Just over a year ago a new store opened in London’s Soho at 47 Lexington Street. Full of vintage-style display cabinets and furniture, it looked more like a type of 1970s gentleman’s club than a watch retailer. But that is the point. March LA.B is the brainchild of a man who sees his enterprise as being about so much more than making timepieces. Though the ones he makes are pretty special.
Alain Marhic splits his time between Paris and Biarritz, is 51, handsome (he was a model in his youth), French and owns three vintage motorbikes – a Triumph Trophy, a Triumph T-100 and a Honda CL-350. They are all green, his favourite colour. The vintage here gives a clue as to the era of design that most appeals to him, and the watches that he makes could, at first glance, be from a similar period. They are not, though. Instead, they take inspiration from a couple of golden decades of design and interpret that aesthetic in a modern way for a contemporary customer.
‘It’s funny because before starting March LA.B, I really didn’t realise there was a common era for the watches I liked – and actually many of the things that appealed to me. I didn’t realised that the Tag Heuer, the Seiko, Bulova, Omega watches I liked were all from a similar period. To me, it was only my aesthetic sense, it was my personal vision.’
It was a vision that extended to his furniture at home and the accessories he was drawn to – he has a penchant for Polaroid-lens optical aviator glasses that would not have looked out of place on the young Burt Reynolds or Warren Beatty. And there are his motorbikes, of course. But he hadn’t codified this preference yet. It was just part of his lifestyle, which also involved windsurfing. He grew up in Nantes, Brittany, and in the early ’90s founded two windsurfing academies in the region. Later, he relocated his sporting activities to the waves of Biarritz, on the Côte Basque, just up the coast from St Jean de Luz, the location of the global HQ of Quiksilver, the surfing and snowboarding brand, where he worked for many years.
‘I was 27 when I started there,’ says Marhic. ‘I worked my way up from being a shop manager to a retail manager, a sales representative and then a product manager, division manager, and business manager… So in the end I was learning everything: from sales to market, to products, to marketing.’
His final position was director of operations for the eyewear and watch divisions of Quiksilver, and as such, Marhic gained valuable experience in product development. As part of his annual calendar, he would attend the watch fair in Basel, and it was here that he started to realise there was an opportunity to create a new watch brand that could channel his period aesthetic. In 2008, he took the plunge, left his job and went into the watchmaking business.
March LA.B launched in 2011. It is so named because “March” is the month of Marhic’s birth, “B” references Biarritz and “LA” is the city where his designer – another Frenchman called Jerome Mage, who, incidentally drives a ’70s Ford Mustang – is based. The fledgling company had big plans, and though conceived by a Frenchman, decided to base itself in Switzerland and make high-end mechanical watches to compete with the brands that Marhic so admired.
It was, he admits, a big mistake. ‘We didn’t have the money to do it properly. We were competing with the big guys, and the retailers were telling us, “If you are really rich, you can try to compete. If you are not rich, never go into that crab basket because you are going to die.”’ They were right.
After a couple of years, Marhic decided to call it a day. ‘It was frustrating because the retailers were saying to us of customers: “They like your style, they like your design, your philosophy” but, they weren’t buying the watches because they were too expensive for an unknown brand, and to be honest, at that time, the quality was not good enough for the price.’
And, so he decided to close the company. ‘We said: “OK… this is finished. We’ve lost.” And we laid off our only employee and we shut down the office.’ The only problem was, people kept calling and asking to buy the watches. ‘In the end, we thought: “This is a pity. OK, we will reconsider the whole business plan and try to work out a way to make this successful.”’
The answer, he says, was in the market position. If, instead of making mechanical watches that sold for several thousand pounds, they could make a similar-looking automatic timepiece to sell for around £1,000, they would be doing something that few were delivering – a distinctive, stylish design-aesthetic at a price that people would risk on an unknown brand.
‘I took my car and went back to France and restarted the business in 2013,’ he explains. ‘I had my designer based in Los Angeles, who is super-talented because he thinks in 3D like a car designer; I always say car designers are the best because they think in 3D: this line goes here, this curve here; it’s very different to imagining something through 2D.’ He also had his passionately felt love of the aesthetic of the ’60s and early ’70s. ‘And now I had a new price point that I could achieve by making in France – ironically, to a higher standard for what I was producing than I had been able to do in Switzerland.’
