The Many Makeovers Of The Fashion Watch
Between their (unlikely) origin as an artistic experiment and growing currency in the realm of ‘serious’ watchmaking, it’s clear that fashion watches are more than just an ephemeral trend
Language is a funny thing.
Just as ‘fashion’ has become so all-encompassing as to be a nebulous part of our cultural vocabulary, the term ‘fashion watch’ is so arbitrarily defined that it ignores the many nuances and historic costume changes of its own subject.
In the USA and Commonwealth of Nations, the term has held somewhat negative connotations since the early 1980s. Disinterested in designer clothing’s wider socio-economic dimension, many watch enthusiasts tended to write ‘fashion watches’ off entirely - conflating them with ‘mall watches’, ‘brand accessories’ and so forth.
Now, over 40 years later, oh “how the turntables”.
In a new installment of Culturecheck we examine (in three parts) the evolutionary role clothing designers and fashion houses have played in watchmaking. Dare we say it: fashion’s creeping influence has even made the mechanical timepiece a more inclusive, innovative, and - if nothing else - stylish object for all.
The en masse marketing of products like Chanel’s J12 or the revamped Louis Vuitton Tambour mean lots of enthusiasts are aware of the current overlap between fashion houses and fine watchmaking.
But the history of couturiers dabbling in watches - applying their skills to a bold new creative format - harkens back to the 1960s. To learn more, I spoke with Matteo Violet Vianello, the man behind Anoma: an exciting new maker of “uniquely shaped watches” set to launch its first timepiece later this year.
“We see the origin of the fashion watch in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s,” says Vianello. “Some of the most daring designers making interesting watches during this period included Pierre Cardin and Pierre Balmain.”
Cardin’s work, in particular, illustrates just how much insight the watch industry gleaned - even in the fashion watch’s earliest days - from outsider influence. A master of the mod chic aesthetic, and contemporary of Elsa Schiaparelli’s, Cardin saw the proverbial writing on the wall early on: the pivot to ready-to-wear clothing (led, as it happens, by longtime frenemy Yves Saint Laurent) convinced him to ink the ‘Pierre Cardin’ name on many accessories. This included fragrances, eyewear, and vitally, wristwatches.
Vianello, whose work through Anoma is inspired by Cardin, cites the Espace collection as the designer’s foremost contribution to fashion watches. Unfettered by the aesthetic and technical constraints Swiss watchmakers routinely imposed upon themselves in the 1970s - Cartier London being one notable exception - the Espace pieces rejected, with unmistakable style, the traditional ‘look’ of that era.
“Unconstrained by convention, [Cardin] was able to create pieces which feel truly imaginative and daring,” explains Vianello. “He did this by combining basic geometric shapes, bright colors and experimental materials. He was also finely attuned to the popular culture and scientific progress of his time, taking inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or NASA space suits.
Cardin’s insistence on using fashion to reflect the spirit of the age (even when he was thinking about objects of permanence, like watches) is something we’ve still seen decades later - even as the fashion watch has adopted a more affordable, mass market outlook.
In 2001, beloved Japanese couturier Issey Miyake - better known for his space age pleats and ‘Bao Bao’ handbags - launched his own line of eponymous watches. The vast majority of these were made with input from award-winning industrial designers. (Naoto Fukusawa, noted for his work with Muji, was an early and important collaborator.)
Numerous collectors of early fashion watches tend to see Miyake and Cardin as kindred spirits. The former’s vision of watchmaking drew on similarly disparate bioorganic influences. The ‘O’, for instance, touted as Miyake’s most distinctive watch design, is inspired by “the shape of water”: lending the appearance of a droplet or melting ice, depending on the angle at which the watch is viewed.
Importantly, Miyake and his designers recognised the value of outfitting such products with robust (if industrial) Miyota movements. Priced affordably and made with a degree of aesthetic fearlessness, Vianello considers these watches a reminder that “design can be fun, accessible, and a vehicle for expressing individual taste”.
Watches Become One Of Fashion’s Favorite Statements
The commercial savvy of serious designers including Balmain and Cardin precipitated what is arguably the fashion watch’s best-known era - that of the mid-range accessory.
As a direct result of the Quartz Crisis, beginning in 1983 the Swiss watch industry unveiled Swatch: a brand specializing in affordable plastic watches, whose main point of difference was its fashion-led aesthetic and potential for repeat purchases. Among a host of memorable marketing taglines, the brand promised “a Swatch for a season, not a watch for all seasons”.
Swatch spearheaded what many experts have come to term the “Second Revolution” in the global watch industry. Having successfully rebranded the ‘fashion watch’ as a fun, mid-tier accessory (favored by trendy young consumers) numerous brands followed in Swatch’s footsteps. The biggest of these, immortalized in everything from 90s-era Vogue to the lyrics of Kanye West, were Guess and Fossil.
