HP taps Mizrahi for fashionable watches, but will women bite?

Isaac Mizrahi smartwatch
David Javier | CNBC
Isaac Mizrahi smartwatch

Smartwatchers are evolving beyond tech gadgets and into fashion statements.

In late January, software giant Hewlett-Packard teamed up with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to launch the latest entrant into the increasingly crowded wearables market. The HP-Mizrahi watch, however, aims to distinguish itself from its competitors: Unlike Apple or Pebble, the HP-engineered Mizrahi smartwatch places more of an emphasis on fashion rather than technology.

Although the Mizrahi watch's $249 price tag makes it cheaper than an AppleWatch, evidence suggests women aren't as enamored of wearables as men are. In a recent interview, Mizrahi explained why that wasn't necessarily a concern.

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"Smartwatches are meant to be unisex but there's nothing feminine about them," Mizrahi told CNBC. "This smartwatch is different from others out there because it looks like a very chic, classic watch. Women will love it."

Armed with a five-day battery life, the watch has the ability to receive electronic notifications such as texts, calls, and calendar alerts, and is paired with a mobile app. Mizrahi's smartwatch comes in either a gold or silver watch face framed by Swarovski crystals, and an option to interchange multi-colored strap bands—all part of the designer's strategy to emphasize fashion over function.

"In all of the smartwatches I've seen, there have been fashionable components," he said. "However, I think each time they've missed the woman who should wear my smartwatch. It's for the fashionable woman on the go who wants to be updated about everything she wants to know."

Women, smartwatches and 'offensive tropes'

The Mizrahi line comes at an auspicious juncture for the wearables market, which is expected to ship 245 million devices by 2019 and grow into a $25 billion market, according to CCS Insight.

The smartwatch market, however, is suffering from a gender gap of sorts. Data from market research firm NPD Group shows that a whopping 71 percent of smartwatch owners are male, but most fitness trackers are worn by women.

All of which suggests women may prefer the modesty and functionality of fitness trackers like Fitbit, some observers say, while avoiding the fashion bells and whistles of designer smartwatches.

"The exterior design is only half the hill to climb," said Nicola Fumo, style editor at Racked.com.

"Most smartwatch makers seem to think if they do a rose-gold version and add crystals to the bezel, it'll magically appeal to women," said Fumo. "It's a pretty offensive trope that leans on dated ideas of women loving just shiny things."


A display at the Isaac Mizrahi launch
David Javier | CNBC
A display at the Isaac Mizrahi launch

The tepid reception to the Apple Watch since its introduction last year speaks to what some consider the smartwatch's biggest handicap: Its inability to stand alone as a self-sufficient device.

"The biggest issue facing the smartwatch today is that the vast majority of the devices are still a slave to the user's smartphone," said Wes Henderek, director of Collected Intelligence's wearables practice.

Pointing out that most users still carry their mobile devices with them, Henderek added that "what the smartwatch needs to become a more mainstream product is the ability to function independently."

That may be one reason why some companies steer clear of the smartwatch label altogether. Fitbit, currently the wearables industry leader, has studiously branded its device as a "fitness watch."

Regardless, technology research firm Gartner holds a bright outlook for the smartwatch. Gartner estimates a steady increase in sales and popularity for the device, and expects the 30 million units sold in 2015 to nearly double over the next two years. The trick to boosting the smartwatch's appeal among women will be the acid test for devices that push style over substance, which could turn out to be a losing proposition.

"Once the independent connectivity issues and the development of a more robust application ecosystem are addressed, then the smartwatch market will be in a better position," Henderek said. "These devices still have a ways to go in terms of appealing to the fashion-centric segment."