Hello Moto:
The Return of the Fashion Flip Phone

Trend Alert! Talking on the Phone

  • Text: Arielle Pardes

In 2014, paparazzi caught Rihanna on her way out of Da Silvano after dinner one evening—it wasn’t her Dimepiece LA sweatpants, or her orange boucle cropped jacket that caught attention, but another statement piece: her T-Mobile flip phone. Months later, Anna Wintour was seen T9ing courtside at the US Open. After a trip to Tokyo, Kim Kardashian sported a hot pink Ferrari-branded flip phone. The fashion world laid its claim on personal technology long ago, and now brings back the simplicity of aughts-era tech with the same ease it does low-rise jeans and baby tees. In 2020, the rest of the world is catching up—in the form of the newly re-released Motorola Razr, and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip.

The Motorola Razr may have been the first mobile phone to define itself as a fashion statement; it was, in its original form, a cult classic: Paris Hilton famously sported hers like a Birkin bag at the 2004 Academy Awards. It was the gift basket item that claimed the attention of every A-lister in Hollywood. It showed up courtside at Wimbledon, in the hands of the recently retired Maria Sharapova. Both David and Victoria Beckham had one, and soon, so did everyone else—Mischa Barton, your high school best friend. Had the designer phone eclipsed the designer handbag? Motorola levied the Razr’s fashion status by working directly with designers to remix the colorful clamshell design. A collaboration with Kimora Lee Simmons resulted in the Baby Phat i833, a baby pink version that was quilted and encrusted with 0.4-carat diamonds. “The new, limited edition Baby Phat i833 phone by Motorola is actually like a piece of jewelry,” Simmons said at the time.

That slim, sleek flip-phone’s fashion adjacency catalysed years of collaborations between mobile phone makers and designers. There was the limited edition partnership with Dolce & Gabbana, to make the gold-plated V3i; in 2005, Donatella Versace lent her name to the all-gold Nokia 7270—it came with a Swarovski crystal hand strap. In 2007, Prada designed a limited edition LG phone, the first mobile with a full-size touchscreen display. It was slated to revolutionize phone design, to become the hottest release of the year. (It was not. A few weeks later, Apple debuted the iPhone.) The following year, Samsung tapped Armani to design its take on a luxury touchscreen. The pinnacle was unquestionably the Diorphone, a clamshell design by Christian Dior, featuring crocodile skin and 640 Swarovski crystals. It retailed for $26,000.

The first era of designer phones coincided with a period of great optimism around personal technology. Texting was nascent, and phones hadn’t yet become heavy with the burdens of email, work chat, Instagram. Velour track suits were in and pocketable cell phones were still something of a novelty. The Razr, with its wafer-thin profile and electroluminescent keypad, was the most novel of all. Its genius was not owed solely to technology, but also to trend: Motorola created a product that celebrities coveted, but that anyone could buy. To compare that time to the year 2020, a period defined by its tech-related anxiety, is nearly impossible. At best, our phones are boring, the designs iterative and dull. At worst, they are symbols of stress, instability, despair. A cell phone is now both the year’s must-have item, and an item you must have—a necessary credential for modern life.

It is bold, then, that Motorola has chosen this moment to reintroduce the Razr as a fully functional smartphone. It is not a practical phone, but one that oozes status, both for being on the cutting edge (foldable screens!) and for its $1,500 price tag. This is not the phone to buy because of what it does, but rather, what it says. The retro design does for personal technology what normcore did for fashion: it takes the symbol of being out of touch and makes it, against all odds, the most in vogue. With its nostalgic branding, Motorola has reinvigorated excitement around technology-as-accessory—what a quaint, fun idea! At the least, the marketing is working: Motorola reportedly had to push back its release date due to the demand. People want the reinvented Razr even if the hinge makes an unsettling creak and the mechanics suggest it will not survive limitless opening and shutting. The Razr is not a utilitarian device! It is more like an uncomfortable pair of shoes: flawed, but fashionable.

Other manufacturers are similarly returning to their early-aughts roots, remaking their devices in the image of fashion. To promote the $1,380 Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung partnered with Ashley Williams, who sent it down her SS20 runway in a custom-sized miniature handbag; and Thom Browne, who created a limited-edition version of the phone, along with matching earbuds and watch-strap. Priced at $2,500 each, his phone has sold out twice over. These collaborations say the same thing as the designer phone of 2004, but the message has taken on a new undertone. It’s not just that devices can be made more exclusive, and more expensive, with the help of a fashion house. Personal technology has become an extension of fashion: a luxury product rather than a basic necessity; a product you covet, rather than one you need.

Flip phones are, of course, reminiscent of this simpler time, when puka shell necklaces and the president were still well-liked, when a conversation had a definitive end. Thom Browne’s version of the Galaxy Z Flip harkens to an even earlier time, before technology played such a big role in our lives. The screen display’s Venetian blinds, and its series of custom sounds, like a rotary phone ringtone and a typewriter noise for the keyboard, make it seem positively mid-century. The thing the designer likes best about the phone? You can close it. Where the modern cell phone, with its cinema-sized screen, is like a portal into distraction, the power move of the moment is to show that you are not always on, that you have escaped the deluge of notifications—that you have a phone you can shut.

The flip-phone resurgence represents a potent nostalgia for a time when our relationship to technology was active, intentional. When people stood on corners with their elbows cocked, pacing, the device held to their head, instead of walking while scrolling, talking to no-one like babbling zombies, always half-preoccupied. This time around, our fascination with the fashion flip phone isn’t novelty, it’s the desire to see a phone for what it is: an accessory, not an appendage.

Arielle Pardes is a Senior Writer for WIRED in San Francisco. Her work focuses on our evolving relationship to technology.

  • Text: Arielle Pardes
  • Date: March 12, 2020