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Phone Cases Are in Style

Welcome to the next big fashion front.
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The OtterBox Strada. (Photo: OtterBox)

The OtterBox Strada. (Photo: OtterBox)

On a recent evening in Soho, amidst city blocks of luxury stores and art galleries, a crowd gathered at the notable and confusingly named hipster complex, Freemans Sporting Club—not for haircuts or boutique menswear or club-y fine dining, but for smartphone cases. Inside the tiny, intricately decorated storefront that houses the complex's barbershop, the case maker OtterBox was offering its newest product line, a premium leather case called the Strada Series.

OtterBox has long formed a kind of normcore for phone cases. Beloved by athletic parents and construction contractors, the Colorado-based company launched in 1998 to make waterproof boxes—hence modeling the name after the water-resistant animal—able to hold a collection of gadgets and valuables for the likes of kayakers. Their aesthetics, to put it gently, leave something to be desired. Undeniably durable, their rubberized protuberances have traditionally looked like what would happen if your phone suddenly became a Transformer. "That's our heritage, just making cases that are very utilitarian. People could trust them," says Barbara Meyer, the company's senior public relations manager.

The Strada Series, on the other hand, is sleek. Its protective measures are disguised with dark leather and a flap cover that encloses a wallet. Beyond its functional purpose, the new case just might be called stylish, which is a rare designation for technology, but a growing one. It's in this context that OtterBox's expansion into glossier, less durable cases makes sense. As smartphones become ever more a part of our daily lives, the market for smartphone cases is booming. "Now everyone has a smartphone all the time," Meyer says. "There's more of a emotional attachment to it, it's more of a fashion accessory."

These cases all have a certain laissez-faire expressionism splashed over cheap plastic. I would not trust any of them in a fall over three feet.

"We think about cases more as an extension of the customer's personality," Meyer continues. "If we're making a case for someone who's very outdoorsy, who likes to go rock climbing, hiking, camping, we make a case that's different than an urban fashionista who wants to change out their case every day to match their outfit." Meyer assures me that this type of human being does indeed exist: "We have found that there are people, more women than men, who have multiple cases, they might have eight or nine of them. Lots of women have 15 handbags."

Over the past decade, smartphone cases have become their own aesthetic culture. Glamour recommends striped, flowered, and leopard-printed models. Elle suggests pebbled leather and faux reptile skin. Seventeen shows off a phone with a make-up case attached. OtterBox itself has worked with Project Runway's Nina Garcia, among others, to insinuate its brand into the fashion market by creating crossover case collaborations, marketed just like the latest handbags.

What these cases all have in common is a certain laissez-faire expressionism splashed over cheap plastic. I would not trust any of them in a fall over three feet. The phone case no longer has to act as a permanent barrier between your technology and the world, so it's free to become a medium, a form in and of itself.

One reason for this shift is because we place more trust in our technology. We're not so paranoid that one accident or speck of dirt will break a device beyond repair, even though our iPhones are likely far more fragile than their flip phone predecessors. They're also more replaceable. We know that anytime we lose or break a phone, or we simply grow bored of it, we can trudge to the Apple store and buy a new one, subsidized by our data plans. Flip phones once seemed more permanent—they lasted for a few years, and updates never meant too much. But the cycle has become faster. Like fashion, technology has become faddish and ephemeral, both internally and externally.

"If [a case] is very protective but looks ugly people won't buy it today, whereas in the past, people still would," Meyer says. "You're carrying it around everywhere, you start thinking more about how it looks. You're not going to wear an ugly pair of shoes every day."

I would bet that high quality, low-key cases will soon be on the rise here as well, since the higher end of the fashion case market is still served less than the costume jewelry level.

If the high-end Strada case looks unlike the Lisa Frankenstein cases popular in the United States right now, that's because it was designed with a different audience in mind. "It's something that would really apply to consumers in the European market," Meyer says. "The folio case is the most popular style of case in that region." But I would bet that high-quality, low-key cases will soon be on the rise here as well, since the higher end of the fashion case market is still served less than the costume jewelry level. Cases might be in fashion, but that doesn't mean they're quite fashionable.

On my decaying iPhone 5S, I have a similarly decaying leather case that Apple produces under its own brand. Although it's made of real leather, as the company guarantees, the material has somehow re-processed into a perfect plasticine shell around the phone. Rather than acquiring a pleasant patina of wear and tear like a pair of shoes or weekend bag, my leather is instead chewed up and mottled, like a Mead notebook.

I don't need something flashier, but I would certainly appreciate a little more authenticity.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.