i.am+, the cultural tech brand founded by music artist and entrepreneur will.i.am, has debuted the i.am+ BUTTONS bluetooth earphones. the familiar shape of vinyl records has informed the product’s circular design, which has been crafted from machined metal and paired with a woven fabric cord. this allows wearers to seamlessly integrate the device into their everyday wardrobe. the fashion-forward headphones don’t compromise on technology — they pack a 30-foot bluetooth range and a built-in remote and microphone. delivering high-quality sound, with deep bass and continuous access to music, the devices are compatible with iphone, ipad, apple watch, and android platforms.
at an exclusive press event in new york, designboom sat down with will.i.am to talk about his company i.am+, the inception of BUTTONS, the future of fashion, and his deeply personal involvement in the tech industry.
BUTTONS have been designed to be worn all day as an accessory to any outfit, with magnetic clasps that secure around the wearer’s neck. naomi campbell and kendall jenner are co-owners of the company and feature across the product’s fashion-forward campaign styled by andré leon talley, i.am+’s fashion director. the treatment of the imagery takes cues from the editorial and publication industries, narrating a lifestyle in which BUTTONS can seamlessly integrate into.
for will.i.am, one of the most important aspects of the project is pledge 1%: i.am+ is set to donate 1% of net proceeds, 1% of staff time, and 1% of the product to the i.am.angel foundation, which operates after school tutoring programs and helps underprivileged high school students gain hands-on access tech curriculums. i.am+ BUTTONS retail for $229.95 and are available from iamplus.com, and apple stores and online, in four apple-exclusive colorways that match the iphone 7.
DB: how did this all come about — your company i.am+, BUTTONS, and your involvement in the tech world overall?
will.i.am: I’ve been on this mission to bring the world of fashion and tech together, creating tech products that lean towards fashion, and fashion products that lean towards tech — I wanted to create a middle ground. you know, you thought about buying those shoes, that shirt, those pants, but for some reason when it comes to accessories for our phones, we shove them in our pockets…we put them in our bag, because we know they weren’t designed to go with anything that we buy and wear. the accessories that go with your phone are just not part of the conversation. we live on our devices, and we live in our clothes, and the accessories for the devices we live on, don’t go with our clothes — it makes no sense at all!
so we designed BUTTONS with that in mind, and we named it with that in mind, because the world of tech and the world of fashion both have buttons. so we found the perfect name for it, finding the common ground between both worlds that we are trying to fuse together. andré leon talley has been a part of i.am+ since late 2013, last year we brought in kendall [jenner], and couple of months ago we brought in naomi [campbell]. we asked naomi and kendall if they minded being in the spotlight for this fashion tech company, and told them the whole reason of doing it — there’s purpose behind it. the first store that’s going to be carrying the buttons is the apple store, it will be in every apple store around the world. we’re so excited to have apple as our retailer, it’s like the best store in the world.
DB: how does the packaging of BUTTONS reflect these themes from the fashion industry?
will.i.am: having andré [leon talley] as part of the company gives us the perception of what our box should look like. if we’re saying that the device is something you wear — regardless of if it’s on, because it’s always on you — then what should the package look like? so we were thinking of fashion editorials, and realized, it isn’t like they sell magazines in awesome stores, they sell them at supermarkets and train stations, right? they’re not even at desirable places, but when you open them, there’s an escape. there’s an attention to detail that makes you say ‘I want that’, and you ignore the fact that you’re in a supermarket pushing a cart, because you’re looking at gucci. I’m looking at gucci shoes, and I’m in the meat section. I’m getting ready to go on an airplane, and I’m looking at awesome houses and a great jacket.
will.i.am [continued]: we’re at apple stores, everything looks good there! we thought, let’s treat our packaging like a magazine, because we have people that are in magazines on the package. so you open it like a magazine. we spend all this money on paper, let’s make it something that people don’t want to throw away right after they take the product out. [opening the box] ‘wow, look a magazine, there’s naomi, there’s kendall, oooh there’s the guy from the black eyed peas!’ everything is photographed well. no one ever treats electronics like we treat watches, or glasses or wallets. so we wanted to celebrate it the same way we celebrate other things. it sounds amazing, it looks amazing, and we do amazing things with the pledge, we advertise it on the box, to remind every single employee and everyone selling it on the floor the good we can do with success.
DB: tell us about the pledge.
will.i.am: if you take a snapshot of society right now, there’s a multi trillion dollar industry for research and development and for tech to get smarter and smarter. the same thing isn’t the case for our kids in education in america. for some reason, the folks that are responsible for investing in eduction for kids, block it, and the people that get hurt most are the inner city kids. in high school, we probably took woodshop class…as if we were going to be carpenters! but none of us in school are learning iOS or windows or andriod, that’s not the case. why is that?
will.i.am [continued]: with the biggest companies in the world here, you would think we’d be doing that in california at least, right? that’s where all the big companies are, but that’s not the case. so, from the jump, we wanted to have purpose in what we do, and that is that a percentage of all our proceeds, a percentage of our employees time, and a percentage of our product, goes to encourage and give kids in inner cities tomorrow’s skill sets starting today. we teach our kids robotics, and computer science, we send them to china to learn mandarin so they can see the world that makes the things we all buy, so that when they graduate college, they’re not filling jobs that are needed, they’re creating jobs and bringing jobs back to america.
