It was always going to be a little intimidating meeting Georges Kern. After all, the man is something of a rockstar usually photographed surrounded by celebs – not necessarily because it’s a world he seeks out, but because he knows it’s a world that works for luxury brands.
But my recent introduction to Kern in the Breitling boutique in Sandton was not awkward because of his impeccable industry credentials, but because I knew he was taking in my watch and my shoes as carefully as he was my questions.
If you’ve ever read one of his interviews, you’ll know he contends there are two things that tell you everything you need to know about a person: their shoes and, obviously, their watch. And if you’ve ever met Kern, you’ll know his shoe (monk strap beauties; I guess Gucci) and watch (Breitling Chronomat Automatic GMT 40 in stainless steel) game is always on point. Obviously.
Kern will be the first to tell you he’s not a watchmaker, but he can safely be called a brand maker, as anyone who’s followed his career in the exclusive club of haute horlogerie will know.
Kern has been CEO of Breitling for the past five years after more than 15 years at one of the jewels in the Richemont crown, IWC Schaffhausen. Then a corporate whizz kid who had just been promoted to the Head of Watchmaking, Marketing and Digital at Richemont and focused on supervising the Specialist Watchmaking Maisons, Kern is now CEO and shareholder of Breitling – the entrepreneur he has always wanted to be and building the fastest growing watch brand in the world.
With Kern at the helm, what used to be the go-to pilot’s watch (remember the John Travolta ads?), has in five short years (two of which were during the challenging Covid years) become one of the coolest watch brands on the market. Now not only pilots covet a Breitling; surfers, bikers, cyclists and all manner of cool kids want one.
All this fandom is not accidental. It’s part of a carefully and smartly crafted branding strategy that Kern and his team drove when he took over. Breitling is one of the few independent watch brands left in the world, offering nimble turnaround opportunities.
The key to expanding the appeal of the Breitling watch brand was that there exist limited opportunities, for men especially, to express their style. Watches represent an endless opportunity to create those stale statements. Kern insists that no one buys a watch because they need to tell the time. First, you buy a brand and then you buy the watch that reflects your style, he says.
Georges Kern saw the potential of broadening the appeal of Breitling, particularly in the all-important and much sought-after Asian market where giant watches don’t go down too well.
One of the first and most controversial changes he made was to introduce the cursive B logo on the dial of the Navitimer 8 watch – a move that did not convince the purists, but it soon became apparent what Kern was up to. Next came the signature modern-retro design style and soon there was a Breitling watch that would appeal to so many more than only the pilots of the world.
Breitling has also succeeded in making the colour yellow its own. Just as Tiffany turquoise and Hermes burnt orange have become synonymous with those brands, it won’t be long before we’ll all know we’re heading towards a Breitling boutique – just because we can see an electric yellow sign in the distance.
Kern has also fully embraced the idea of promoting the casual, inclusive and sustainable Breitling lifestyle and is in the process of rolling out Breitling concept stores that say everything about the brand before you’ve even seen the watch. “The flagship store in Seoul, South Korea, is a modern retro, double-storey space that includes a café and restaurant. The look and feel of this retail and lifestyle space says everything about our casual, inclusive and sustainable approach to luxury,” says Kern.
Casual, inclusive and sustainable sounds all well and good. Just make sure you’re wearing the right shoes and watch.
GEORGES KERN STYLE SNAPSHOT:
Drives: A Tesla 3
What he ordered for lunch at Marble: Coke Zero, sirloin steak and green tea
Sea or safari: Safari
Side Hustle: Georges Kern isn’t only a watch man. He’s also a movie maker with one feature film under his belt (My Dog Stupid) and a series on the way.