The Swiss watch industry today stands at a crossroads. It finds itself in a moment of critical self-reflection in terms of where its future lies. Because in the last decade it’s benefitted tremendously from the rise of China as a consumer superpower, and in some ways had become accustomed to the Chinese consumer avidly ingesting whatever examples of ticking finery it would produce. For many brands, their boutiques in Kowloon — the first landing point, staging area and ground zero for the mainland Chinese consumer — was on a revenue-per-square-foot basis their best performing in the world. Indeed, to a large extent Swiss watch brands couldn’t keep up with the staggering demand, says one industry insider: “During Golden Week or before Chinese New Year there would be lines outside the door. We would have to get staff to bring more stock in the back of taxis; demand was that crazy.”
But in 2016, the world is very different. For varying reasons the Chinese consumer has disappeared and the watch world has found that they can no longer create products that will be instantly and mindlessly consumed. What it’s realizing is that in order to sell watches, it needs to go back to its roots and create watches that are amazing expressions of its core identity; watches that are also profoundly beautiful. In the world of high-end chronographs no brand did this better than Vacheron Constantin with its Cornes de Vache chronograph: a majestic reinterpretation of an iconic ’50s design masterpiece, featuring a historically significant Lemania CH27 movement, offered at a price point that represented a compelling value proposition. In addition, last year, Vacheron Constantin demonstrated its continued technical ambition by unveiling the masterpiece that was the 57260: a watch made significant both for its status as the world’s most complicated and also as one of its most beautifully rendered. But in the beginning of this year, Vacheron Constantin unveiled another timepiece named Métiers d’Art Élégance Sartoriale that demonstrates that it is actively searching to connect with a new audience rather than relying purely on the consumer of the past.
From a cultural perspective, one of the most interesting phenomena following the 2008 world banking crisis was an extremely clear and vocal redefinition of men’s style. A whole new generation in their 20s and 30s collectively began rejecting the ephemeral nature of fashion and began to re-embrace classic elegance. And this has led to a massive resurgence in the sartorial arts and a renaissance in tailoring the world over. In places like Naples, tailors from the mainstream kings of sprezzatura Rubinacci to more-obscure elder statesmen like Antonio Panico have never seen such demand. Says Luca Rubinacci, the latest generation to helm his family’s firm, “We’ve never had more young people captivated by tailoring. And today our client is totally international; he could be from the United States but just as easily from Kazakhstan.” Says Charles de Luca of the legendary Camps de Luca tailors in Paris, “This new generation loves the self-expressive power that tailoring can achieve, which is to make something that is uniquely for you and no one else.” Says Michael Brown, a dynamic young tailor at Chittleborough and Morgan on London’s fabled Savile Row, “Young people are also connecting with the concept of buying less but better. They would rather have one jacket, than 10, that is truly handmade and crafted specifically for their body.”
All of this was not missed by Vacheron Constantin’s artistic director Christian Selmoni, a man who also happens to be devoted to the art of tailoring, “One of the byproducts of this renewed interest in classic style is that more and more men began relating not to their father’s generation but to their grandfather’s — in particular the idea related to tailor-made clothing and the individuality this expressed.” But more than a trend, Selmoni sees this shift in interest from fashion to classic style, expressing a more-significant seismic shift in prevailing consumer values.
Selmoni continues, “Luxury has evolved very significantly in the past decade. And where it was once about uniformity, we have once again come to embrace the concept of individuality. It’s funny, but a decade ago, I would come to Singapore and I would, over the course of my visit, see dozens of ladies wearing the same Gucci outfit. Today I don’t think that would happen. Today there is a desire for uniqueness, exclusivity and also discretion, and so people are looking for products that are created in smaller series that express a real refinement in details and also connect with them in a very personal way.”