DB: how do the BUTTONS differer from the i.am+ EPs?
will.i.am: the headphones that we had before, i.am+ EPs, were an accessory to our wearable phone, but a headphone is a product of its own, not just an accessory of a phone. from that perspective, when inspiration comes, I like to take it seriously. so then we amped them up. so in the i.am+ EPs, there’s no adjustable ear pieces, no metallic buttons, and the battery life is lower. BUTTONS have adjustable ear pieces, different ear sizes, metallic buttons, they sound better, and they have a load of technology baked in. they are magnetic…we all chuck headphones in our bags, our pockets, they get all tangled up. well we wanted to have a clasp so you can wear it, but more importantly the other things you can do with that when you open up the platform to other folks.
DB: how can BUTTONS be integrated into a user’s everyday life and their personal fashion choices?
will.i.am: we made an awesome i.am+ BUTTON choker, and an awesome i.am+ BUTTON bomber jacket. when it comes to fashion, things aren’t always logical, but real fast, there’s going to be a jacket that is going to be logical and conversational. right now, our concept of wearables has been dictated by tech companies, not fashion companies. a wearable tech company says, ‘hey, here’s a wearable, put it on your wrist and attach it to your phone’. headphones have been wearable the whole time, but they aren’t made to wear after you use them. in the future, you’re going to have a bunch of jackets that do the same thing that the other one did. all bags will be intelligent, just like all bags have pockets…like some pants have zippers. every single single fashion brand is going to be thinking about what intelligent component comes with it. your jacket will do more than just keep you warm and store things. so fashion and tech is all one thing tomorrow. companies are doing things to make it happen faster and prepare for it, so I’m getting our company and the community that look like where I come from, prepared for that.
DB: how do you feel about the future of technology?
will.i.am: yesterday, I had an awesome panel at the science museum with bill gates. we had a talk about the future, how we interact with machines, the wonders of it, the things we should be concerned about. now is an amazing time. but here’s what you can’t do right now: transcribe this whole conversation in english, then translate it into chinese, and email it to everyone and publish it to all platforms right now. then, pick the best snippets, as soon as people gravitate towards a portion of it, in real time, blast that sound bite all through all platforms. the system is not that smart yet! you’re recording it, but you still have to read it back and write it out! think about how broken it is right now! it cant transcribe. that’s a couple of years from now. interviews are different in a couple of years from now.
will.i.am [continued]: then more importantly, there’s things to be concerned about. here’s when things get weird: there’s a self-driving car and the cameras in the car see a face, using facial recognition. say for example, the self-driving car isn’t thinking yet, it just has an algorithm to self drive. here’s when it has to think: when someone’s going 80 miles per hour and a person walks in front of it and it has to slam on the breaks, whose life does the car save? the driver, which it knows how much money it makes, or the person whose face it quickly pulls up from the machine? and it says this person comes from a certain neighborhood, it doesn’t make that much money…is that life worth saving? that’s when you have to question the system — where AI is going. and who is responsible to make sure there is a version of AI that doesn’t judge based on zip code or income. that’s a different version of racial profiling. who in our community is even thinking about making sure the algorithm is neutral and looking at it from that perspective?
DB: what do you think is going to happen as fashion and tech continue to collide?
will.i.am: the disruption is going to be so unapologetic, so gnarly when these new millennials come in and are just going disrupt it all. like uber and taxis…like instagram and kodak…like streaming services and the record industry!
DB: are you interesting in getting into these future technologies, or a bit hesitant on where they may lead?
will.i.am: I’m deep into this, and excited about it. because of the opportunities it gives to kids that are like me when I was in the projects. the world that we’re living in right now, it’s all like playdoh. when I engage with people from the tech world. they’re like ‘wow you really know what you’re talking about’, but that’s only because I have awesome folks working in my company.
DB: how has your involvement in the tech industry affected the way you make music?
will.i.am: the music industry is not what it used to be. before, you would make an album, and people would actually listen to it. people don’t really listen to full albums like they used to. right now, we’re making songs for playlists. I don’t know if I just came up today in music if I would have been able to move my mom, my aunt and uncles out of the projects…because my song is played on a playlist. so our industry is really not an industry anymore. I love playlists as well, don’t get me wrong…but that’s why I was like, ‘I’m going to start my own company, no matter how much time it takes.’ last time I checked, the black eyed peas took a long time to see success. people are afraid to fail, they’re afraid people are going to criticize their attempt, because the people that are critizing don’t have the balls to fail. I don’t care how many times I fail, I will figure it out. I love that energy, trying to figure things out, who it’s for, being curious, brainstorming, networking…I live for that.
DB: do you see yourself blending tech with other creative spaces — like architecture, furniture design, interiors…?
will.i.am: not right now. right now, I just want to focus on this one, because getting this one has been hardcore. sleepless nights, funding, the burn, coming home from travels, going back to the office. it’s scary, but it’s really exciting at the same time.
portrait of will.i.am wearing a designboom ‘BUTTON’
image © designboom