From Rihanna to London Spy: how flip phones were called back into fashion

In the past 12 months, flip phones have appeared in the hands of Rihanna, Anna Wintour, Adele and now in BBC2’s new drama. Are they due a revival?

The opening scenes of London Spy, BBC2’s spenny new autumn drama which started last night, begins with Ben Whishaw entering Hidden, a club in the arches of London’s Vauxhall, and exiting hours later, pooped and sweaty, before he wanders on to Vauxhall bridge and starts making some calls. The scene is familiar and well executed, and ends with one of those perfect human interactions that never happens. But that aside, my first thought was: who has battery the morning after? Then I realised it was a flip phone.

When Adele used a flip phone in the video for her new single, Hello, social media exploded. Why was Adele – clearly loaded and clearly in need of better signal – using a flip-phone? While the video, directed by wunderkind Xavier Dolan, grafts plenty of outdated references (including a phone box and a location house without Wi-Fi) on to the retro scenography, it did seem weird. A bit like Audrey Hepburn™ being resurrected for the Galaxy chocolate adverts. Dolan responded, telling the LA Times: “I’m like, ‘Guys, get over it. It doesn’t matter,’” before explaining that he “never like[s] filming modern phones or cars. They’re so implanted in our lives that when you see them in movies you’re reminded you’re in reality”, and that modern techology is “anti-narrative”.

Anna Wintour at fashion week in 2007, at the start of her flip-phone revival.
Anna Wintour at fashion week in 2007, at the start of her flip-phone revival. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

We haven’t really seen flip phones since the burners in The Wire, or Frasier – Niles Crane regularly slammed shut his clamshell phone on ex-wife Maris. Smartphones weren’t really around then, of course. Plus, flip phones as plot devices make sense. Chances are, Whishaw’s character was on pay-as-you-go anyway. Or had had his previous iPhone nicked. Or knew it was going to be a late one and knew the battery life on a flip phone is incomparably better than an iPhone. And Adele was probably on a digital detox following her breakup. Still, the intermittent appearances of flip phones in real life, too – on fashionable people who can afford iPhones – suggest they could be coming back.

“The chicest thing,” Phoebe Philo once said, “is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person!” which goes a long way to flag up how cool, how on point it now is, to keep a low-tech profile. With Instagram falling out of favour in the past week following following her admission that she was being paid to present a perfect life, we could be moving towards an Insta-less world with flip phones a starting point.

The flip phone from the video for singer Adele’s latest single Hello.
The flip phone from the video for singer Adele’s latest single Hello. Photograph: Screengrab

In the wake of last year’s celebrity hacking scandal, which saw nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others leaked and posted on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr, there is an argument for the preemptive strike that is using phones without cameras. Last November, Rihanna was spotted in New York with one. Kate Beckinsale uses hers while getting a pedi. Scarlett Johansson, too. Anna Wintour – Queen of the fashion industry and a woman who sets trends in her sleep – was photographed last year at the US open reading a message on her flip phone.

Samsung is due to launch the much-hyped Samsung SM-W2016, ostensibly a smartphone that looks like a flip phone. A spokesperson for Carphone Warehouse explains that a resurgence is entirely possible, citing the retro Doro PhoneEasy 612 flip phone as one that’s gradually creeping back in fashion as a “statement phone”.

“Low-tech living” is pretty trendy in the US, too. Sat somewhere between living off grid and Fomo resistance, this is a vague new trend that includes and encourages people to own and use tablets and non-smartphones simultaneously, meaning you could separate work from family conversations. If that’s the case, perhaps pared-back tech does have merit, since there have been numerous problems with almost every iPhone model released. Still, as Iggy Pop told the New York Magazine, he calls his flip-phone a “Rugby”, “because you can drop it a lot and it won’t break”. Reason enough, really.


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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