How Luxury Watches Are Tapping Into Streetwear Hype

For years watchmakers were the masters of hype in menswear. Witness the droves of watch fanatics who’d make the pilgrimage to Baselworld every year just to catch a glimpse of a new Hublot, or Patek Philippe slapping an eight-year waiting list on its famous Nautilus and vetting customers like they’re on the FBI watch list.

But for all of their skill at making people want their products really, really badly, there’s a new kid on the block, and this upstart is arguably even better at driving hype around its brands.

Less than two decades ago streetwear was a mere pimple on the face of fashion. Now it is the face, as fervent queues of excited fashionistas wait around the block to cop the latest Supreme drop or the freshest Yeezys. For some it’s become an obsession, only matched by those watch fanatics sitting across the room.

And in streetwear, the watch world has seen an opportunity, not only to share some of streetwear’s limelight but also open itself up to the young demographic seemingly out-of-touch with the centuries-old heirlooms they see their dads covet so highly.

The first love-in between the watch world and streetwear began in 1997 as G-Shock, the chunky off-shoot of Japanese watchmaker Casio teamed up with the much lesser-known at the time Stussy, a surfwear brand that has risen to become part of the triumvirate of streetwear brands alongside Supreme and Palace.

Supreme, the undisputed heavyweight champion of streetwear, didn’t enter the watch world until 2013 when it came out with a reworked version of the Rolex Submariner, taking advantage of the esteem the Swiss watchmaker is held in among the streetwear crowd while putting its own subversive statement on one of the most classic timepieces in watch history (a fruity expletive was included just under the Rolex signature).

It has seemingly kickstarted a surge of successful streetwear and watchmaker collaborations from the slick monochrome aesthetic of Japanese streetwear brand Fragment being worked into the equally slick Tag Heuer Carrera, to US watchmaker Timex linking up with Carhartt WIP. Elsewhere, we’ve seen Hublot work with renowned street artist Shepard Fairey and G-Shock embracing the drop model with a never-ending list of collabs from the likes of LA streetwear brand X-Large.

What’s the key to nailing these alliances then? “I believe that meaningful collaborations can only happen when brands are sharing values and when each can benefit from the other’s uniqueness,” says Carlo Giordanetti, creative director at Swatch, which has just launched a collaborative series of timepieces with cult Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape.

“In partnering with BAPE we loved their heritage, we loved the idea to bring together Swiss made and Japanese signature style and we were attracted by BAPE’s ability to transform camouflage into a real signature street classic.

“Watches with this strong story to tell are personality and style enhancers. Streetwear today is a powerful expression of freedom and individuality and for customers who like to make statements a collaboration of such kind is the perfect reason to add a watch to their wardrobe of statement pieces.”

Collaborations have long been a mainstay of streetwear. The general yardstick, Supreme, has been able to work with high fashion (Gucci, Louis Vuitton) just as easily as it lends its street cred to mainstream behemoths like The North Face and Levi’s. Perhaps the two most peculiar collaborations in the history of Supreme though are the ones that readily indicate the benefits of teaming heritage watch brands with their counterparts in streetwear – John Smedley and Brooks Brothers.

Both have extensive double century histories and both can lay claim to top-of-their-game craftsmanship – John Smedley in knitwear, Brooks Brothers in tailoring. And all Supreme had to do was come along and stick its box logo on the high-quality garments, creating a massively hyped collection in the process and all while giving its young audience an introduction to two brands it would never normally have had anything to do with.

If streetwear can do the same with watches – and on early evidence, it can – then it will draw a new and hungry audience into a centuries-old hype machine.