As CEO of internationally renowned watch brand IWC Schaffhausen, a role which he took back in 2002, Georges Kern is a smart and forward thinking force in the world of exclusive luxury brands. He is also committed to charitable causes, as evidenced by his role on the Board of Trustees of the Laureus Foundation, and as a patron of the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, supporting disadvantaged youths in their quest to build a better life. These are both areas of corporate social responsibility that the German has blended with watchmaking to create partnerships that have strengthened the brand by supporting others. IWC Schaffhausen has also leapt into e-commerce with Kern at the helm, exclusively launching on MR PORTER and NET-A-PORTER, the only pure play e-tailers to carry the high-end timepieces. This is a huge move for Richemont’s luxury watch division, and certainly a smart reaction to the movement towards e-commerce. So, although the high-end watch business may be suffering and facing challenges, Kern has plenty of ideas to tackle this and propel the brand forward into the new year.
Tell us about how the brand has evolved during your time with IWC Schaffhausen?
Very positively. Sometimes I look back at catalogues of the products from ten to fifteen years ago, and compared to where we are today, the difference is striking. The visibility of the brand has hugely improved, making us one of the biggest brands in the world today. I personally felt the breakthrough when we opened our boutique on Rodeo Drive some time ago, alongside other luxury brands at the top of their game. Profits aside, this was when we could see how far we had come in the past fifteen years.
How has your introduction of women’s watches revolutionised the brand?
Two or three years ago, we launched the first midsize watch aimed primarily at women, due to our understanding that 60 percent of the current watch market is female, and because we knew we were ready. We are strong and competent in our core of men’s watches, making it the time to extend smartly whilst staying true to the values and DNA of the brand. The Portofino was launched with a campaign shot by Peter Lindbergh, featuring women in tuxedos, which is quite a departure from the girlie approach that many other brands adopt. This upheld our vision of strong, established women, and was subsequently a huge success.
Will more of a focus be made on the women’s timepieces, and can we expect more product lines?
We are continuing to extend our offering for women, with our newest being Da Vinci, a slightly more formal line than Portofino which is a leisure style. It complements our current roster quite nicely, made up of the sporty midsize Pilot’s Watch and the Portofino. Later, there will be a fourth product line, thereby completing the women’s midsize collection, and allowing us to have an even greater impact. It is important to IWC that we cover all lifestyles, with an assortment of options from formal to everyday.
Can you tell us about the latest novelties at SIHH?
Da Vinci will be the focus. Not only the female midsize, but also many more technical products, particularly with the new perpetual calendar on a new base movement. This movement was the first breakthrough for the brand many years ago, and something that we are renowned for, so of course in the Da Vinci these same technical aspects will be ever-present, as they are so crucial to the DNA of the brand.
Is there a favourite piece in your eyes?
I love all my babies!
Is there more of a pressure to remain modern, with the interest and popularity in smart watches increasing?
I don’t think that today smart watches are a problem for the classic high-end watch industry. Firstly, smart watches are trying to find their way and are not selling as well as was expected, and secondly, they are better oriented towards sports and fitness tracking, rather than emotions and a way of life. For this reason, they haven’t had a negative impact on us. Instead, the issue which we must concentrate on is remaining relevant with a product that is 250 years old and hasn’t technically changed much, a goal that we are achieving through digital communication. How you talk and sell to the consumer digitally is a revolution, and is an area where we need to focus on to not miss out. To achieve this, we have been investing heavily in social media, as it is in constant flux and fuels our image and perception as a modern company.
Tell us about the IWC Connect that you have been working on, and can we expect more elements of wearable technology?
We have been postponing the launch of the IWC Connect as we were not happy about the standard of the piece in a world where technology changes every day. I personally believe in these wearables, which are different to smart watches, and how they can facilitate your lives, so know that it is something that we will endeavour to produce. The technology will continue to evolve, and as it does we can work on incorporating it into our wearables to ensure that it has the same level of perfection as our analogue watches.
What was the catalyst for stocking your watches on Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter?
Net-a-Porter has been part of our Group and we are still a major shareholder. Therefore we know them very well; in my view, they are the best e-commerce sites on the planet with an unmatched wealth of experience. The brilliance of the teams at NET-A-PORTER and MR PORTER is that they frame the product within a greater fashion context. They place the watch alongside other different yet relevant products, suggesting a sort of virtual wardrobe, which is something we can’t offer as an individual brand, telling a story through style guides as well. The impact of combining our timepieces with fashion has surpassed our expectations, by giving the customer the confidence in how the product can be introduced in all aspects of their life.
Is this a strategic shift to introduce a younger clientele?
Certainly, because purchase behaviour has totally changed. I didn’t have a smartphone when I was younger, but our children and the younger generation have been raised in a different way, and if we miss this movement then our products will be dead. It is not just about the products, it’s the spirit, environment, and the way we talk to our clients which we need to review. Our benchmark is not the watch industry, but instead what is out there in the fashion industry, ensuring that we keep up with the way the consumer is looking to purchase.
How do you foresee the future of e-commerce?
If I look at the last ten years, everything changed, as the market became transparent in terms of pricing and offerings, through the web. The market and clients are mobile, and we need to follow them. As the market becomes digital, behaviours are changing and you need an immense amount of intellectual flexibility to adjust in what is a very slow-paced, traditional industry by definition.
Currently due to shipping restrictions they can’t be delivered to the UAE, what is the reason for this and will it change?
This is just because of logistical regulations which we will be sorting out.
As we are here at DIFF, can I ask what is your favourite film?
In general terms, I prefer the older movies, and I like the big films of the 80s and 90s, such as, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, and ‘Apocalypse Now’.
Is your own personal interest in the movie and film business what drives the collaborations you have with film festivals?
I hope not as you shouldn’t put your own personal interests too much into work. But I do truly believe that story telling is the common element between IWC Schaffhausen and the film industry. The interlinking characteristics between timepieces and film are that we both create beautiful stories and reactions, ours through the names of our products and the emotions they conjure.
You have recently celebrated the tenth edition of an IWC Laureus watch, why is this foundation such an important focus for the brand?
It was one of our first engagements in corporate social responsibilities many years back, which demonstrates that sport has the power to unify the world. For instance, think of the World Cup final is on: everyone stands still, beyond race, age, and sex. I feel that sports, alongside music, is one of the only common denominators in the world, making it very powerful. So, helping young people through sports is incredibly powerful, as it allows the young people to engage and really get involved in something that speaks to them.
Do you feel that it is very important to dedicate your resources and time to addressing social challenges through sports?
We are not here to save the word, but if you can associate doing good with doing well, then we should try to do that. This is what we are aiming to achieve with all our partnerships that we support to the fullest.
As luxury becomes massified, how do you see the direction of luxury watch making?
I think we are in a changing environment, as everything is transparent and mobile. Following the years of growth that we experienced over the past ten years, we need to make sure that we continue fulfilling the luxury aspect, by only manufacturing limited numbers of pieces, whatever the demand, as luxury goods must remain rare. By keeping this feeling of unavailability of our products, we can continue growing at a manageable rate, focusing more on building long-term brand equity.
What are your New Year resolutions for both your personal and professional life?
Probably to balance my personal and professional lives well, which requires discipline.
By Eliza Scarborough