Fabienne Lupo has been Managing Director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), the body that organises Le Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, since 2005. Lupo was also appointed its Chairwoman in 2010. We met to discuss her career and the
“I’d never seen a trade show with such luxury arrangements, right down to the services and the food.”
“Generally speaking, I was very interested in beautiful products,” says Fabienne Lupo. “Not necessarily luxury ones, but I’ve always been sensitive to craft. After that first visit I would like to have had the money to have a watch collection. I certainly became a watch fan.” That was 15 years ago, when Lupo – with a background in marketing for L’Oreal, and in running international fairs in Marseilles, including the boat show – first set eyes on the Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie Geneve.
“All I could do,” the SIHH Managing Director adds, “was wear the most beautiful watch I had. Fortunately, one of the companies lent me both some jewels and a jewellery watch to wear. I was one lucky woman – although of course I had to give them back.”
Much has changed since then, indeed, since SIHH was founded in 1992 – the brainchild of Alain-Dominique Perrin, former president of Cartier. Approaching its 25th birthday next year, SIHH has become the benchmark event of high glamour watchmaking – the haute couture to Baselworld’s pret-a-porter. The idea, as Lupo puts it, had always been to create “a new kind of show for watch retailers – very exclusive, invitation only, with a high quality of décor, a beautiful showcase for incredible watches”, a remit it has concertedly maintained.
In 2005 it fell under the auspices of the then new Fondation De La Haute Horlogerie, founded by Franco Cologni, the Richemont Group, together with Audemars Piguet and GirardPerregaux, together with some 27 partner brands. The Fondation would act, as Lupo has put it, as a kind of “Ministry of Fine Watchmaking,” its task being to use magazines, exhibitions, workshops and shows to “raise awareness of the craft and culture of watchmaking, to explain, for example, why the pieces often cost a lot”. And its premier, not-for-profit event, paid for by each of the exhibitors, would be SIHH.
“The first time I visited I was very impressed,” recalls Lupo. “It was ‘wow!’ Here was this trade show that felt and looked nothing like a trade show. I’d never seen a trade show with such luxury arrangements, right down to the services and the food. There was just no comparing it with the fairs in Marseilles.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the mechanical watch industry was still clawing its way back from the brink of a quartz- powered disaster – it was not then what it is today – SIHH started small. Its first year covered just 4,500 square metres. It now covers closer to 30,000 square metres and sees 13,000 visitors enter its huge halls over five days – all enjoying the opulence of the exhibitors’ booths, many echoing the standalone shops that have also become part of the watch industry over recent years.
“Certainly the nature of the show has changed,” says Lupo. “It is still a trade fair for retailers, but of course there are fewer of those now. Now it is as much about targeting the media – because specialist publications and interest in watches in mainstream publications is at a much greater level now than it was then. And it is also more and more a show for collectors – brands and retailers alike invite those key collectors to whom they want to give a special preview of the new collections, even of the prototypes. But there is a subtle balance to strike – the brands all need good relationships with retailers even if they have a more and more direct relationship with collectors.”
Indeed, over its next 25 years, might SIHH become increasingly a show for big-time shoppers rather than industry buyers? This autumn saw it launch its first spin-off, Watch & Wonders, in Hong Kong, featuring many of the same exhibiting maisons as SIHH but this time focused on the end consumer. “And,” says Lupo, “it was interesting for the watch companies to show off their expertise and craft as much as their new collections, but also to open their doors to the people they don’t often get to meet – the actual watch fans, and the VIP guests of private banks and auction houses.” And a lot of them too: it attracted 13,000 visitors over just four days, in one sense topping SIHH itself.
That, of course, reflects the strength of the Asian market still – and, as things stand, there are no plans to roll this next generation, regional SIHH out to other markets. Indeed, given the general buoyancy of the watch market, the trick for Lupo will be how to expand SIHH – albeit without any need to turn a profit – while retaining its essential intimacy. “We have to stay small to maintain the quality levels,” she says. “Naturally, over time some brands have joined the show and others have left, but I think overall its core feeling has been retained. Increasingly the real difference lies within the brands’ booths – each brand has its own history and approach and what’s new at the show each year really happens in the booths.”
Of course, anyone who has visited SIHH knows that to call them booths is to somewhat underplay their grandiosity. It is commonplace to find aquariums, Formula One racing cars, recreated homes in the Hamptons and some spectacular displays of vintage watches. No expense is spared to dazzle visitors with the sights to behold, all there to underline a brand’s historic credentials.
Whilst bigger can sometimes be better, many hope that SIHH will retain its exclusive and intimate ambiance long into the future.