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Bell & Ross’ CEO Carlos Rosillo on the magic of streetwear collaborations

The collaboration between Bell & Ross and BAPE was just as logical as it was surprising. There are similarities beyond both being establishments formed in the early 1990s (Bell & Ross in 1992 and BAPE in 1993). Both have formed a formidable, almost cult-like following since their foundings, and have instigated trends far beyond anyone’s imagination. To call them trendsetters would be a severe understatement in what they’ve contributed to their respective worlds of watchmaking and streetwear. 

Which is why the special collaboration — launched guerrilla style, of course — sold out within minutes and with plenty of hype to spare. Founded by streetwear maven Nigo in Harajuku, BAPE (a.k.a. A Bathing Ape) have carved a very specific niche for itself since it was established 25 years ago. The pioneer in streetwear is best known for its camouflaged prints and gorilla motif, both of which was generously translated onto the 25th anniversary special. 

bell & ross
Bell & Ross CEO Carlos Rosillo.

 It’s easy to lose sight of focus when hype is what is fundamentally driving the luxury market these days, but Carlos Rosillo clearly knows his brand, his audience, and the industry. As one half of the creative duo behind the French watch brand, he’s not only unintimidated by the bigger marques, but has also developed an innate understanding of the perks of being a relatively young name. His products are now known for being fresh, relevant, and interesting — characteristics that have won even the hearts of picky millenials today.

As the first luxury watch brand to have collaborated so closely with a streetwear brand, we speak to Rosillo on the business of creating hype, and blurring the lines between serious watchmaking and street-approved aesthetics. 

As a brand with so much history in the aviation and military, how was it like making the decision towards focusing on more lifestyle collaborations with BAPE?

The Bell & Ross X BAPE 25th Anniversary special.

Hype is like a luxury, it shouldn’t be a goal as a luxury brand to be rich or to have lots of hype. It should be the consequence of a strategy or an idea in your mind.

The reason why I did this collaboration with BAPE was very simple: Because it made sense. Just look at our catalogue and you’ll see our origins. We come from the cockpit and from the military. This is our heritage, and we have always been doing things deeply imbued with military roots. BAPE also has a very strong military influence in its designs. When you go into their stores you can understand very clearly where they’re coming from, and you’ll understand why the watch we created for them makes sense for the both of us.

Customers today are very aware — if they feel like that the capsule collection makes sense, then it will sell out very quickly. The demand was 20 to 30 times more than the supply, and by the next day it was sold at twice the price. I think that that BAPE clearly understood the similarities we had and hence wanted to work together with us for their 25th anniversary special.

Do you see this shift towards feeding this hype across the entire market, and is this a direction the brand is headed towards this coming year?

I think that we have been a cool brand since day one. Watchmaking is a very traditional industry; most brands are not trendy and the more they grow, the more they become uncool. We make highly sophisticated watches but are at the same time very light and trendy, and this is proof that you can merge high end watches with “cool”. We put to life all our inspirations — whether its for formalwear or whether we’re exploring diving watches — with a very open mind, and I think the collaborations with BAPE shows just that. 

We can be highly sophisticated and we can also appeal to street styles. We can have a guy who is wearing a half-million-dollar tourbillon watch by us, but his son is probably going to buy the BAPE one. And how will new people be aware of B&R? Is it from the father who has the expensive watch, or is it from the son who is wearing the collaboration? My kids are 10 and 12 but they’re super smart and they understand the street culture. They know much better and keep me younger (laughs).

What was the design process like? Was it any different working with Japanese streetwear designers?

We have a creative team with in-house designers, so we can translate what people want onto a design immediately. We have highly sophisticated software and tools that is probably one of the best in the watch industry today. It enables you to tweak the design of the watches in 3D, so you have a good idea of what it’s going to look like in real life.

And then we interact with the collaborators, and we’re here to advise them when what they have in mind might potentially compromise the technicality of the watch. In the case of BAPE’s collaboration, it was quite a challenge integrating its camouflaged print onto the strap, as we had to ensure that it wouldn’t come off over time. But it was a very nice project because they had a good idea of what they wanted, and that’s what made it a good collaboration.

What are the defining characteristics of a Bell & Ross watch in your opinion?

There are four guiding principles: They are always readable, reliable, functional and precise. All of our watches respond to those characteristics, whether it’s a collaboration with plenty of hype or a back-to-basics timepiece. We never compromise on those principles. 

What are the challenges in pushing out new watches every year in today’s climate?

It’s the challenge of creativity. If we don’t surprise ourselves, we can’t possibly surprise the market, and if you can’t surprise the market, you might as well not do it. I think there are many watch brands, but not many which are clever and cool at the same time. 

Are there any pieces that you’re particularly proud of?

The R.S.18 chronographs inspired by Renault Sport F1 Team.

There are many. This year, we released a striking collection with Renault’s Formula One team. We’ve also achieved some incredible diving pieces. We are definitely inspired by traditional watchmaking, because that’s where we come from, but there’s still a sense of modernity and aesthetics that is very unique in the watchmaking world. I don’t think you can find anything else out there that is the equivalent of what we do here, and this is why probably we are the first serious watchmaking brand to score a collaboration with a well-known streetwear company.

We dont’ want to follow trends, we want to be trendsetters. If you’re fuelled by originality, people will usually follow behind you. There will probably be 10 or 20 similar collaborations next year. 
Do you think this is how many streetwear brands operate too?
It’s very instinctive, but there’s also a mix of rationality. I’m the CEO and the rational half, but my partner [Bruno], who is the designer, is very instinctive, so we combine both qualities. It’s the same with BAPE. They are very instinctive with marketing, but at the same time, very rational when they run the business. 

Has the new era of hype (both on media platforms and collaborations) made you rethink your strategy at Bell & Ross? Is there anything you’d do differently?

The Bell & Ross X BAPE 25th Anniversary special.

There are many cool brands out there, but we’ll only work with the ones which inspire us the most. If you’re not mutually inspired, it will not be a good collaboration because people can sense that it lacks soul. There’s no point of working with others if there’s no input.
What’s funny is that with BAPE, they pushed us to do something that we wouldn’t do otherwise, although there was a point in which they were a little shy with their ideas and we had to give them a little push to go ahead with them.

At the end of the day, it’s important to be proud of what you’ve achieved, regardless of whether other people agree with you.

Do you think you’ll work with other streetwear brands again then?

Probably yes. The tricky part is that there are many collaborations that we can do, but we’ll only choose the ones that make sense and can contribute with an input. Otherwise it’ll just be another product.

Shatricia Nair
Managing Editor
Shatricia Nair is a motoring, watches, and wellness writer who is perpetually knee-deep in the world of V8s, tourbillons, and the latest fitness trends. She is fuelled by peanut butter and three cups of coffee a day.