March 23 2011
Lucia van der Post
Watches from fashion houses are nothing new. Whether it’s at the haute, haute tip of the most distinguished couture pyramid, where houses such as Chanel or Dior dangle exquisite timepieces before our eyes, or the less rarefied end of the spectrum, with brands such as Hugo Boss, Ferragamo, Versace and Armani, it has become, it seems, the thing to do. You aren’t a proper house, goes the thinking, unless you have a timepiece winking away on the arms of your fans.
What is interesting, though, is how few of the fashion houses seem to relate these self-same watches to any of the clothing for which the house is much more famous. Most of them just attach their name to a watch with a mass-produced movement and try to give the external design some sense of individuality and modernity. Some – most notably Chanel, which buys some of its movements from Audemars Piguet – have upped the horological side. A few, such as Ermenegildo Zegna, the beautiful Italian menswear company, and the equally beautiful Bottega Veneta, go a step further and pal up with a distinguished watchmaker, such as Girard-Perregaux, to produce very lovely watches with serious horological credibility – nevertheless, the link to the clothing is tenuous.
So why do it? As one blogger, a Zegna fan, put it: “Why would I want to buy a watch from a fashion house, which really has no history to speak of when it comes to watchmaking, except possibly the loose connection with Angelo Zegna [who, it seems, started working in the watch industry before turning to textiles], when I could buy an almost identical piece from Girard-Perregaux, which has several centuries of watch-making heritage? Don’t get me wrong,” he went on, “I love Zegna, especially their suits, but this to me doesn’t really make sense.”
In the case of Bottega Veneta, some resonance with the brand’s DNA is seen in the woven intrecciata crocodile strap that echoes the trademark woven leatherwork of its handbags – but usually there’s no link between the watches and the core fashion collections. At Chanel they go so far as to say, “Our watch and fashion divisions are entirely separate and there is therefore very little connection between the two except the ‘essence of the brand’” – which I take to mean something timeless, elegant and as desirable as most of Chanel’s offerings.
All of which makes Dior, and in particular its very latest range of five Haute Couture Passage watches (from about €75,000), something of a rarity. Here the intimate link between the watches and the ravishing haute couture confections produced by former designer John Galliano is evident in almost every detail, from the colours surrounding the dial to the intricate patterns on the dial itself. Seeing the watches side by side with some of Galliano’s most beautiful ballgowns, it is clear that here is a watch range that couldn’t have come from any other house: the swirling shapes formed in diamonds on the dials echo the frills and flounces of the gowns, while long-established, well-loved Dior codes are also incorporated.
To understand quite how deeply these watches bear the DNA of the house of Dior, and quite how distinctive is Dior’s approach to watchmaking, it’s worth looking back a little at how it all began. Dior’s first watch collection was launched in 1975 and they were basically very classic numbers without any particular link to the house style: merely a nice timepiece to display on a wrist. By the time Galliano arrived at the house in 1996, things in horological circles had begun to change. More and more fashion brands were launching lines of their own, and watches moved from being a classic part of any wardrobe to more of a fashion accessory. Linking Dior’s own range closely to the DNA of the house actually began with Victoire de Castellane, who joined Dior as artistic director of watches and fine jewellery in 1998 and in 2003 came up with her first watch collection, La D de Dior (from £1,900).
Dior afficionados will know that the Lady Dior is one of Dior’s most successful handbags ever. It helped, of course, that Lady Diana, our very own Princess of Wales, was photographed with it dangling from her wrist, but it comes in all shapes and sizes, for day and night, and – more importantly, perhaps – has proper aesthetic links with the house. By using the iconic “cannage” pattern that echoes the famous silhouette of Dior’s New Look (nipped-in waist, the spreading, folded skirt below it), the link to the house is obvious to all who know the codes. The so-called huit shape, which Christian Dior always claimed came from his desire for simplicity and from his love of architecture (“I dreamt of being an architect,” he once wrote, “as a couturier, I have to respect the principles of architecture”), was absolutely central to the New Look of 1947 that established Dior as the leading couturier of the day.
So deeply embedded in the consciousness of everybody who works at Dior is this epic collection that, even today, echoes of the New Look resonate all through the house. The cannage pattern, for instance, appears in many subtle guises, ranging from handbags to the way fabric is folded on dresses and jackets; from the architecture of some of its most beautiful ballgowns to the straps of many of its watches; and finally, most particularly, in the new Dior VIII range of timepieces (from around £3,100). Being launched this week at the Basel watch and jewellery show, the influence of the cannage is evident throughout, from the straps to the bevelling.
At the same time, Dior watches have also been moving ever closer to an evident visual connection with couture. It began in small ways. First of all – as a signal of its serious intent – Dior bought its own production unit in the Swiss watchmaking centre of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 2001. Then it began to use precious stones to give the watches more of a feminine aura. But, until now, it was Galliano’s 2008 Dior Christal line of watches that was most closely allied to the couture process – and it was at this point that Dior watches really took off. Galliano saw their creation as following a creative evolution similar to that of haute couture itself. As he put it at their launch: “I wanted the design process of the timepieces to follow the same journey: from inspiration to research to ateliers to construction and [since innovation, in the shape of the 1947 New Look, is so central to the history of the house of Dior], they also have to innovate.” Therefore, he wanted “a totally transparent movement”, with the backs as beautifully worked as the faces. “From the black, white and red patent calf straps to the black or mother-of-pearl faces; colour and style echo the mood of the  Lady Dior campaign.” Next came pink gold Dior Christal watches with alligator straps in different shades, again influenced by the colours on the catwalk.
All this leads us to the newest collection, also being launched at Basel; five Haute Couture Passage timepieces that are the purest translation of couture into watches. It’s hard to imagine how they could be more intimately connected, given the differing physical confines of a watch and a dress. The Haute Couture Passage No 3 (about €90,000), for instance, has a purple rim and the facet is embellished with a swirl of purple and white diamonds, all in the colour of one of Galliano’s great ballgowns, the design accurately reflecting the shine of the satin and the glitter of the sequins. Haute Couture Passage No 2 (€110,000) was inspired by the autumn/winter couture collection of 2007-2008, including another delicious ballgown – its pale-pink top and glittering dove-grey skirt reflected in the rim and the face of the watch. Haute Couture Passage No 1 (€75,000) is in rose pink; No 4 (€75,000) in the lime green of a shorter cocktail dress; No 5 (€85,000) in a brilliant turquoise rim with swirling diamonds.
These are beautiful watches in their own right; unique, one-off pieces beautifully reflecting the couture of the house. But those who love the house of Dior and love watches should also look out for the limited-edition La Mystérieuse collection, which will be coming out in September: another beautiful range of watches with deep connections to the Dior codes. Here, the visual link is primarily with one of Italian illustrator René Gruau’s most famous drawings of a woman in a red-rose-embellished dress surrounded by a group of dinner-jacket-clad men. (Gruau, Dior fans will know, frequently collaborated with Dior and the recent exhibition of his work at Somerset House in London reminded us all of just how wonderfully a fine illustrator can convey the whole spirit of a house.) In the Mystérieuse watch, the swirls on the dial echo the folds of the rose and are embellished with diamonds. The straps are python or leather, and there will be just 88 pieces; in grey with steel (about €18,000), and black or red with gold (around €50,000). These are, clearly, watches that do very much more than tell the time – they carry in their beautiful shapes the codes and history of one of the greatest couture houses of all time.