where prices remain aspirationally high but there is not serious, inherent scarcity in the products available. Leather does not need to be tanned; Savile Row apprenticeships don’t need to be undertaken; the stems of the Lotus Flower do not need to be dried at altitude to make uniquely soft cotton, as Italian ultra-luxury fabric brand Loro Piana does.