Taking a Timely Leap of Faith

New York Times, October 25, 2012

NEW YORK — In Switzerland, a watch brand born of a company best known for manufacturing men’s underwear might be considered to lack gravitas. But the creators of a new timepiece from 2(X)IST, a premium underwear brand based in New York, are not shy about their model’s unorthodox underpinnings.

“Going from underwear to watches is the farthest stretch you can make,” said Morris Chabbott, director of Moret Time, a division of the Moret Group, a 37-year-old giant in the apparel industry that acquired the 2(X)IST label in 1995 and has set its sights on building it into a men’s lifestyle brand. “We thought, This is how our customers show they’re different than everybody else.”

Mr. Chabbott sat in a boardroom at Moret’s headquarters in the fashion district of Manhattan surrounded by male mannequins dressed in the latest 2(X)IST styles: turquoise boxers, striped tank tops, orange briefs. The scene underscored the leap of faith required to produce The NYC, a bold, three-dimensional timepiece that will be rolled out to 2(X)IST outlets this autumn with a retail price of $495.

“We were looking to get into the accessory market,” Mr. Chabbott said: “So we asked ourselves, What is the most dominant accessory that men wear? A watch. It’s a very big disconnect, but how do we connect it?”

In the spring of 2011, the company took its first stab at a collection of watch prototypes — some 40 styles in all, including one with a dial measuring 46 millimeters, or 1.8 inches across, that looked like an improbable cross between the California surfer watch brand Nixon and the sober elegance of the luxury Italian brand Panerai. “We looked at it and said, This is not 2(X)IST — we can’t take it to market,” Mr. Chabbott recalled.

Enter Michael Pucci, president of the Abbiamo Group in Burbank, California, a marketing firm with a track record of introducing fine jewelers to fashionable brands. A believer in the marketing potential of men’s fashion watches, Mr. Pucci suggested that Mr. Chabbott team up with Jason Wilbur, an industrial designer whose last timepiece, the Tread 1 for Devon Works, in Los Angeles, earned acclaim for its avant-garde styling and all-American pedigree.

“We clicked right away,” Mr. Chabbott said of his first meeting with Mr. Wilbur in November 2011.

The feelings were mutual. “We had a bunch of New Yorkers about to do what New Yorkers do best: Make a lot of noise,” Mr. Wilbur said from Westchester County, New York, recalling the meeting. “So I thought, Why not do something inspired by a culture, a people? A watch based on New York City.”

Mr. Wilbur’s architectural design for The NYC recalls the scaffolding, bridges and steel-and-glass structures that populate the city’s streets. Fashioned from unusual materials like G10 polymer, anodized aluminum and ceramic, the 46-millimeter watch concedes to watchmaking convention only in the roundness of its dial. Its most striking feature is a skeletonized three-hand quartz movement, supplied by Citizen, sandwiched between two transparent crystals; the hour hand sits below the hour markers, while the minute hand floats above them.

“It’s an honest design because it’s completely open, but it’s also very raw,” Mr. Wilbur said. “It captures that contrast you experience in New York.”

Twelve versions, with pops of color on the hour and minute hands and variations on the silicone strap, are coming to market soon; five will be out this autumn.

“At a time in watchmaking when all you see is the high-end — because the very rich are still buying — no one’s investing in this mid-range, nobody’s come out with something that’s unique and interesting,” Mr. Pucci said in August in Las Vegas, where The NYC made its debut at the Project Las Vegas contemporary fashion trade fair.

“The fashion brands really drive the market, yet the fine jeweler doesn’t carry the fashion brands,” Mr. Pucci continued. “I don’t get it — especially in this economy.”

While independent jewelers may still be warming up to the men’s fashion watch category, department stores are reporting strong growth in the segment.

“We do have fine watches, but as a category, the more affordable designer watches are performing really well,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and the men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “We don’t give numbers out, but they’re definitely up double digits over last year — and in one case, even triple digits.”

Mr. Jennings acknowledged that while the success of an analog product in the digital age seemed counterintuitive, the growing popularity of stylish timepieces among men could not be overestimated.

A desire to exploit the potential of the category is what lured 2(X)IST to the arm party. Not everyone, however, thinks the leap from T-shirts and boxers to show-off fashion accessory is a sure thing.

“They are brave,” said Armando Branchini, executive director of Fondazione Altagamma, a consortium of Italian luxury goods companies. “Frankly speaking, starting from underwear is going to be a little more difficult. But they have Calvin Klein as a model.”

Mr. Branchini alluded to Calvin Klein’s über-successful underwear business, which predated an equally successful line of Calvin Klein watches manufactured by the Swatch Group. He urged 2(X)IST to stick to fashion watches and avoid the luxury market, which would require “a miracle” to navigate successfully.

Mr. Chabbott, however, has not ruled out the possibility of manufacturing a more expensive version of The NYC using titanium and carbon fiber. A recent inquiry from a potential customer indicated that he was on the right track.

“We had a company call us from South America,” Mr. Chabbott said. “The man introduced himself and said, ‘Hi, I’ve seen your watches, I’m really interested in what you guys do.’ I asked him what he did and he said, ‘Believe it or not, we have an underwear company and we also sell watches.”’

“I thought, someone pinch me — this is not real,” he recalled. “Nobody else is this crazy.”