ToyWatch: Running on Cheap-Chic Time

The Italian company offers luxury style at a low price, and its watches are selling faster by the minute

Randy Gordon calls himself a "watch snob." He wears Rolex and Tessler and owns a gleaming assortment that includes hefty names with heftier price tags. And now, Gordon has come into a whole new collection, in the form of a U.S. license from ToyWatch, a hot new Italian company whose watches you'll find at Bergdorf Goodman and, come winter, alongside helicopters and private celebrity concerts in the pages of the Neiman Marcus holiday book.

"Our merchants were in Italy, and [ToyWatch] was the talk of Milan," said Gerald Barnes, senior vice-president of apparel and accessories at Neiman Marcus Direct. "We got it as quickly as we could."

But unlike most of the timepieces at Neiman Marcus and other high-end retailers, this new product line bears no jewel-encrusted face or platinum band. These watches aren't luxury, they just riff on it. The pieces from ToyWatch USA, as Gordon's company is called, are high-style and low-cost.


  Every model has a cheap-but-chic plastic or nylon wristband, with slightly more resources going into the face. Some feature mother of pearl accents or chronograph dials. All combine a classic Italian feel with sassy irreverence at a low price—at least by Neiman Marcus standards. At the high end, $295 will buy you some bling on the bezel. At the low end, a rainbow selection of acrylic watches goes for $150.

ToyWatch was founded by watch aficionado Marco Mavilla, who owns a watch store in Milan's Four Seasons hotel. Gordon first heard of Mavilla's venture over dinner with his friend Howard Draft, the CEO of advertising and marketing firm Draft FCB Worldwide, and Draft's in-the-know Milanese girlfriend. Soon after, Gordon met with Mavilla and secured licensing for North and South America, Japan, Thailand, and the Caribbean.

ToyWatch isn't the first to try the cheap-chic strategy. "There hasn't been an affordable watch for the masses since the whole Swatch phenomenon," says Gordon. "But I never in a million years would wear a Swatch." Like its affordable predecessor, ToyWatch's plastic is sportily lightweight and enables production in a flock of colors and sizes.


  What distinguishes ToyWatch from the '80s phenomenon is the resulting aesthetic. The bezeled edges and chronographs might be made mostly of plastic, but they have the sophisticated approach of a Rolex. The fact that a watch snob like Gordon liked the plastic timepieces suggested ToyWatch could appeal to a different audience than earlier cheap offerings. And conversations with friends and other watch collectors convinced him.

"Production is inexpensive because it's made overseas, and the physical parts are inexpensive, but the look and style have perceived value because they're very Italian, which in turn makes it very classic and very cool," he says.

The distribution channel also made a difference. Originally, ToyWatch was approached by mid-range department stores, a strategy that promised big numbers but little glamour. Instead, ToyWatch opted to launch in chic urban boutiques such as Fred Segal and Scoop, which may not have been able to push inventory but provided cachet and class. From there, ToyWatch moved into major luxury department stores that offer both high sales and high status: Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.


  Many models are on backorder at both stores, as well as at other high-end retailers and the ToyWatch Web site. Styles are unisex, but the acrylic watches have sold better than those fashioned with grosgrain cotton straps, which Gordon says mostly appeal to male customers. Thus far, he estimates 50,000 ToyWatches have been purchased since they went on sale in the U.S. three months ago. He's now looking into his worldwide distribution channels.

"I was either going to be sitting with a warehouse full of watches that no one wanted, or people were going to be pounding down my doors," Gordon says. "Both are problems, but I think the latter is a bit better."

While working to build quantity, ToyWatch is also aiming to keep the brand hip and relevant beyond the holiday season. Gordon wants to avoid the experience of Swatch, a company that's much less productive now than it was in the late '80s. Gordon will be satisfied if ToyWatch's inaugural numbers reach just 5% of Swatch's first-year sales. "It's about making the right choices and growing it slowly," he says. "We need to be just one step ahead of the trend."

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