The news that Microsoft is opening a flagship on Fifth Avenue, not far from an Apple store, reminded me of a question that has been niggling at me for the last few weeks — ever since the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its fashion gala in May would be sponsored by Apple, and WME/IMG premiered its all-fashion channel on Apple TV.
What happened to Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and online stores, and its biggest fashion hire? Where is she in all of this?
In 2013, when Ms. Ahrendts was poached with great fanfare from Burberry, where she was chief executive, fashion speculated that she might become the friendlier, more stylish, face of Apple; in her former job, she had been known for her communication skills and charm, and Apple is not known for its female executives. The potential upside of having her as both a manager and an ambassador seemed high.
Yet since starting last year, aside from a few LinkedIn posts on management techniques and the news that she was the highest-paid female executive in the United States in 2014, with a combined package of $82.6 million, she has largely disappeared from public view.
Instead, it is Jonathan Ive, chief design officer of Apple, who has become the face of the brand. It is Mr. Ive who will be at the top of the Met’s steps with Anna Wintour, welcoming guests to the gala as an official “co-chair;” Mr. Ive who popped up, somewhat surprisingly, on the Vanity Fair best-dressed list last month; Mr. Ive who has become the embodiment of Apple’s ambitions in the fashion world.
And despite the fact that the retail rollout of the Apple Watch was, presumably, partly Ms. Ahrendts’s responsibility, even Paul Deneve, the former Saint Laurent chief executive who joined Apple to lead special projects, has been more visible than Ms. Ahrendts, showing up at the cocktail party for the introduction of the Hermès Apple Watch during Paris Fashion Week, and hobnobbing with his old style-world compatriots.
In a recent Fortune profile tied to the publication ranking her as the 16th most powerful woman, a rare interview since Ms. Ahrendts joinedApple (and which, the magazine said, she agreed to only when it was clear they were writing the article whether she participated or not), she explained her absence by saying she wanted to first listen and learn. Fair enough. Listening was one of her signature traits at Burberry. And according to Fortune, she has slowly been changing the company’s retail culture. (The fact you get an email or text telling you when it’s time for your Genius Bar appointment so you do not have to hang around and wait? Thank Angela).
But it’s been more than 16 months, and it’s hard not to think Apple is missing a trick here. Especially if it is interested in casting itself in part as a fashion brand.
To this end, how effective would it be to have Ms. Ahrendts play a public part in the brand’s personalization (personalization being a big thing in fashion), along with Mr. Ive? After all, when it comes to experience and understanding of the style sector, with all its byzantine value systems and preconceptions, not to mention understanding fashion consumers and appealing to them in a very directway, it’s doubtful anyone else in the company hierarchy comes close.
On the most basic level, in terms of optics, seeing the very well-dressed Ms. Ahrendts wearing an Apple Watch the way she used to sport a Burberry suit (with an iPad) could be a very convincing visual tool. On a more abstract level, Ms. Ahrendts is an aspirational figure. People want to be like her, down to wanting to buy like her.
If the tech retail wars are heating up, perhaps it’s finally time to deploy her.