Watches and the Rise of "Affordable Luxury"

StyleZeigeist recently published a thought-provoking op-ed, “How Premium Mediocre Fashion Conquered the World.” If you’re interested in fashion or culture at all, the entire piece is worth a read (this Reddit thread also has some insightful comments). But it got me thinking about the state of the watch industry: has it fallen into the same state of purveying “premium mediocre” goods to communities of hypebeasts or influencers motivated only by curating a perception of the good life in their two-dimensional Instagram feeds?

Premium Mediocre In Fashion

First, to define some terms. “Premium mediocre” is a term an industry analyst made up to refer to a segment of economic activity largely dreamed up by marketers to give the masses the illusion that they are consuming luxury, when in reality they were doing nothing of the sort. It could be your craft beers, artisanal pizzas, and premium economy flights. The article focuses on premium mediocre in the fashion industry: Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade being among its primary purveyors. They hock their goods as “affordable luxury,” an oxymoronic phrase worthy of the scare quotes I’ve placed it in. But, premium mediocre extends into high end fashion as well. It’s those ubiquitous Louis Vuitton bags, Balenciaga baseball hats, or Gucci slides. It’s slapping a logo on a $10 baseball hat and selling it for $200. Luxury brands love this because the margins are much higher than on “true” luxury goods — quality handbags, shoes, etc. — that take substantial investment to source and produce.

To what do we owe this rise in premium mediocre? It’s the typical bogeymen: social media and the curated lifestyle, the rise of an entitled millennial generation (did I just call myself entitled? idk too busy scrolling through Instagram to notice), and the democratization of everything via the internet. These forces have led to a culture in which “treating yourself” is the norm, adjacent to self care as something one must do to achieve overall well being and self realization. We all feel entitled to luxury, but if we still can’t afford an Hermes Birkin Bag, perhaps a cardholder from the Carriage will do. I’m always wary of a writer explaining a trend by pointing a finger at millennials, but the point is that the larger cultural milieu shaping the thoughts and purchasing habits of this generation have led to a rise in “premium mediocre.”

Premium Mediocre, The Algorithmic Aesthetic, and Instagram Watches

That’s premium mediocre in culture and fashion. But does it exist in the watch industry, and if so, what segment of the market is it?

A watch aficionado’s knee jerk reaction is probably to point a finger at Daniel Wellington or MVMT, purveyors of $200 watches that cost more to market than they do to manufacture. But are these brands really selling a luxury aesthetic? They’re certainly selling something: their minimalist aesthetic blends seamlessly into an influencer’s post at a boozy brunch or the Amalfi Coast, but the point of luxury has never been to blend into a scene. A luxury good is the scene.

These brands seem to be driven primarily by the other dominant trend in fashion: style by algorithm. It’s the flat, two-dimensional aesthetic we all know from our Instagram feed: avocado toast, ceramic planters with succulents inside, millennial pink bedroom walls and desks made from reclaimed wood. Normcore, as it’s called when manifested into a fashion statement. Brands seem to master the aesthetic, and then decide what to sell on top of it: toothbrushes, contacts, water filters, and so, so many watches.

The flight to premium mediocre or affordable luxury is in a way a reaction to the algorithmic aesthetic. If everyone looks the same, how do you stand out? Logos, ostentatious displays of wealth and general hypebeasting. The irony of this is that in a curated world, the algorithm learns and reacts to what it’s being fed. The mean shifts, the algorithmic aesthetic changes. Or, more accurately, it changes for you. If you double-tap a few photos with Gucci slides in them, all the sudden you’re seeing them everywhere. Reality hasn’t actually changed, but your reality has.

Daniel Wellington certainly has an aesthetic, but is it a  luxury  aesthetic?

Daniel Wellington certainly has an aesthetic, but is it a luxury aesthetic?

“Entry-Level” Luxury

If Daniel Wellington, MVMT or the other brands that make their homes in your Instagram feed aren’t “premium mediocre,” what about the mid-priced, or “entry-level luxury” category? The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH) breaks down sales into four price categories. The “entry-level” luxury category is defined as watches costing between CHF 500 and CHF 3,000 (roughly the same price in U.S. dollars).

In October 2018, sales of watches in this category were essentially flat year-over-year, even as the Swiss watch industry as a whole has been growing steadily. This industry-wide growth has been driven not by the entry-level luxury category, but by the high-end watches priced above CHF 3,000. Low- and mid-priced watches have seen steady sales declines, even over a prolonged period of growth for the Swiss watch industry.

There’s just not a ton of money to be made selling Tissots, Seiko Presages or starting your own microbrand repackaging mechanical ETA or Miyota movements. This is where the Apple Watch must also be mentioned: it’s tough for mechanical watches to compete with a $500 do-it-all gadget. Sure, I know a lot of people who would rather wear a Seiko SARB 033 than an Apple Watch as their one daily wearer at this price point, but I’m generally out of touch with the wrist preferences of the general population.

Swiss wristwatch sales by price category growth year-over-year, October 2018

Swiss wristwatch sales by price category growth year-over-year, October 2018

He Instagram His Watch Like #MadRichAlert

In the watch industry, there’s really no substitute for the real thing, where the “real thing” is a Rolex, Patek Phillipe or Auedmars Piguet with a price tag reaching into the five figures. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to snuffing out fakes, and posting photos of a purported Rolex to any number of internet forums will garner opinions as to its true provenance in a matter of minutes. Watch collectors are nothing if not detail oriented, and one wrong text character can tip off an idiot savant as to the non-authenticity of a timepiece.

This is one reason the secondary market is booming, and startups and brands alike are looking to snag a piece of it. If you’re not friends with your local authorized dealer or don’t want to pay full price for a new Rolex, the pre-owned market is your next option. No Submariner homage is a substitute for the real thing.

Additionally, the most recognizable watch brands have spent the better part of two centuries building up brand equity making them some of the most respected brands in the world. While the largest fashion houses have done the same, some streetwear brands have been around for a relatively short time period. Supreme and Off-White, two of the most popular among hypebeasts, are not even a generation old. Rolex doesn’t need to resort to gimmicks or creating “premium mediocre” products to cultivate an image; on the other hand, newer brands will do anything to get their logo out there and their product into the hands of influencers.

For the most part, the watch industry seems to have rise above the trend of “premium mediocre” fashion to date. But, that’s not to say it’s immune from the cultural forces dictating these trends. The underlying fact of premium mediocre is that it makes consumers feel good, even if that feeling is fleeting and illusory. Consumers have fallen for the bait-and-switch of the luxury brands: they make us feel this way so that, soon enough, we’re coming back for more premium mediocre goods.

Ask someone who has a well-crafted mechanical watch though, and they’ll tell you theirs is not a fleeting love. It’s a love they feel every time they look down at the dial, flip over the case to take a glance at the movement, or learn something new about the watch’s history or manufacturing process. It’s a love free of hype or pretense, a three-dimensional affair not quite captured in a curated feed. An analog feeling that pre-dates the flattened digital experiences that so often define our current day.

@watchanish, the ultimate hypebeast

@watchanish, the ultimate hypebeast