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IN DEPTH: Where Gucci goes next with its watch business

Piero braga Gucci

Major fashion houses have a checkered past when it comes to producing watches bearing their logos. Some like Armani and Karl Lagerfeld have opted to license their names to conglomerates pumping out thousands of inexpensive units with only tangential connections to the brand. Others like Chanel have developed decades’ of expertise in high end horology. Gucci is currently treading a middle path. Its watches are affordable compared to the likes of Chanel and Dior and infused with the DNA of the fashion house. It has around 700 outlets for its watches in the United States, but its biggest retailer in the world is its own ecommerce site. Where will Gucci go next with its timepieces division? WatchPro’s Rob Corder sat down with Piero Braga, president and CEO of Gucci Jewelry and Timepieces, to find out.

It has been almost three years since Piero Braga was given the task of revamping Gucci’s jewellery and timepiece business with a mandate to bring Swiss-made watches infused with the fashion house’s signature design signatures to the world. It was soon after Alessandro Michele was appointed creative director of Gucci, and he insisted that the company’s watches would be as authentically Gucci as its catwalk fashions.

“Authenticity is a very important word for Gucci, and we are authentic in two important ways. Number one is that we have been manufacturing Swiss-made watches since 1972, so almost 50 years of history as a watchmaker. We might not have the same longevity as a Patek Philippe, but we do have history. Secondly, is for Gucci to stand for something within the timepiece industry. We need to produce watches with a meaning, and this meaning should be aligned with the narrative and positioning of what the brand is doing. That is authentic,” Mr Braga told WatchPro during this year’s Baselworld exhibition where Gucci had two large stands in the main hall of the show.

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The watches, first seen at Baselworld in 2017, were strikingly different to traditional Swiss or Japanese pieces. They featured iconic symbols of the brand such as interlocking Gs, snakes and bees, and also its instantly recognizable color combinations, particularly ivy green and red.

Some designs were more challenging to a typical watch retailer than others, and this was a deliberate tactic to be noticed by both the traditionalists and more risk-embracing fashion crowd and its press.

“We segment our collections. We divide them into Iconic, Contemporary and Fashion-Forward. Iconic is a classic construction and classic materials with the Gucci brand symbols embedded into timepieces in a more discrete way. Contemporary is still comparatively classic, but the personalization is getting louder. Finally, Fashion-Forward is where the design, construction, materials are new and unseen for the industry,” Mr Braga explains.

The different lines have immediate appeal to different retailers and customers, but there is no restriction on which stores can stock which models. “For sure the Fashion-Forward pieces are more appropriate to our Gucci boutiques and more progressive retailers. But I would not say that any of the watches are too bizarre to sell through jewellers. Our ambition is to make Fashion-Forward watches like The Grip a pillar of our future development. I would not even say this type of design has not been seen before, it has been inspired by designs from the 1970s and 1980s. The Grip is not built to be a niche watch, we think it can speak to a wide audience,” Mr Braga explains.

The Grip to which Mr Braga refers is Gucci’s big launch this year. It is a completely fresh collection of unisex timepieces. Its name, WatchPro was told, is a connection of the skateboarding craze that blossomed in the 1970s.

The watches bear a passing resemblance to mini bathroom scales, with hours, minutes and the date displayed in three apertures cut into a flat metal surface. But that did not put off a team of female buyers from a major international retail group who, speaking to WatchPro on the sidelines of Baselworld, loved them.

Naturally, to keep the seventies story consistent, the four style collection of watches all house quartz movements. One edition brings together a yellow gold PVD case and yellow gold PVD bracelet, both engraved with Gucci’s signature interlocking G logo. Another variant is worked purely in steel. At the upper end of the range are two editions with colored calf leather straps: green with a steel case, or Bordeaux with a yellow gold PVD case.

“Grip is the perfect choice for men and women who appreciate clean yet eye-catching design with vintage appeal,” Gucci says. They come in two sizes, 35mm and 38mm with prices starting just north of $1000 for the 35mm models. There are 46 different interchangeable quick release straps, which sell individually. Gucci says they will go on sale in September.

 

The big launch of the year for Gucci is the Grip collection.

 

Watches like The Grip may be fresh and quirky, but they fit within a Gucci universe that is tightly controlled, authentic and consistent across everything from apparel and accessories to merchandising and marketing. The softly upholstered window displays that appear up in jewellers up and down the country are a good example, and catch the eye next to the hard, shiny displays most watch brands deploy.

