Uniform Wares: Behind the Brand
“We decided that we didn’t want to have a logo; that wasn’t important to us at all. From our point of view, great products, great books, clothing, shoes, whatever it might be, they’re not emblazoned with logos, and so we didn’t see why watches have to have that, why you would sell a watch because of its logo. We were looking at it from more of a product design point of view. And just trying to design the best watch we could for the price point. A quality, affordable price point”. Patrick Bek is articulate on the subject of branding. The founder and Creative Director of Uniform Wares has the authority to back it up; as half of the team that established the cutting-edge brand in 2009, he’s practically the godfather of new watch minimalism.
Bek met fellow founder Oliver Fowles at University, where both studied Furniture and Related Product Design. After finishing their studies, both moved to London and established a small live/work studio in, as Bek says, “Where else?”, Dalston. Working together alongside their day jobs, the pair collaborated on a number of commission-based projects, working on furniture and lighting projects by night and feeling increasingly burnt out.
What were two jobbing young product designers to do? Realising their parameters – namely space- Fowles and Bek “decided to create a set of objects that we could design, manufacture and distribute ourselves. It needed to be something that we could store in the space we were in, that we could fulfil from there and so on… We were both into watches, both into fashion, and both into product and furniture design” remembers Bek. The two drew the conclusion that there was a space within watches that didn’t exist, a price point that wasn’t being addressed by the “cheap and blingy” branded product available at a lower price. “We thought we could create a product that would connect a little bit better with our demographic, because we were using watches, yes, as a tool, but also wearing them because they looked alright”.
Back to the lack of logo. In the words of Design Director Michael Carr “Not putting a logo on a watch, to us, to be honest, is not really a big deal, but for the watch industry…”. Bek continues “When we started, it wasn’t going to be a watch brand. The clue is in the name. We were going to make things that were part of your every day uniform, be it a watch or a pen or a wallet. And we didn’t want to design a pen with a logo on it. It doesn’t make sense”. Uniform Wares don’t eschew all identifiers though, alongside their distinctive minimal aesthetic, the brand name is still inscribed on the back of the dial, along with the provenance of the materials and movement inside. They’re yet to read Naomi Klein’s seminal anti-capitalist text No Logo.
For the brand’s designers, there’s no comparison between luxury watch brands and Uniform Wares. “IWC and Rolex and those brands- they’re amazing and absolutely what they should be, because of the time that they were started, and they’ve evolved in their way, but they’re different, and not necessarily for us”, says Carr. “Because we don’t want to compete with them, at all, we don’t want to compete with luxury” agrees Bek. The two clearly have an admiration and respect for luxury brands that runs deep, citing Gerald Genta’s Royal Oak and the original Zenith El Primero as design favourites. But when it comes to fashion watch brands, the pair are less complimentary.
“I want to compete with them because I think our product is way better. The quality, the specification and the design is leagues apart from some of these fast fashion watches… you just think, how quickly did they design that?” questions Bek. In their own words, the brand are “in it for the long haul”, and this slow-burning mentality is part of what makes them so appealing to a contemporary and environmentally -aware consumer.
Uniform Wares freely admit to being what you might call ‘watch outsiders’, removed from the traditionalist boys’ club of fine Swiss watchmaking. They think differently, putting the product (and ergo, the consumer) ahead of any preconceived ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practise in the industry. “Often, with watch brands,” says Bek, “they’ll say, ‘this watch is made in our factory in Switzerland’, when 9 times out of 10, the parts aren’t all made in Switzerland”. Bek sees the transparency of Uniform Wares supply chain as one of its greatest successes. The brand source case components from Asia and Switzerland, straps from Europe, lenses from Europe and Japan, which might be controversial for a traditional watch brand, but as Bek sees it, “we source what we think are the best component parts for the price point and then they’re all assembled by the best people in Switzerland. And the key thing for us- and this is what we try to communicate through the website and all our print materials, is that it doesn’t matter where it’s made, it’s who makes it. And I think that’s really important, and the best brands out there at the moment are those communicating that. We live in a global world, and as long as they’re the right people making the right parts for your product, and your price point, and it’s premium and the quality is exactly what we want it to be, I couldn’t care less if it’s made in Timbuktu. It doesn’t matter”. Calling them a non-traditional watch brand doesn’t even cover it, when the horological world places so much importance on the nationality of its parts and manufacture.
“In the industry, there are so many people saying “oh that’s the way it’s done”. If I try and think, as an outsider, some of these things just don’t sound right to me” says Carr.
Carr makes the observation that classic vintage watches are so popular because brands has “less pressure at that point to shout about their brand. The brand just designed a nice watch- not so much minimal as just simple- designed to be a watch…over the years there’s been more and more brands set up, more competition, more ruthlessness, harder to make money. A lot of brands felt pressure to shout a little bit louder and then a little bit louder, every year until they’re shouting more and more. So they (the watches) get bigger, or more obvious, or more outrageous”.
