Breitling, the luxury Swiss watchmaker's latest ‘squads’—the trio of Top Time Classic Cars modelled on three American ‘muscle' cars from the 1960s and the 1970s—with their bright colours and retro styling, is a nod to vintage car buffs. Breitling CEO Georges Kern speaks exclusively to Fortune India about making modern-retro cool again for a younger set of aficionados, his fascination with Steve McQueen, and Breitling’s first boutique in the capital.
How has Breitling approached its India strategy, especially since Covid-19?
Despite the pandemic, India has been doing very well, and we have an excellent team in the market. We have plans in place to modernise the existing point of sales and further expand our distribution network, in order to gain further market share. In the coming months, we will be opening a new Breitling Boutique in New Delhi, this will be the first boutique in the new concept within the country.
In terms of e-commerce, does it make sense to sell online in India as you have implemented the world over?
We saw a digital acceleration due to the pandemic. We introduced e-commerce in markets such as the U.S., Asia and the Middle East. E-commerce for the luxury watch industry is still evolving, I am sure there will be a point when we introduce e-commerce in India in line with our consumer’s needs. Until then, offline will always be the main platform for us. People want a physical 360-degree understanding of the brand, so physical retail will remain number one. Humans are social, and they like to see, communicate and experience, and while digital can replace a lot in the decision-making process, in the buying phase, the act of visiting physical stores will remain huge.
Why choose American muscle cars for your latest squad of Top Time Classic Cars, and not European cars?
We chose American muscle cars as the American car culture from the 1960s is a perfect fit for the brand, and for the Top Time Classic Cars Capsule Collection in particular. The watches themselves are a nod to the original 1960s Breitling Top Time models, so they were born at the same time and share the same values of authenticity, minimalism and yet intense creativity.
How does Breitling see itself—vis-à-vis its positioning—aiming at a far younger audience, and emphasis on retro design and bright colours?
Born in 1884, Breitling is one of the pillars in the historical Swiss watchmaking industry; we are very proud of this journey and will always, in some of our designs, pay homage to our legacy and our roots.
But at the same time, Breitling has constantly been a brand fuelled by innovation, courage and modernity. It is embodied in our DNA and this is why we keep challenging ourselves to push the limits each year a little further.
As a result, modern retro is our design mantra.
Do your buyers have a craze for these vintage cars of the 60s and 70s—as these cars have become much in demand today—his affinity for cool cars, racing, and chronographs?
I think it is quite likely that customers of the Top Time, inspired by the 1960s are also fans of the vintage cars, synonymous with these time periods. I think vintage pieces can evoke an emotional connection with customers. At Breitling, we aim to take products from our archives and give them a modern twist, this equates to our modern-retro design mantra.
You mentioned vintage cars are the most sustainable—does that apply to Breitling’s new philosophy too?
Absolutely, sustainability is and will remain the crucial topic of the 21st century, across all disciplines. In the Breitling creative team, we constantly brainstorm, exchange, and stay informed about the various technical developments that we could benefit from in our products.
By its nature, a highly crafted mechanical watch like a Breitling is a very sustainable offering. It uses a minimal quantity of raw materials, then it lasts for many decades and can be serviced and repaired endlessly.
The Shelby Cobra is a superb car—how did you want to differentiate a bit from the watch trio?
We selected these three cars because each of them takes a slightly different approach to the muscle car culture, but as a trio, they capture this iconic free spirit of the 1960s.
The Shelby is much more compact, radical and stripped down to the bare essentials. And we wanted to capture this philosophy in the watch as well, which is why we went for a tighter 40 mm case, with a more minimalistic two-register dial. The Mustang and the Corvette are slightly longer, wider, and more sophisticated, which is why we went for a larger 42 mm case, featuring a 30s chronograph and a tri-compax dial layout.
One of your past releases, the Chronomat, celebrates Breitling’s centenary, what is the technical legacy that is being recreated in this sporty watch?
When the Breitling Chronomat was launched in 1984, it marked a welcome return to mechanical Swiss watches, which had all but disappeared when quartz watches dominated the marketplace in the 1970s. The Chronomat celebrated Breitling’s centenary in style and marked the return of the mechanical chronograph, on which the brand had built its global reputation, to its rightfully prominent place. This technical legacy, combined with particularly stylish design codes, made the Chronomat the ultimate sport-chic watch of its era, an expression of aesthetics and confidence that made the chronograph cool again. Nearly 40 years later, in April last year, we introduced the redesigned Chronomat with key features that recall the classic namesake from the 1980s.
For the Chronomat, how does the Cinema squad with Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, and Adam Driver drive Breitling’s values for consumers?
The squad initiative perfectly reflects our values and our philosophy. We aim for authenticity, credibility, and honesty for our brand and our products and also in our interactions with our clients. The same applies to each of the squads. Their members are absolute masters in their respective fields. I love the concept of a campaign around a team or a group of people because it gives us an opportunity to tell a more holistic story than we could by working with individuals. Taking the Cinema Squad as an example, we have Brad Pitt, who is an established star and a man in his 50s; then there is Charlize Theron and Adam Driver, who each represent a different demographic.
From Breitling’s Endurance Pro Ironman that is sporty and robust—to the most elegant Premier Heritage collection (even with the pistachio colour!)—how are these a reflection of Breitling’s values, in a very no-frills way?
As mentioned previously, we are a generalist brand. We have a wide range of products, from very rugged sports watches to more elegant models, each of our products is in line with our key values: inclusive luxury, sustainable luxury and casual luxury.
Could you tell us your personal anecdote about Bullitt and Steve McQueen, and why this fascinated you so much?
I’m a cinema fan. I like the Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt, and I always had that car in mind, that coolness factor and these cars symbolize what we have been building over the past four years, from when we took over the brand.
Our transformation process is like a puzzle with hundreds of interlocking pieces. Getting them all to work together takes time. While we were putting it together, lots of people—consumers, journalists and even business partners—didn’t understand what the puzzle would look like when it was finished. At the midpoint, things were blurred and people had trouble grasping it. Even four years ago, we said, okay, we want to be the cool alternative to more traditional brands; we had our modern-retro design concept in mind; we launched our first boutiques with the pool tables, motorbikes and so on. And everything changed: we went to air, land and sea brand worlds—not just aviation.
As you know, we partnered up with Triumph, the motorbike company. All this fits better when you look at the whole picture. And the values as well—we always talk about inclusive luxury, casual luxury, and sustainable luxury. Talking about sustainability, there is nothing more sustainable than a vintage car because you keep it. It is much more sustainable than any electro-car you can buy. All this fits the “coolness” and the American power cars linked to our Top Time watch perfectly represent what we stand for today.
And to come back to my puzzle analogy: if you look at our big picture: modern retro, sustainability, casualness, inclusivity; and you look at surfing, triathlon, and classic cars, the puzzle suddenly makes sense. Today the image is clear, the brand is compact. There is a great correlation between the product, the image, the execution, our boutiques, it’s really a coherent brand. In one or two more steps, the puzzle will be complete.
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