“This is down to our expertise in the fashion industry, which is more familiar than the watch business in things like window displays and shop design. If you look at what we have done here in Baselworld with this booth, it is an example of what we can achieve in a short period of time [Gucci had installed a huge glass orangery with bohemian furniture and styling as its second stand at the show]. Execution for us is key, and we put a lot of effort into designing spaces that tell our story. Our watches are most successful when we are able to present them in our own environment,” Mr Braga, who is also senior vice president wholesale, franchising, travel retail & outlets for Gucci, explains.

 

Gucci made a late decision to take additional space at Baselworld and created a stylish orangery to showcase its Grip watch collection.

 

Presentation of Gucci’s watches has helped propel them into a leading player in the fashion watch market, but Mr Braga is still not satisfied. “If you look at our displays today, they are still quite messy, unfortunately, because a transition to a new aesthetic is still in progress. We hope it will be fully in place by the end of this year, but we still have retailers that have a bit of everything,” he describes.

When the transition to the new look is complete, Gucci hopes it will help its retailers profit from the brand for many years. “Now that we have finished the update of the image and perception, we have to make it more focused. Retailers are the backbone of the commercial success for the brand over the next five years and we have to work with them,” Mr Braga promises.

The mention of a five year timeline, during which Gucci will rely heavily on its retail partners does not mean it will hold back from selling watches through its own boutiques or online. In fact, the company openly admits that its ecommerce store is its biggest outlet by turnover. “Gucci approached ecommerce very early with our fashion and today our ecommerce site is our biggest store in the world. We started breaking down all the resistance years ago in fashion. Honestly, I still do not understand why the watch industry continues to resist. Many categories have proved ecommerce works, including some examples in the watch industry. Watches are a very saleable category online,” Mr Braga suggests.

Rolex and Patek Philippe may be reluctant to compete with their retail partners through their own ecommerce sites, but Mr Braga thinks their resistance will eventually break. “You are battling against something that is bigger than you. Consumers want to go in that direction. They already are, so it is just a question of time. For me, it is stupid not to learn and exploit a channel that today is part of our everyday life. Ecommerce is everywhere from high volume commodities selling on Amazon to high end luxury selling through the likes of Net-A-Porter, Matches Fashion and Farfetch,” he says.

“Ecommerce is a way of respecting consumers. The most valuable thing they have is time, so shopping online saves them time and gives them a great experience, particularly on nicely curated sites like Net-A-Porter,” Mr Braga continues. “Companies like Gucci in fashion have become retailers. All the fashion houses are manufacturers and retailers if you look at the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton and us. The vast majority of our sales are done through our own retail networks. In the watch industry it is not like that.”

Gucci is the biggest company within Kering Group, a luxury conglomerate that is also home to Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and high end Swiss watchmakers Girard Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin.

The different brands operate independently, but there is also a cross-pollination of ideas among the senior executives. “We speak to each other,” Mr Braga says. “My background is not in the watch industry so when I was appointed I spoke a lot to the leaders of the watchmaking businesses to learn from them. That is an open dialogue that continues.”

There is also a small amount of help between the brands on the manufacturing of watches. For example, Gucci does some stone setting for its sister maisons. Mr Braga says there may even be a time in the future when Gucci draws on the more complex watchmaking of UN and GP. “We might go to them for some complications in the future. We need to move step-by-step so at the moment we are producing a nice range of automatic watches but we cannot jump from €700 quartz watches to grand complications with tourbillons. That would not be credible,” he admits. “A good area for us is medium-to-high end jewellery, and watches like jewels. That is an area where we can be credible making high end watches in terms of their materials, so why not move higher up in terms of the movement as well. So, we are talking. There is definitely room for more collaboration,” he suggests.

 

G-Timeless watches are now arriving in more luxurious configurations including a special edition in gold this year.

 

Gucci is already moving through the gears when it comes to more expensive models. The company launched a special edition of its G-Timeless range of mechanical automatics at Basel at a considerably higher price point than its typical mark of around $800 to $1200. “We do not necessarily want to follow the same path as our competitors like Chanel and Hermes,” Mr Braga explains.

“We know where we come from. We started with a medium entry level price and we do not want to completely change that position. We will keep a similar entry level, because that has forever been one of the characteristics of Gucci watches and is useful to attract traffic and new consumers. But what we want to do is position the core of the offer one step up,” he hints.

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Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder

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