Uber-hip French watch brand Lip set for Hong Kong return, as buyout team seeks to restore its lustre
Its fans are known as ‘lipsters’ and its most famous watch shares a designer with France’s TGV high speed train; now, after scrapping distribution deals with low-price chains, CEO eyes revival of classic designs to rebuild brand
Watch sales in Hong Kong have had a difficult few years, at least in comparison to the 2000s boom. As a result, many European brands cut back their exposure to the Hong Kong market, and others were deterred from opening up shop. French brand Lip, though, is bucking the trend and is set on relaunching itself in the city.
“It is the most famous watch brand in France,” Lip chief executive Philippe Berard said at last week’s Hong Kong Watch and Jewellery show. Berard led a buyout of Lip two years ago and, slowly but surely, has attempted to return some of the lustre to a watchmaker founded in 1867 in the French city of Besancon, which at the time was the clockmaking capital of the world.
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Despite its undoubted heritage and rich archive of designs, under its previous owners Lip fell some way from its heyday as the watch of choice for the French elite.
“It’s been difficult these past two years, the watches were being sold in low-price chains. The owners before had allowed the stamping of the Lip logo on any kind of plastic watch you could find in the supermarket. This had to stop,” says Berard, who has spent much of his time winding down distribution deals and restructuring manufacturing.
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His biggest move, though, was taking Lip home. “First we had to return the brand to Besancon. That was a big move – all the media from Paris and elsewhere started talking about Lip again. It was symbolic.”
The move back to the city in the country’s east was doubly important for Berard, a native of Besancon who grew up there and made his fortune in the watch industry there. Moreover, it gave Lip the all- important “Made in France” tag.
With the company’s manufacturing back to where it belonged, Berard has set about exploiting Lip’s enormous archive of watch designs, updating iconic pieces and courting nostalgic consumers as well as those looking for something different.
“We already have hundreds of designs from the past, so we dug into the archive and brought back all the icons, including the General De Gaulle and the Churchill,” Berard says, pointing to the two watches named after the wartime Allied leaders but discontinued in the 1970s.
Despite the neglect of the brand under previous owners, the watch that has kept Lip relevant, and also helped Berard accelerate the company’s turnaround, is the Mach 2000, designed by famed French industrial designer Roger Tallon – the man who designed the TGV high speed train.
Launched in 1973, the Mach 2000 was distinctive for its all-plastic construction and the use of modernist lines and pop colours. Today, the Mach 2000 comes in a variety of materials and different finishes and has proved incredibly popular with fashion influencers. Those who wear them are informally known in France as “lipsters,” something the brand has been quick to embrace in its marketing campaigns.
“We now have two types of customer. Some are quite old, those in their 70s; these people wore Lip when they were kids. We have the other type of customer, the ‘hipster’, the people who work in Paris who work in design, advertising, the guys with tattoos.” The two very different customer bases might concern some brands, but Berard feels that it provides a platform for Lip with younger audiences to claw its way back to the top.
Two years into the turnaround, Berard says Lip is still in a start-up phase but that the future looks promising, with Lip’s official relaunch in Hong Kong slated for November. The full potential of Lip’s archive is still an untapped resource, says Berard, although he doesn’t rule out new designs and collaborations with current star industrial designers keen to follow in Tallon’s path.
But that’s all for the future; for the moment Berard has clear objectives in mind. “We need to be sold back in real, proper watch shops. I want people to know Lip is back.”