'Fashion watches' have transformed watchmaking

January 2004

The watch industry has been shaken by two successive waves of brands moving into it essentially from the fashion world, a highly globalized sector, avid for new products, and dominated by large groups that are experts in marketing. This intrusion of fashion brands into the classic landscape of traditional watchmaking - taken to the extreme sometimes - has upset all the conventional parameters. Europa Star offers a brief portrait of some 33 international fashion brands that have now become very powerful in the watch industry and are poised to become even more powerful in the future.

A few years ago (light years away as it seems now), the watch community had only one name on its lips. It was the 'magic' name of Gucci. Thanks to the grace and talent of its chief designer Tom Ford combined with the Florentine intelligence of his boss Domenico De Sole and the novel rigour of its collections, Gucci was able to break through the previously watertight barrier between true 'watchmakers' and 'makers of watches'. The Italian brand was thus able to demonstrate that a brand from the fashion world could not only become an important opinion leader and trendsetter in the world of watches, it could also exert a strong influence on the up-to-then traditional watchmaking enterprises. (Would Patek Philippe have had the courage to launch its famous and lovely Twenty-4 timepiece if Gucci had not existed?)
Up to that time, the 'fashion' watch (that is, a 'throwaway' watch, one you changed according to the trends or the seasons) was limited to a defined category, that of the 'accessory'. It was not considered as a watch in itself, but simply as one accessory, among many others, in the fashion sector. As such, it was dependent on a seasonal theme defined by the principal 'couture' styles of the moment.
Gucci would change all this by creating a high-level and perfectly autonomous watch collection, which it would sell at relatively high prices. The phenomenal success of its G-Watch was the crowning jewel in the brand's strategy and opened the way for many others to follow. It thus was responsible for launching the first wave of the global 'fashionization' of the watch industry by giving the fashion watch its 'letters of noblesse'. Following in Gucci's footsteps, new players flooded in, and many existing brands (Dior, Chanel, and others) were forced to rethink their commercial and creative strategies.
With its innovative approach, Gucci also forced the 'fashion' watch sector to move upmarket. It showed that it was able to 'magically' combine high prices with high volume production. Although workable in the beginning, this strategy did reach its limits when Gucci tried to move too far into the realm of 'true luxury'. It soon realized that its clients were not following.
This second wave of 'fashionization' of the watch industry was caused by the influx of a new panoply of brands from the fashion industry. We will illustrate this with the emblematic case of Italy. For the last year or so, many new names have appeared on the time horizon. While new to watchmaking, they are nonetheless very well known brands in other domains, especially fashion, and they all have the ambition, creativity and marketing sense to expand into the art of time.
D & G, Roberto Cavalli, Moschino, Valentino, Benetton, Ferragamo, Diesel and others are demonstrating not only exceptional vitality, but also an instructive sense of stylistic excitement and creativity in communication, all of which are providing new impetus to the sector.
Still in Italy, which is a kind of text market for trends, we are seeing the development of new groups, as is the case of the Sector Group, under the umbrella of Opera (itself controlled by Bulgari), which have the savoir-faire and the professionalism necessary to move into global markets in both the short and medium term.
In this sense, the 'fashion' sector is slowly but surely transforming the watch industry as a whole. By allying their strength, fashion sense and creative freedom with industrial savoir-faire and well-established distribution networks, brands in the fashion sector have not finished changing the world of watchmaking. So, what is all this worth in monetary terms? It is difficult to say exactly, but estimates are that fashion watches now account for one-third of global volume and sales, which translates into around 5 to 6 billion Swiss francs a year.

To help guide you through the dense forest of fashion brands, Europa Star magazine of December/January 04 presents a panorama of 33 international fashion names.

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