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The Latest Model

Fashion movements are zooming off the runways and onto the drawing boards of industrial designers. Here’s how trends translate.

The fashion runway is full of trends — and designers of cars, phones and appliances are watching.

PARIS — What does a Roberto Cavalli fashion show have to do with the latest Siemens cell phones? Only Ulrich Skrypalle, head of design at the German electronics maker, knows for sure — and he’s not spilling the beans.

“I have to be careful,” he said. “It’s very competitive in my business. Suffice it to say that fashion is an important reference, especially for color and material. And in some segments, the mobile phone is a very fashion-driven thing.”

It’s no coincidence that Siemens chose last season’s London Fashion Week to launch its new line of stylish Xelebri phones. After all, store buyers and fashion editors aren’t the only ones digesting what was just shown on the runways in fashion capitals; so are the people who design your car, your MP3 player — even your tea kettle.

“All aspects of the catwalk are important: innovation, the form, the color, the material, the finish,” said Indra Mistry, a design strategist in Europe for automaker Nissan. “Not only in the fashion clothing, but also the stage sets, graphics, presentation — everything. Fashion design is seen as having a leading edge in terms of innovation. It is probably also the easiest way of reaching a wide audience, as people tend to have more of an affinity with fashion design.”

Industrial designer Karim Rashid, famous for his blob-shaped furniture, attended a few shows in New York last season, but said he prefers to dissect fashion on the Internet or television. “Attending shows is not necessary. It’s painful to wait, less engaging, banal in format and they’re too short to study the garments,” he said.

Assessing the fall collections, Rashid saw a “ridiculous” amount of Eighties references. “What I did like, though, was the new energy and uplifting spirit that was definitely an early Eighties phenomenon,” he said. “I have a great interest in fashion, in art, in architecture, film, photography and, of course, in design, and I am a great believer that all these fields are crossing boundaries and blurring.”

Rashid may be one of the few rare industrial designers who fights for a seat at an actual fashion show, but few, it seems, ignore the spectacle entirely. “Fashion is a huge influence, for sure,” stressed Ellen Glassman, director of Sony’s East Coast design center, whose team counts Giorgio Armani, Hedi Slimane, Alice Roi and Issey Miyake among the designers of interest. “For personal audio, especially, it has to look fresh because you integrate it into your wardrobe. It has to make a connection with the person,” she said.

How? Designer Luella Bartley underlined the point by accessorizing her fall collection with some of Sony’s latest headphones, CD players and cameras.

“Fashion gives us a very direct insight into different mind-sets and needs,” noted Peter Pfeiffer, senior vice president of design at Mercedes Car Group. “Ideas from the world of fashion can cross over and become a source of inspiration for automotive fabrics and materials in general.” For example, the company’s GST concept car boasts a modernist interior entirely inspired by fashion and interior design — particularly Ralph Lauren’s home collection. One of the design elements, laser-detailed leather, had previously been used only in fashion, according to Pfeiffer.

Major industries like automotive and electronics first began paying attention to fashion in the late Eighties, according to Li Edelkoort, a leading trend forecaster based in Paris. Today, makers of a wide range of consumer products are more design driven and are eager to “decrypt fashion” to help them anticipate important changes in the consumer mind-set, she said.

At the same time, however, Edelkoort stressed that fashion is not necessarily the most prescient indicator. Trends often appear in the industrial realm at the same time as on fashion runways. Still, fashion offers vital, early cues in terms of attitude, mood, mix of colors and details. “It’s more the styling of things,” she explained. “If the cut of garments gets sharper, and [consumers become] interested in diamonds and chandeliers, sure enough, car designs get faceted. I’m not sure it’s inspired by [fashion], but it’s certainly coincidental.” To wit: Suits with angular cuts stalk the Alexander McQueen runway, while wedge-like cars by Renault zoom around Paris streets.

Oscar Pena, creative director for the Philips design center in London, said he pays close attention to Issey Miyake for his fabrics and manufacturing innovations, to Hussein Chalayan for his “poetry” and to Tom Ford for “his clear mind, focus, quality, materials and for the absolute consistency of design at every level.”

Of course, industrial designers work on much longer lead times than their fashion counterparts. “I’m not driven by a particular season or collection,” said Pena. “I work for an industry that makes products for 15 months from now that must last from two to five years. It’s an entirely different time frame.”

Still, fashion today has had a broad impact on industrial designers — even to the way brands are marketed. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Sony ads and packaging resemble a typical fashion shoot. “Products are no longer seen as simply utilitarian,” explained Nissan’s Mistry. “Today, consumers seek products that reflect their individual lifestyles.”

Pfeiffer at Mercedes added that fashion underlines a trend toward “personalization” and less rigid style rules. “As we see in fashion shows, there is no longer one particular trend which is universally regarded as definitively valued to the exclusion of all others,” he said.

Edelkoort noted she increasingly looks to products closer to the body than fashion — or even inside it — for early clues about consumer behavior, such as food, cosmetics and lingerie. For example, she said, a recent return to rich desserts foreshadowed the return of romantic, sugary fashions. “The meringue was there before the ruffles,” she quipped.

Lingerie also can be telling. The trend to skin-toned and hair-toned lingerie foreshadowed similarly colored, and very tactile, almost skin-like materials in car interiors and other products.

While the fashion press tends to look to a small group of elite names for fashion gospel, Edelkoort said other industries take a broader view. “They don’t necessarily look at [famous] designers, but search for the big, common directions,” she stressed. Skrypalle from Siemens said his inspirations range from couture houses to fast-fashion chains like Hennes & Mauritz and even little-known, avant-garde talents showing in remote corners of London. “The accessory market is also very important for us,” he added.

Typically, the target customer determines what level of fashion gives the most vital trend information. Sony’s Glassman said streetwear, activewear and such designers as Dolce & Gabbana and Miyake offer important clues for young consumers. Recently, her team has detected a move away from all things slick and digital to a more natural, handmade vibe expressed in graffiti and the hip-hop movement. The return of regular volume knobs on stereo equipment, versus push-button control, is emblematic of the trend.

But for a more sophisticated market of young adults, Sony’s design teams look to contemporary architecture and designers like Armani, whose sleek and luxurious clothes are of the same spirit as its Wega line of television sets.

So what trends are on the horizon? As fashion designers are well on their way preparing their collections for spring-summer 2004, their industrial counterparts are pushing the envelope for 2006. “We’re searching for that next thing,” said Sony’s Glassman. “We’re thinking it’s about chrome with accents of neon.” Edelkoort predicted square shapes will become more important across many design spheres, from kettles to furniture to automobiles.

Still, Nissan’s Mistry cautioned that the road from fashion to design is rarely direct. “You cannot say that a particular style has directly been translated onto a particular product,” she said. “Many aspects of design are investigated before the product is complete.”

Over at Philips, Pena suggested design influence is a two-way street. He’s gearing up for the fall launch of a new range of appliances made of glass that he asserted might be of interest to the fashion pack. “Maybe they could take some inspiration from there?” he said with a laugh.

But in the end, he figured his job is harder than a fashion designer’s. “When a dress goes out of fashion, you can put it in the back of the closet,” he said. “But a toaster, we have to keep on using it.”