Fashion industry veteran Piero Braga took over as President and CEO of Gucci Timepieces in 2016, and was instantly tasked with bringing the company’s watch collections into sync with the design vision of Gucci’s heralded Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, who has reimagined the venerable Italian brand’s image for a younger generation. Judging by this year’s collection, he seems to be succeeding. I had a chance to talk with Braga at Baselworld 2017 about what the future holds for Gucci watches.
WT: When did you start at Gucci and what do you hope to bring to the company in this role?
PB: I’ve been with Gucci since 2005, but working with the watches only since October 2016. I come from the side and still serve as Senior Vice-President for Wholesale, Franchising and Travel Retail for the brand. The CEO of Gucci asked me to take the position as CEO of the Timepiece division last October. The idea behind that is that we felt the necessity to put together the Italian creativity and the Swiss craftsmanship, and to create a new vision for these two product categories — watches and jewelry — that would be embedded into the creativity of the brand. When Gucci started its own journey in 2015, with Alessandro Michele coming on board and a new type of creativity spreading out — let’s just say that the watches and jewelry products became not as aligned with what was going on in fashion at the time. So the entire idea was to go back to the DNA of Gucci watches, which were born to be fashion watches and which had most success when the symbols of the brand were embedded in a smart way into the product. Gucci was the first brand in the world to produce fashion watches, back in 1972, and their main characteristic has been that they were “speaking” Gucci.
WT: What did you see in the watches, when you came aboard, that you thought needed to be changed or put more in focus?
PB: Of course, the watch industry is big and it’s full of very respectable, more traditional brands that are doing excellent products. Gucci is, in fact, a Swiss watch manufacturer because we own production facilities and we have had credibility as a watch producer for 40 years, which is a long time. But our point of view must be different, so we need to offer to our clientele a product that is different from everyone else’s. We cannot afford to have a nicely made, traditional Swiss watch with just the Gucci name on it. That’s not what our consumers want from us and it’s not what we want to offer them. So, what the company and I both felt strongly about was aligning the vision. And you can see that there is an entire renovation of all the visual touch points. So it’s product first, followed by the visual displays, furniture for the shops, the advertising campaign, the videos, the Instagram campaign we just launched before Baselworld — all these are part of a [brand-wide] Gucci product strategy.
WT: The Instagram campaign, with its use of memes, is definitely a sign that the brand is looking toward youth. How is this going to play over into the design, and the marketing, of the timepieces?
PB: We still try to appeal to a wide range of consumers, but the key is that each product is different from others on the market and also has the brand aesthetic. For example, the watch that I’m wearing here is a GMT but with brand symbols on the dial, like the little snake to indicate a second time zone. It’s very classic and wearable, but still speaks Gucci. The little bees [at the hour markers] are also very discreet. And at 38 mm, it could work for both men and women.
WT: Is it fair to say that animals and insects have become important symbols of the Gucci brand?
PB: The beauty is that we don’t have to invent things just for the watches. We have one Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, and one only design office. Inside that building, there is a full team of designers working with Alessandro on the full category. So in this way, we have a lot of cross-pollination between product categories and stories. We have a belt that is becoming a watch, with a dial in leather; Gucci is all about the leather. We have the buckle of our best-selling Dionysus bag becoming a watch. We have an idea for a watch that comes from our jewelry, both in a precious version and a more “democratic” version, in resin, whose idea comes from costume jewelry. We have put our symbols, the GG signature leather, the GG logo, into materials that could be embedded inside the watch. We worked with a New York-based street artist, Trevor Andrew, who was obsessed by Gucci and graffiti-ing the town with Gucci symbols. Alessandro wanted to meet him, and the two got along very well together and we decided to collaborate with him. The new symbols that Alessandro brought into the aesthetic of the brand two years ago are now becoming super popular. If you look at our denim, our sneakers, our shirts, all share the same symbols that we use across all categories, including watches. And where the symbols of the brand speak more “loudly,” to answer your earlier question, that is where we are definitely targeting a unisex, millennial clientele.
WT: Are the watches still all made in Switzerland, with Swiss movements?
PB: These are all made in Switzerland. The movements are also Swiss, mostly quartz, with a few mechanicals. What is important to mention is that we have a factory producing dials. Not many brands are able to produce their own dials in Switzerland. The factory was bought years ago and it has proven to be a strategic asset today, because having 100 percent of the dials’ production in-house — especially now, with the change in regulations for the Swiss made label — is very much a plus.
WT: Is that factory owned outright by Gucci or is it owned by parent company Kering? And does it produce dials for other brands either inside or outside of the group?
PB: It’s owned by Gucci, and it produces almost exclusively dials for Gucci watches. We collaborate when we can with the other brands of the Kering Group, but to be honest, we are very close to the saturation point of the production capacity, so we don’t have that much room. If there is room, we consider them customers and they consider us as a supplier. It’s the same for the other production facility that we have, for assembling watches. We assemble watches only for Gucci, but we have a department of this factory that is specialized for engraving stones and diamonds.
WT: Obviously the brand produces some very high-end, high-jewelry pieces, but what’s the price point you’re generally shooting for now for the Gucci customer?
PB: It didn’t change: it starts around $700 to $1,200, though of course, the Gucci brand is capable of sustaining much higher price points. Again, as in the other product categories, we don’t give ourselves limits. If we want to produce an 18K gold watch with diamonds, we do it, and we think we have the credibility and the potential to sell it.
WT: Many of this year’s timepieces were already in development when you became CEO, obviously. How involved have you gotten in the development of upcoming models?
PB: I’ve been involved before I joined officially as CEO, because over the years management got closer and closer to the watches division to see how could resolve the gap between the direction it was taking and the new aesthetic of Alessandro. Some of the products introduced in Basel last year were very well received but the overall direction was not clear; it was like some fashion dipped into a more traditional perspective. Fortunately, since October, the Gucci Creative Department is so full of ideas that we just need to pick them up and transform them into watches. There is, let’s say, two seasons’ worth of ideas, seeing as how fashion is seasonal. There is an effort to accelerate the product renovation, as we want to be able to totally renovate the range by 2018. The effort is already massive, but we still have work to do. We haven’t yet developed a new chronograph, for example, which is something that we’d like to do. And we’d like to do more product with diamonds. Importantly, we need some discipline. You know much better than I that watches are a complicated product to produce, more complicated than the majority of the fashion items, so we need to force ourselves to use standard cases and shapes, and embed that personalization into details that are easily manageable from an industrial point of view. Of course, there will still be a portion of the collection with much more progressive constructions that are more difficult to industrialize. But we need to maintain a balance.
WT: If you perceived previous years’ collections as some pieces “dipping into fashion” while surrounded by more traditional pieces, would you say the difference now is that the brand is embracing fashion and turning away from the more traditional?
PB: Yes, but again, we’re not doing anything new; we’re doing exactly what Gucci has done since the beginning, and maybe this message was lost because after so many years we became known as just “one of the Swiss watch manufacturers.” But that was never really our DNA and this is not what our consumers want from us. So, today, the direction is clear: it’s fashion-oriented, but you can find things that are very wearable and appeal to a much wider and traditional audience. Gucci has been successful in watches when we’ve been able to put forward the symbols of the brand — and the symbols of the brand today have proven very successful, because in the past two years we’ve made a tremendous step forward. We’ve over-performed the market in 2016, and I can assure you we see very, very positive trends in 2017.