Why Singaporean publisher’s luxury magazines put craft over bling, and how he’s switching them to an e-commerce focus
Wei Koh explains the rationale behind his leading international watch magazine, Revolution, and men’s luxury bible, The Rake, with their emphasis on classic style rather than fashions-of-the-moment oneupmanship
Wei Koh may have founded leading international watch magazine Revolution and men’s luxury bible The Rake, but the pricey products they feature are not what matters.
Koh is at pains to point out that the two titles couldn’t, in fact, be more opposed to conspicuous consumption and blatantly flashing one’s cash.
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“Too often in society, expensive things – whether that be a handbag, a watch, a suit or a car – are used as aggressive symbols of status. That is something we’ve always hated at Revolution and The Rake,” Koh says. “Regardless of their cost, we want to talk about things from a craft perspective.
“That Riva yacht, that Lamborghini or that Patek Philippe minute repeater ... what they represent is an extraordinarily skilled craftsman who’s been endowed with a gift by God – if you believe in God – and who has [created] that object which you now get to wear or use.
“The fact that someone can make things of this level of excellence is a minor miracle. I hope people buy these things for that reason.”
The magazines Koh founded are dedicated to fostering a greater appreciation of “beauty and aesthetics”, he says.
Revolution, which has been an extraordinary success and is now published in six languages across 12 international editions, was launched in Singapore in 2005. At the time, Koh explains, watch magazines were “on the ‘nerd rack’ at newsagents, next to Cat Fancier and Model Trains Monthly. The idea with Revolution was to take watches and make them sexy, relevant and cool – but without losing the technical value.”
In carving out a niche, Koh says they did something that was “initially quite controversial, [by] taking beautiful, sometimes scantily-clad women, and combining them with highly technical men’s watches ... The key was to educate people without making them feel they were being educated. That is what made Revolution different.”
Koh says he and his business partner, Dr Bruce Lee, were incredibly fortunate launching Revolution when they did.
“The world was experiencing the greatest growth in watch consumption during that period – there were 10 years of non-stop double-digit growth internationally. We were very lucky.”
The Rake, meanwhile, debuted within a couple of months of the 2008 collapse of American bank Lehman Brothers, smack in the middle of the global financial crisis. (Full disclosure: I was the founding editor-in-chief of The Rake and still contribute to the publication.)
The timing may have seemed inauspicious, but in fact, the new belt-tightening was perfectly in step with the values the magazine espoused
No longer willing – and in many cases, no longer able – to spend on luxury goods that would soon fall out of fashion, more of the classics were needed.
“Men began seeking out things that were timeless, that lasted forever. It was the perfect moment to reconnect guys with classic style and elegance,” Koh says.
The idea for The Rake arose from necessity. There were plenty of men’s publications celebrating the cult of youth and edgy fashion for twenty-somethings. But, as he approached his 40s, Koh couldn’t find a magazine that instructed him how to dress well, consume tastefully and age gracefully like his idols – so he decided to create one.
“I looked back at guys in every generation previous to ours. The guys I thought were super cool – Cary Grant, Gianni Agnelli, Baby Pignatari, Porfirio Rubirosa – had all mastered classic style, they understood how to dress in a beautiful casualway as well as looking incredible in a suit or a tuxedo. But in the early 2000s, men had lost those skills. The Rake set out to embrace men getting older gracefully, to re-educate and to entertain.”
The Rake has evolved to an e-commerce focus, and Revolution is also taking steps in that direction. “I believe the future of publishing is the merger of informative entertainment and commerce,” Koh says. “I have grave concerns for any magazine today that remains fixed in the belief that the old-school advertising revenue structure is going to be viable in the coming years.”
He does not believe that this approach turns his magazines and websites into glorified catalogues. Indeed, he claims it involves more editorial integrity than the old model, which was advertising-driven and meant publications had to write only nice things about all their advertisers.
“I’d rather select the brands that I’m really enamoured with and genuinely believe in, that I wear or use myself, and create a deeper commercial partnership with them. I can enthusiastically recommend, promote and sell their product because I’m already a user and a believer,” he says.
“I’d like to elevate the quality of journalism you find on an e-commerce site so that the storytelling is more educational, detailed and sophisticated than you’d find in the majority of magazines.”
Koh is now in the midst of a nearly month-long trip attending the menswear shows in Milan and Paris, Pitti Uomo in Florence, and the SIHH watch fair in Geneva. Despite the fact that today, anyone can live-stream a catwalk show remotely, or instantly see designer collections and watchmaking novelties on a variety of websites, blogs and social media, Koh believes it is still essential to invest the time in viewing what’s new in person.
“You identify a unifying aesthetic and where things are heading for the coming year,” he says. “There really is something to be said for being there, seeing something close up.
“The virtual world serves a lot of purposes, for shopping and information gathering, but if you’re going to form a subjective opinion, especially with something like watches which are so nuanced, or menswear which is so detail-focused, it makes a big difference to be there in person and see the product up close.”
Even in the digital era, when it comes to crafting or appreciating the finest in luxury, there really is no substitute for the human touch.