Both brands zigged where Swatch had previously zagged, offering metal cases and a marketing model that stressed the proximity of their offering to fashion - rather than traditional watchmaking.
In this regard, Fossil was notably successful: by 1989, the company had fine-tuned the idea to sell its wares in chipper, 50s-inspired tin boxes. Within a year of going public (Fossil was listed on the NASDAQ in 1993) this seemingly simple packaging strategy had netted the company $162 million in sales.
The brand licensing frenzy that followed also helped to bring the dialogue between fashion and watches full circle. Where prominent designer labels had previously thought of the wristwatch as little more than a pre-packaged advertising opportunity, a number of brands - many of them venerable luxury houses - began to see the advantage in integrating watches as a cross-category product.
To understand why, after several decades of relative neglect, high-end brands had begun to actively court the watch industry, I spoke to Annie Brown, a fellow watch & jewelry writer and Contributing Editor at SCMP Style.
“For every major player in luxury goods (regardless of whether they’re independent or backed by a conglomerate like LVMH) it’s absolutely essential that that house’s design ‘codes’ be interpretable across all categories - including watches” says Brown. “That’s not a new development. Just look at what Chanel did, back in 1987, with the Premiere: a model which is inspired by the shape of the iconic No. 5 perfume stopper.”
For a Maison like Chanel to so brazenly cross the unspoken threshold that had existed between watches and couture for much of the 20th century must have felt huge; but today, it’s a stratagem so common in the business of luxury that brands deploy it multiple times per year. “Audemars Piguet is incredibly good at entwining itself with the cultural zeitgeist,” says Brown, “while remaining utterly true to its design codes”. For many, the famed makers of the Royal Oak have become synonymous with “luxury” (as opposed to just “luxury watches”) through their alignment with Travis Scott, Alyx’s Matthew Williams, and - just in time for the Spring 2024 season - Aussie couturier Tamara Ralph.
From Paris With Love’: Haute Couture Meets Haute Horlogerie
Clearly then, the fashion watch has lived a number of distinctly varied lives - as both a mid-market accessory and avant-garde design.
It’s become increasingly clear however that there is a subset, as we briefly alluded to in the second part of our story, that might be better understood as fashionable luxury watches. In this niche, the brands dominating the conversation tend to be identical to those who dominate luxury at large.
Notwithstanding Gucci (who joined the high watchmaking fray in 2021) that leads us to the doorstep of three grand old Maisons: Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel.
Each has made its own way through the Swiss watch industry with a signature set of specialisms, though there are (as in fashion) certain overlapping synergies. (The most obvious being the sheer amount of capital that each has and is set to continue investing in fine watchmaking.)
Predictably, Louis Vuitton has been the most vocal about its enduring commitment to the watch world. The pedigreed luggage maker has an interesting relationship to complicated watches (e.g. the original LV-I World Timer, developed by IWC) but has ramped up its activities to an unprecedented degree.
In 2011, it acquired the sprawling manufacture known as La Fabrique Du Temps; has unveiled multiple complicated watches in the vein of the delightfully insane ‘Carpe Diem’ Automaton;; and even established the Watch Prize for Independent Creatives - its own grant program.
In 2006, Hermès acquired a 25-percent stake in the movement manufacturer Vaucher. Well-known as the sibling company of Parmigiani Fleurier, this acquisition gave Hermès the necessary tools to bring its whimsical time-telling fantasies to life. “The brand develops its own movements and designs watches inside and out,” says Brown. “It’s an interesting dynamic: to be so serious about watchmaking, yet also completely playful.”
Ultimately, the goal of all this ambitious manoeuvering is to convince the public that Louis Vuitton (a house best known for monogrammed leather goods) is equally adept at making high-end watches - a challenge that Hermès, one of its longstanding rivals, has met with considerable success.
Of the three Grande Maisons that dominate the fashionable watch space, Hermès can be credited with being earliest to the party. The company established its watchmaking division in 1978, off the back of the ascendance of affordable quartz movements; but it would be another two-and-a-half decades before it committed to its most formative technical investments.
Of late, Hermès has taken it upon itself to tackle the traditionally lucrative verticals in watchmaking: as seen in its continued expansion of the H08 and Cape Cod collections. But to better understand the soul of the company’s approach (i.e. charming, imaginative, oddly self-aware) it’s important to understand how it does complications.
The ‘Le Temps Suspendu’ is one such emblematic example. Not content to replicate the tourbillons and busy calendar watches of ‘serious’ brands, the Suspendu allows the wearer to, in effect, stop time - by locking the watch’s hands discretely around the 12 o’clock position. All of this, wrapped up in the usual livery of the Arceau collection - known for its fine typography and differentially sized stirrup lug.
Is the ability to ‘suspend’ time the most practical complication? Hardly. But one has to respect Hermès for its originality, and for its desire to encourage watch lovers to perceive time - and how we tell it - in more than just sequential fashion. In 2024, that’s something every ‘fashion watch’ should aspire to.