With Uniform Wares, the shouting stops. “We ended up standing out,” Carr says “it’s like the brand and the no logo thing. It’s just a bi-product of us thinking clearly and ignoring the noise that’s ended up being the industry
The logic of “ignoring noise” led Bek and Fowles to create the M-line, their first complete collection of watches, their “ultimate representation of what we’re about” says Bek. Pared back. Simple. But after launching their much-lauded collection the brand realised there was still an untapped market searching for a more classically shaped watch. Enter the C-line (for ‘classic’), without the integrated strap of the M-line pieces, a more traditional lugged watch. Both lines still share the same Uniform Wares signatures; large open dials, simple batons to mark the hours, sapphire glass lenses and a top loading case design. And now, the brand are working on a new launch; the so-called ‘women’s collection’.
“One of the odd thing for us in designing it was that because we started off as unisex, and then we were designing this because of a very real need to do it, we were kind of debating whether we were even going to communicate that this was a women’s collection” says Bek, who states that it was the external pressures of wholesale accounts and the press, asking for the collection to be defined a certain way, that lead to them announcing it as their women’s offering. The pieces aren’t a departure from the Uniform Wares aesthetic; “The details are slightly more delicate. The sizing is smaller. We essentially designed it only because we had a lot of requests asking for smaller watches” says Bek. “We still sell lots of the men’s to women, which we know happens across all sorts of different brands; women buying into men’s collection. I think it’s often because they’re nicer than the women’s watches”.
Not only are they happy for women to continue buying their unisex (or “men’s”) styles, but they understand that the modern male consumer may also want to buy the slightly more delicate styles and colourways offered by their “women’s” collection, and have successfully sold them to men’s retailers. It’s a refreshing attitude to gendered watches that is often not seen elsewhere.
“I want to get to a point where it’s just a collection” declares Bek. He professes admiration for the recent unisex display at London’s Selfridges, where customers- of any gender- were encouraged to choose from a selection of unisex clothing. “Lots of product that you wear is going in that direction, and wouldn’t it be great if watches got there at some point as well?”
Maybe a key factor in what sets Uniform Wares apart are their ambitions for their customers. “We often talk about inspiration for a collection or a model, and we often talk about personalities. A lot of brands would talk about trends, and fashion, and what’s going on this season or next season, and, don’t get me wrong, we’re aware of this stuff, we take note of it. But we want each reference to be relevant on a longer term so we talk more about personalities, and there are different personalities”. On the subject of, say, tech brand sensations Apple, Carr continues “There’s an Apple customer out there, an absolute Apple customer, but a pink Apple customer. So they want a pink or rose-gold iPhone. And that’s the same with us; we’ve got customers who want different things. A guy who wears a rose-gold watch with a brown leather strap is very different to a guy who wears the black watch”.
“Also,” says Bek, “you’ve got to get to a point where colours aren’t associated with gender”. Cue a long discussion on the narrow conformity shown by the royal family’s choice of pink and blue clothing for their youngest members, in contrast to the rapper ASAP Rocky’s preference for pink jackets, and the catwalks at London’s Men’s Fashion Week. “It’s great, because it means that anyone can wear any colour and it should be like that. But it’s going to take ages for that to happen in watches”.
What of the women’s watches currently on the market? Bek says he thinks that sadly, women haven’t been exposed to great watches, and partly the blame for that lies at the door of more established brands. “Maybe they introduced a few diffusion products, a diffused version of one of their men’s watches, or maybe they made a cheap version of one of their more expensive watches, that might have looked a bit tacky. But it didn’t fulfil what it is you’re about as a contemporary woman.”
“They say men are more fascinated by techy things, so they’re more into watches, but then women, women wear jewellery, so why aren’t they buying watches?” he muses. And one could rightly argue that the modern woman- and in particular the young contemporary woman- has been overlooked or even ignored by the luxury watch market. Maybe all that will change with Uniform Wares’ new collection? “It has a masculine appeal, in a positive sense” as Carr puts it. “We’ve had a lot of women say they don’t want something so feminine… I mean, with the men’s watch we never said ‘let’s make a men’s watch’ and with the women’s why would it be any different?”.
So these are women’s watches for those women that feel underserved by current offerings from the watch industry, with the brand same signatures found in their first and original collection; the lack of a logo on the large, open dial; a printed face; a top loading case. The pieces are definitely at a higher price point than basic entry-level watches, but Bek and Carr are clear that they’ll keep the women’s collection at sub-£500, due to subtle tweaks in the design rather than less premium specifications.
“The pricing structure is a weird one. Because just my adjusting small things, like the volume of material used, and the lens diameter- sapphire lenses are really expensive- reducing the [the size of] sapphire lenses means you reduce the cost of that lens quite dramatically. Little things like that meant we’ve been able to keep the price down” says Carr, who has taken great time to ensure the quality of a Uniform Wares movement, with the women’s collection no less beautifully considered.
“Ultimately” says Bek, of the occasionally forgotten functional element to the watch, “Ultimately, it is a tool. But it’s a much more personal tool that the modern tools of the technical world. It’s more than a tool that you require, because you don’t actually require it anymore, you have a watch on your phone… it’s something you can wear and something you can build a relationship with, on a personal level, on a tactile level. It also communicates a little bit about you”. What’s different about Uniform Wares is maybe what they communicate, but also how they do it. And all without using a logo.