For American designer Matthew Williams, Japan is almost a second home. Not only does he seem to be in love with the country, but he also views it as the “first supporter” of his brand, 1017 ALYX 9SM. So, when it was time to launch a collaboration between ALYX and Audemars Piguet, the Japanese capital was an obvious choice. Of course, the decision might also have something to do with the fact that Japan is the second biggest market for the Swiss watchmaker.
As night fell in Tokyo, a corner of the neon-lit city played witness to an alluring symbiosis between fashion and haute horology. At this crossroads between the two worlds, Audemars Piguet and ALYX presented to the world four new references. The highlight of the evening, however, was the auction of an exclusive creation: a unique Royal Oak Selfwinding Chronograph with a two-tone case and bracelet, combining 18-carat yellow gold and stainless steel. Carrying the signature of both brands the timepiece is exquisite, to say the least. Powered by the Calibre 4409, it combines the pinnacle of technology in watchmaking with a contemporary, yet timeless aesthetic.
The four other pieces launched at the time follow a similar theme. At the core of these references is the avant-garde spirit of both collaborators, as well as a passion for details and the mastery of their craft. Most importantly, there is a certain respect for each other that has resulted in timeless monochrome pieces that blend refined aesthetics with advanced watchmaking techniques. For Williams, it was “more about celebrating the watch and its history.” He adds, “Just doing my best to create something that was timely, but also timeless, and I believe we achieved that.”
The four references come in 18-carat yellow or white gold and are comprised of two Royal Oak models and two Royal Oak Offshore models of different diameters. This is the first time that the same design has been developed for both collections simultaneously. The historic first stands as a testament to the relationship and trust between Williams and Audemars Piguet.
Below,in a conversation with Williams and François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, discover more about the collaboration.
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Tell us more about how you met and what the context of the collaboration is.
Williams: I’m actually wearing the reason why we first met, which was my personal Royal Oak that I customized with a company called MAD in Paris. I would make this watch for friends and family on special order and I created this buckle, which is a symbol of our brand, ALYX, and applied it to the band of the Royal Oak. That started to have more awareness online and people were excited about this customization that I had done for my brand, ALYX. That made Francois become aware of us, because he also already had a pre-existing relationship with Matt, and he said, “Well when I’m in Paris next time, I’d love to meet this guy!” And that’s how we met.
Bennahmias: As you can imagine, if we are together more than two years after meeting the first time, and launching a watch, it means that we kind of liked each other somehow. It was very easy to go into a process of looking at what we could actually do together. So here we are two years later and launching tonight for the world in Tokyo.
Audemars Piguet has a reputation for being quite a rebellious brand. Is that sort of maverick spirit something that appealed to you about this collaboration?
Williams: I’m not just saying this, but it’s really been my favorite watch brand since I was very young. This watch was the first super nice watch I bought when I was in my 20s and when I had the means to. Actually, my dad’s best friend, who my middle name’s named after, was a watch dealer of vintage watches. So, I grew up always being around them at his house, and when I graduated high school I was given a watch from my dad. A very inexpensive one, but every time I would have a little bit of extra money, I’d go to my dad’s best friend, give him the watch that he had given me, and upgrade slowly. So over the course of 10 years after graduating high school, I upgraded to the Royal Oak which then became the one that I gave MAD to customize. It was the only watch that I had, and just my favorite one.
In the watch world, customizing is a bit of a taboo. As a watch executive, do you feel like your peers would frown upon basing a collaboration off of a customization?
Bennahmias: There are few supposed known rules in this world about behaviors, or things that you should do or not do. What I have to say is, in our DNA we’ve had that kind of feeling that we should always look at what matters to us without looking too much at the outside, and you describe it as being a little bit rebellious. I’m not sure I would use just that word, but if we think, in 1972 when we launched the Royal Oak, what it did then and what would have happened if social media had existed at that time, I have to say is customization.
You see, women are actually having their Birkins or Kelly handbags completely customized with paintings sort of tattooed on, all those types of things. Who are we, the brands, to forbid clients to actually enjoy? He [Williams] loved AP, that was his favorite watch. He took his watch and had it customized to his own taste and he’s one of the most famous fashion designers. For me, it’s a home run. I would never look down at it in a and say, “What happened to you?” No, actually it’s the other way around. You say, “Why aren’t we working together?” Glass half empty or half full?
Obviously, this is a renowned design memorial. So how does one designer treat another designer’s work when they first get the opportunity to reconsider?
Williams: With a great deal of respect and care. A similar thing happened to me when I designed my latest Air Force Ones with Nike, because that’s also such an iconic silhouette that’s been around for over 30 years. To actually just celebrate the form of this and give respect to the original DNA but still make something timely and timeless is a real challenge. So, there was a lot of thought and care that went into that. I chose to reduce it down to something that was really just celebrating the form of the watch, and then playing with light through the matte and shine of the brushstrokes on the dial.
Why did you choose Tokyo as the location for this launch and event?
Bennahmias: On the market side, it’s our number two market in the world, the US being number one. We also spread our launches throughout the year, because we launched Spider-Man in Dubai, we launched the white ceramic in Hong Kong.
Williams: Japan has been the first supporter of my work. When we launched the brand we always had the most accounts here in Japan. The market really celebrated the craft of ALYX, and they cared about the product detail, and the storytelling connection to culture and music that the brand has, so it’s always felt like a second home to me. Even this Easter I came [to Japan] in my free time for ten days just to see friends. So it’s really a place I love and that has always supported my work.
What was the difference between the regular work that you do in fashion and creating or recreating a watch? Is it a similar creative process?
Williams: I think so much of the time creatives are just labeled by other people. Like, you’re a sculptor, you’re a musician, you’re a designer… but really we’re all just channeling creative energy and thought and applying it to different mediums. So, if I’m creating a garment, maybe I’m starting with a fabric supplier and discussing what yarn we could build a material from, with the idea of creating a garment from that. I’m discussing a concept with an expert, and then that’s being applied to a product, but it’s all starting from a feeling or an idea. It’s the same if I’m working with a musician to create a song, or if I am making a watch. I’m having a dialogue with the experts and giving my feeling and there’s action and reaction, and then it comes to a final product. So, it’s very similar, I think. Creativity can really be applied to many things.
And finally, François, what is so special in Matthew?
Bennahmias: Oh, it’s very simple. Matthew is AP by definition. On keeping pushing the envelope, not being a follower in any way, shape, or form. He wants to write his own story and say, “This is me, this is what I want to do. I don’t need to check boxes. Let me do what I do best,” which is who he is as a person.
What I like as well is, we often describe Audemars Piguet as a serious brand which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Matthew, for a creative and one of the most famous creative directors in the world, is everything but a diva. He’s a very normal human being. We love that. He connected also with people in Le Brassus, because he saw the humility of the people doing and achieving incredible things. That’s a combination of both, extreme creativity, but very simple at the same time.