Leonard & Church began, like so businesses do, when the founder wanted something. Chris Chon was approaching the end of his MBA at Kellogg School of Management, and he was looking to buy what he calls his "first entry-level high-quality watch." Chon, who had previously worked for Gap’s strategy team, felt he was at the age where "a fashion accessory gives you an extra confidence boost." He was prepared to spend $500 to $1,000, about what you'd pay for something from Movado or Bulova.
His childhood friend Jeff Leung was also looking for a watch. As the two hunted around, though, they were bothered by what they saw. "We saw a wide disparity in pricing, even for watches that had the same movement, the same components," says Chon. They found a supply chain "riddled with middlemen and legacy markups." All in all, "the closer we got to the luxury watch industry, the more we were turned off by what we were learning."
They saw an inefficient market. And they just plain thought they could do a better job themselves.
Their watch brand, Leonard & Church, bears the tagline, "a new way to buy a luxury watch." As of this writing, their Kickstarter campaign has over $120,000 pledged on their $75,000 goal, which was met handily within a week and a half. Chon says that the Kicktraq prediction model is yielding numbers that "would place us as one of the biggest launches in fashion accessories" on the site (Kicktraq says the project is trending toward around $229,000). "We’ve gotten tons of positive feedback," says Chon. "We have large aspirations. We’re hoping this could be the start of something cool."
What makes these watches "luxury"? And how do a couple of upstarts without any experience in the business build a luxury watch brand from scratch?
It all comes down to their partners. Chon and Leung and a few collaborators (including the actress Arden Cho) teamed up with top manufacturers, spending a year working on designs. Chon says they were going for "a sort of clean, classic style," asking the question: "How do you take a classic design and add a small modern flair to make it even more accessible?"
"We just wanted to create styles that we thought were cool, and that our friends thought were cool." And that the Internet would think was cool, judging from the Kickstarter and fashion blog response.
The team says that one of their manufacturers made the watch President Obama wears in office. And they say they’re confident enough in their designs to give a 10-year guarantee on each watch sold.
The ultimate result is a watch that they say is on par with something that would traditionally retail for as much as $800. But the Leonard & Church version will go for that magic, Warby-Parker figure: $95. (Or just $70 for Kickstarter contributors.)
"We are surprised at how quickly this is moving," says Chon. "What’s interesting about Kickstarter is, once you gain a certain level of traction, all sorts of people start reaching out." He says many brands have reached out about possible partnerships.
But he adds that he doesn’t think it makes sense to aim for high-level partners at the moment, or to gun for opening a retail store "if we can’t do that in a way that keeps our price point fairly consistent. One of our core beliefs is that even at the end, at retail, there are all these markups and crazy promotional games." The average discount at the Gap is 35%, he says; if you’re buying something at list price, you’re getting a raw deal. "That’s not the ecosystem we want to play in," he says. He cites as a model brands like Everlane, which are radically transparent about the "true cost" of their goods.
Leonard & Church—and other emerging direct-to-consumer brands like it—may be said to compose something like a "reasonable luxury" market: for discerning, Internet-savvy consumers who want to shop smarter. "If you want to buy a Patek Phillippe watch for $50,000, if that item makes you feel good, that’s great," says Chon. "But for us, we felt there was a point of diminishing returns in terms of things you can actually quantify," when it comes to a watch’s true quality. "At a certain point, the watch is what the watch is, and all that premium, all that extra you’re paying for, is the brand name."
He doesn’t judge: "If that’s what turns you on, that’s okay." But it’s discerning—rather than conspicuous—consumption that Leonard & Church’s own brand hopes to signify.