Since then, March LA.B has grown to the point where Marhic now has a loyal following. As well as being on sale online and through watch retailers and department stores (mostly in France, but some elsewhere in the world, including London’s Harrods and, soon, Selfridges), he also has three March LA.B shops – two in Paris, in the chic Palais Royal gardens and hip Marais district, and the year-old space in London’s bohemian Soho. Peculiarly, he says, he has been proven wrong in his assumptions about who his customer would be. ‘I thought that it would be the young guy looking for his first nice watch, the one that cannot afford something more expensive. That was one of the ideas behind the pricing – to make March LA.B accessible for that person.’ Instead, he has found that the bulk of his clientele is made up of men in their forties or fifties. ‘For them this is their fourth or fifth watch – they already own a Breitling or an Omega. But they want something different and don’t want to spend too much on it.’
He says that he thinks everybody is getting fed up with seeing the same watches everywhere. ‘It’s funny, in France, in the fashion industry, everybody has a Rolex Submariner. In the financial industry, everybody has a Cartier Tank. It is like a code.’ These are great watches, of course, he says, but he can offer something different.
‘I remember three years ago, I sold a watch to one guy who was around 55, and he came back to the store one week later. I was in the shop and he saw me and opened the door and said, “You know what? I’ve got two good things to tell you! The first one is that nobody has the same watch as mine, so I am really happy. And the second thing is everybody is asking me where to get my watch.” I am so proud of that.’
The first model to come from the rebooted March LA.B is still on sale today, and is a best-seller. The AM1 (I assume its stands for Alain Marhic) is a round cushion style with a 40mm stainless steel case with an off centre crown and a dial offered in green, gold, blue, burgundy, light grey and dark grey. You can have a black perforated leather or black perforated croc-style leather strap, or a stainless steel metal bracelet.
Then there is the AM2, which was actually first designed at the very dawn of the project, some nine years ago. This is a square 39mm watch with a stainless steel case with a choice of face colours – green, burgundy, blue, or light grey , and a choice of straps (brown or black perforated leather or a stainless steel bracelet). The hour markers at 11, 1 5 and 7 are horizontal, which Marhic admits is a homage to another, more famous, square watch. ‘It’s like the first [Tag Heuer] Monaco from ’69 – that had horizontal indexes. To me, that was my little homage, my tribute to Heuer. This watch, the AM2, is exactly what I like – it is elegant, sporty, chic and relaxed at the same time.’
There are many other designs too, including the clean, Art Deco-style Mansart, and the sporty Agenda, which looks at first glance like a motor-racing inspired chronograph, but on closer examination turns out to have one subdial showing the month, and another the day. There is also a whole collection for women too, with smaller dials.
But everything is connected by its decidedly retro spirit. ‘I am not hiding my references,’ declares Marhic. ‘I am very open about what I like. Before I made watches I used to buy vintage ones, and as I said, it took me a while to figure out that everything I liked came from a couple of decades of amazing watch design: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak of ’72, the Patek Philippe Nautilus of ’76, the Rolex Submariner of ’53 and the Bulova Accutron, the first electronic watch, of ’58.’
So which are his key brands for inspiration? ‘Tag Heuer, Omega, Seiko, Rolex, but also Bulova,’ he says definitively. ‘The question I have been asked, of course, is what happens when retro is no longer trendy? To which I can only say, I don’t know. I’m not doing this because it’s trendy. I’m doing it because it’s what I like.’
The other question he is always asked, he says, is where does he want to be in several years’ time? ‘So I was thinking… apart from being successful, what really do I want to be? And I was thinking, well, I like Daft Punk. Everybody listens to their music; the poor guy, the rich guy, the old one, the young one… everybody. So, they are really accessible – mainstream in a way – but they are also really different. And they created their sound 15 or 20 years ago, and still they are different from everybody else. And also they are French. So I want to be the Daft Punk of watchmaking: always different, always accessible, affordable; so everybody can buy my watches.’
And proudly French? ‘Yes, of course. Being French and giving the French something special – and the rest of the world too. There is a small watch industry in France with the few brands, but they tend to be really classic. To me their designs are really boring. Not my style. So I want to bring my style to everybody.’
As brand visions go, I’d say that’s pretty clear. Marhic’s March LA.B is all about doing things differently. Right down to the company phone line: call the HQ and instead of being fed elevator music while you wait to be answered, you’ll be greeted by Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones.
March LA.B London is at 47 Lexington St, London W1F 9AW; march-lab.com