Georges Kern took over as CEO at Breitling in the summer of 2017, almost certainly a move orchestrated by the brand’s new private equity owner CVC Capital Partners.
It brought together one of the brightest marketing minds in the Swiss watch industry with the sort of access to capital that has catapulted The Watches of Switzerland Group from sales of £340 million in 2019 to almost £900 million today.
Mr Kern set about rationalising Breitling’s line up of watches into a much smaller and definable set of collections while embarking on a major upgrade and expansion programme of the brand’s retail estate.
The Kevin T Kelly World War II pop art that decorated Breitling’s boutiques around the world was beginning to look sexist with its portrayal of heroic men worshipped by attractive women.
At his first Breitling Summit, held in London in the autumn of 2018, Mr Kern unveiled a new store concept that he said would be more welcoming to women.
He was pressed by journalists from leading women’s glossy magazines on the issue of Breitling being too male-centric (the summit took place just as the Me Too movement was gathering steam) and he said considerable time at the company was being given to talking about Breitling’s more female-friendly image.
Visiting Breitling’s brand new boutique on London’s Regent Street reminds WatchPro that making the brand more female-friendly is, to put it kindly, work in progress. More accurately, with the exception of kicking out the pop art, it has not yet started.
That should not come as a complete surprise or criticism. Any commercial consultant would conclude that what Breitling needs to do more of is promote its bestsellers. That means producing the best looking Navitimers it can, and presenting them in an environment that will appeal to the men who buy them.
No wonder, then, that the new London boutique looks like a New York bachelor pad, complete with a Harley Davidson motorcycle dominating the ground floor and a Breitling-yellow pool table downstairs in the bar (yes, I know women ride hogs and shoot 8-ball).
Dark wooden floors and exposed brick walls and black ceilings in the basement level add to the masculine vibe of the space.
There is a vintage feel as well, particularly with the historic cage-style lift — the sort you might see in a Hitchcock movie — that connects all seven levels of the property. It was not working when WatchPro visited, but will be brought back to life, we were assured.
Mr Kern calls the style “modern retro”, and that is about right. Retro touches include plenty of aviation and racing-themed art, an old vinyl record player, black and white photography, leather chesterfield sofas and the aforementioned elevator.
The pool table is modern, as are the cabinets and the lower ground floor bar and its furniture.
There is also something thoroughly modern with the way the boutique works in harmony with the historic fabric of the building. It is a truly stunning space.
One detail to note is that, while Breitling announced that this is the biggest monobrand boutique in Europe, and the brand is occupying eight floors of retail and office space, the retail space is just the ground and lower ground floor.
It is large for a single brand, but not cavernous or a great deal bigger than its Bond Street boutique, which is still open.
Staff at the store were warm, attentive, knowledgeable and fun to spend time with.
WatchPro had only dropped in for a quick visual spin around the space, and ended up strapping on a Breitling for Bentley special edition and seriously contemplating the interest-free credit offer that came our way.
Regent Street is a peculiar thoroughfare for luxury watch brands. Watches of Switzerland has its biggest showroom there and Mappin & Webb is across the street. But it is also a hotchpotch of retailers including mid level fashion, shoe shops, homeware, tech (the UK’s biggest Apple Store is there) and toys.
You won’t catch too many Londoners shopping there, but it is [in less Coronavirus-affected times] a Mecca for tourists.
Breitling is right next door to the world-famous Hamley’s toy store, which seems an unusual adjacency for an industry obsessed with such matters. Perhaps it is targeting mums.