Watchmakers ramp up fashion tie-ups to target younger buyers

“Over the years, while designers have been concentrating on everything from the bosom to the knees, the wrist somehow got overlooked,” ran a print advertisement beside a photograph of male and female hands wearing watches under the headline “Dior Discovers the Wrist”.

The year was 1968, the advert was promoting “The Christian Dior Collection by Bulova” and in the half-century since, fashion and watchmaking have been locked in a dance, or rather they have been dance partners periodically trying out new steps and moves.

Now, a new combination of fashion and watches is gaining in popularity as collaborations increase. One of the more interesting launches this autumn will be Armani’s debut of a new prestige watch collection. “It will be a Giorgio Armani watch ‘by Parmigiani Fleurier’,” says Davide Traxler, Parmigiani chief executive. “It is a clientele we don’t necessarily reach, and they can discover Parmigiani Fleurier through Armani design.”

While critically acclaimed, Parmigiani, owned by Swiss investment company Sandoz Family Foundation, is known to lose money and Traxler, who was hired to turn the business around, sees the Armani association as a key step. “It’s a three-year plan in which the losses have to be reduced by one-third per year, to come to zero. The first leg of the plan happened perfectly in 2019; 2020 did not follow as expected, due to Covid. So we are not on plan but we are better, with the cash burn lower than at any time in the past 15 years. [The Armani partnership] will certainly contribute to the success of our plan.”

The original 1968 advertisement of the Bulova Dior watch

Dior was a pioneer of licensing deals and one reason the company continued after the founder’s death in 1957 was the commercial importance of these deals. It was licensing that first brought fashion and watches together: an early adopter was Gucci, which granted a licence to Severin Wunderman in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, names as diverse as Yves St Laurent and Guess had lucrative licensing deals. The next decade was a period of spectacular growth: sales of Guess watches totalled $18m in 1985 but by 1996 had risen to $165m.

By then some higher-end brands, including Chanel and later Dior and Louis Vuitton, had taken the next step and started watch divisions with facilities in Switzerland. The rationale was that a brand needed a strong, credible watchmaking presence to sell premium watches at a time when knowledge of and spend on watches was increasing.

Today this phase of development is quite mature. Chanel’s highly successful J12 is in its 21st year of production. Meanwhile, Dior this year launches a new watch line designed by Victoire de Castellane, her first since 2003.

Another pioneer of this model was Hermès. “My great-grandfather started to be interested in that field because he was able to put Hermès-made leather bands on Swiss watches,” says Guillaume de Seynes, scion of the Hermès dynasty and chairman of its watch division, La Montre Hermès. “Then in the 1970s my uncle Jean Louis Dumas wanted to open a subsidiary in Switzerland; at that time it was a fully quartz business.”

Guillaume de Seynes, chairman of La Montre Hermès © Magali Delporte for the Financial TImes

The great success of the 1980s was a watch that continues to be a classic, the Arceau, created by legendary Hermès designer Henri d’Origny, but by the turn of the century things began to change again. “I joined in 1998 and thought that we had to develop a different strategy and be really perceived as being at the heart Swiss mechanical watchmaking and to be able to propose some serious movements,” says De Seynes.

This meant serious investment. Having begun with 10 employees in 1978, La Montre Hermès now employs 350 people in Switzerland and produces 60,000 watches a year. It also bought a share of movement maker Vaucher in 2006, acquired dial maker Nateber in 2012 and a year later took a majority stake in case manufacturer Joseph Erard. In 2019, Hermès was among the winners of the watchmaking Oscars, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, which De Seynes says was a “strong step”.

Brands on both sides increasingly see the value of exploiting each other’s names. Ricardo Guadalupe, Hub­lot chief executive, believes “the benefit for them [the fashion partner] is that it is an easy way to get a watch into their portfolio without becoming a specialist in watchmaking”. Hublot has worked with Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto and produced four limited series of watches with LVMH stablemate Berluti.

Hublot’s partnership with a Japanese designer produced the Big Bang Camo Yohji Yamamoto watch

For Guadalupe, it is about finding ways to extend the brand reach to new consumers. “Berluti is strong in Japan and there is a big fan base, so when we do a Berluti watch, 30 to 40 per cent of that specific model sells in Japan.” It can also attract different age groups: Guadalupe says while the core age of 30-50 accounts for more than 70 per cent of Hublot sales, a fashion collaboration typically targets the 25-35 age bracket. “Between 30 and 50 per cent of those we touch are new customers and then we convert them to a ‘normal’ Hublot watch in the future.”

For him the key value is in communications. “It is much easier to talk about a £21,700 Hublot Big Bang Unico Berluti than a Hublot Classic Fusion for £6,400, but that is the watch that we sell every day.” The Berluti Big Bang’s special feature is its use of leather, not just on the strap but on the dial. Guadalupe says by using materials in a way not ordinarily found in watchmaking, it offers an element of difference.

Francois Bennahmias, chief executive of Audemars Piguet, says collaborations must appear credible to the market, as “nobody buys fake and phoney any more”. His nascent partnership with UK fashion brand Ralph & Russo is a way of getting his watches in front of stylish women with spending power. “You rarely see watches on the catwalk,” he says, but if handled correctly, this collaboration could emulate the success of the frosted gold concept he developed with London-based jeweller Carolina Bucci, he adds. The 300-piece run of watches generated £12m in sales and the decorative technique developed by Bucci has been popular with customers on other pieces in the collection.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Frosted Gold Flying Tourbillon made an appearance on Ralph & Russo’s fashion catwalks 

“This type of partnership only makes sense if it remains very exclusive,” agrees Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive of Kering’s watch division, which has embarked on an informal shared marketing initiative with suitmaker Brioni, also owned by the French luxury group. “It has to be curated in terms of a service to the end consumer. The prime [objective] here is really engaging with some consumers who may not know the brand well and explaining how and why we do things.”

Meanwhile, Chopard’s LUC fine watchmaking division has worked with Italian suit brand Kiton to create a 100-piece limited edition of its classic, understated LUC XP. “I met Antonio de Matteis, the CEO from Kiton at the Mille Miglia [the Chopard-sponsored rally] in 2018,” says Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele. “I was a bit hesitant about teaming up with a fashion house, but this is about more than fashion.”

LUC XP IL Sarto Kiton watch © Chopard

Sales were brisk, with 80 per cent of pieces sold in three months, but Scheufele stresses other less immediately quantifiable benefits. “We became visible to more customers and some younger customers. I think it certainly helped the awareness, as you are stepping out of the watchmaking circle but without having to dumb it down; it boils down to having a really qualitative approach. I would not rule out more like this in future.”

One of the most attractive aspects of this business model is the flexibility and marketing opportunities it offers. Some partnerships can be built over years, while others are single activations, as was the case with Richemont-owned IWC and swimwear brand Orlebar Brown, which resulted in the creation of a collection of IWC beachwear and involved a one-off IWC-spec Solaris sailing yacht. Using a light-touch contractual structure, “we shared costs for the photo shoots and the marketing, and off it went”, says Chris Grainger, IWC chief executive. “Once you have the background of the boat, and the background of the professional styling around it, it is a lot stronger than just the watch on its own or the fashion pieces on their own.”