Richard Mille sits across from me, dressed in a bright plum sports jacket, mustard slacks and his trademark Lennon sunglasses, talking about his eponymous brand. He speaks animatedly with a heavy, Gallic accent, pausing briefly as he hails down an old friend with a big grin on his face – “Salut Eric!” They chat for a moment and then, Mille shouts, “Big bisou!”, as they wave goodbye. Mille’s line of luxury timepieces has long been audacious, flamboyant, dynamic and fun. Now, it seems, the same words could be used to describe the bon vivant himself.
We are speaking inside the watchmaker’s own VIP Pavilion at the Richard Mille Arts & Elegance showcase in Chantilly, France. The award-winning annual car show was created in 2014 by Mille’s friend, Patrick Peter, in association with the watch brand. Set against the exceptional backdrop of Château de Chantilly (fans of James Bond will note that the chateau and stables were featured in A View to a Kill), the event brings together vintage and super cars in a marked revival of Concours d’Elégance. The show is also a celebration of French Arts de Vivre that sees collaboration with art, fashion, music and theatre. In fact, 2017’s Arts & Elegance is an exceptional success, with an increase of 20 per cent in visitors – more than 16,000 turn up – to the fair despite the erratic weather.
The atmosphere at the event is convivial, with families picnicking, casual strolls to see the cars and sailboats, gaChantilymes for children and best dressed competitions for those who come in vintage gear and hats. Meanwhile, the evening before saw an exclusive coterie of luminaries the likes of Jensen Button, Felipe Massa and Alain Prost for an exclusive gala dinner at the chateau’s stables past the Musee du Cheval – Chantilly being France’s equestrian capital with its race course and dressage events – that had a rider charge through the banquet hall on a horse, to the delight of the guests.
Mille himself looks relaxed despite the cacophony happening just outside the Richard Mille VIP Pavilion. A band is singing a medley of Edith Piaf songs at an ostensibly loud volume and there is much merrymaking and clinking of champagne glasses outside. “When Patrick (Peter) decided to do this, I decided to be the partner for this event – it speaks to me very well,” says Mille. “It’s a different angle to motor racing, more approachable.
“Chantilly castle is very unique in terms of its architecture – it’s an ideal place to enhance what we do and say about the brand. [The event] is stylish, top of the range, but not snobbish. It’s a very friendly atmosphere – there are children, families, (and) it’s the right tone – and a very important signal we have to give.”
That signal would mean marrying high tech with high-end art and science, something Mille has strived for in the creation of his watches. Last year’s SIHH saw only one focus for Richard Mille: the RM 50-03, a technological, highly skeletonised, lightweight marvel that had its presenter fling the tourbillon split-seconds chronograph to the back of the room while the press looked on in shock and awe. Its price tag of CHF980,000 has afforded the limited edition of 75 pieces a remarkably light weight of just 38g, thanks to its use of Graph TPT, a trademark carbon material employing space age graphene that is 200 times stronger than steel yet six times lighter.
“Technique, for me, is the ultimate. I’m crazy about it,” says Mille in justification. “To me, high luxury means creativity, limited volume, a product you can wear on any occasion. Before, a high-luxury piece was created with diamonds etc. Today, you can be in a high-luxury business with a very light carbon watch because behind that is a lot of technique and development.”
Mille seems to have caught on to the modern interpretation of luxury and what his customers want. “The success of the brand [comes from] a very clean strategy. We give a very clear signal of what we are. It’s a product to live with, a contemporary watch.
“One of the key points is I want, all the time, to control the volume. I think, today, with brand image and awareness, I could easily bring economical or cheap caliber, and (produce) thousands and thousands of pieces. This we never do. I want to control my growth – I want always the demand to be higher than what I can produce. We are also at the highest price points – at about USD160,000 to USD180,000. We are the only one in this segment.”
Mille’s rather late foray in creating his own timepiece line in 1999 was met with some scepticism. “When I started, everybody thought I would go bankrupt very quickly because they thought the system was crazy and that it would never work,” he says. “But it has proven to work because, at the same time, I have my feet on the ground. When I started, I wasn’t expecting miracles; I was expecting to sell a few pieces every year. Today, we sell thousands of pieces – in 2017, we did four thousand. It is a lot… nothing compared to what my competitors are doing. But if we see our price point, it’s rather remarkable.”
He also credits his instincts for his brand’s success. Notoriously anti-focus group and market research, Mille is a fierce advocate of presenting customers with what they want, before they even want it. In so doing, he falls in the same league of mavericks like Steve Jobs who have held fast to their intuition.
“You know, in the watch business, people normally love to replicate watches inspired by the beginning of the 20th century or mechanisms from the 19th century. The Mille watch is very radical. In French, we call it a decision the designer takes – an instinct,” he says.
“I’ve done market research half my life – I don’t want to hear about it anymore,” he says, referring to his marketing past, a subject which he studied and then embarked on an initial career with. “If I would be (listening to) market research, I would have most probably done a watch that would have been round with Roman numerals because all statistics would have recommended I do that. It’s the most popular pick.” He shakes his head. “When you are in the high-luxury business, you must have an impulse to express your creativity.”
If his unconventional strategy seems to work, he does allow himself one reference. “The only market research I read concerning the brand was the age ranking from 18-30, rather young people. The brand that makes most young people ‘dream’ is Mille! For me, it was a big surprise – I was expecting a connected product, the iWatch or a piece like that.
“The fact that I don’t have to watch or look after marketing data makes me very comfortable. I do what I like. The only data that is moveable would be the number of pieces I would launch with a model. If I see a model that could be ‘crazy’, I would launch very limited quantities, that’s all. Sometimes, my friends call me the dictator – I don’t ask advice from anybody. I know myself.”
Despite the dictatorship tease, friendships count for a lot for Mille. Apart from Peter, he counts among his friends Jean Todt, President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, and Formula One driver Felipe Massa.
“I very much like to work as I live. I mix my philosophy of life with my philosophy of business. I work with friends. When you work with friends, you are so much more demanding, in fact. We respect each other. I’ve worked with my friends since the beginning, so it’s a love story. It’s not an artificial story that you’ve (coined) in marketing. When we have a problem, we sit around the table and we solve it, always. There is no problem we cannot solve,” he says.
“We solve them in a gentlemanly way. It’s a question of respect – you have to respect your partner and vice versa. It works. It also shows that there can be different ways of conducting the business and making it successful.
“What is nice is that in this price bracket and positioning, you have the privilege to get to know many of your clients. Many times, they become friends, discussing new models because we share a passion. My clients know that what we do is very genuine. There is no screw in any of the watches that doesn’t have a function – everything is transparent and real. Sometimes, you have a huge development that takes years and years to finish. Sometimes, you release only a few pieces. They understand what I do. This is then how they understand why it is so expensive.”
What’s evident is that Arts & Elegance highlights Mille’s own fascination with race cars and driving – a commitment to his favourite sport of choice (Mille himself races and collects cars as a pastime). For him, it is the definitive manifestation of his melding of business and lifestyle.
“I mostly have race cars. It’s also my passion for performance and unusual shapes. My race cars are mostly from the 1970s, which is the golden era of motor racing. Those cars have a fantastic personality. Today, the cars are fantastic but they are more sculptured by aerodynamic data, computers… it’s more difficult to find the personality of the car than it was at that time.”
On his hobby of racing, the 66-year-old employs a more pragmatic approach. “I will not go on the track and run all day long. I find that boring. I like to do a few laps as quickly as possible because I like to have my level of adrenaline, but I’m not the kind of guy who will go whoo whoo whoo. No.” He pauses. “Last week, my good friend was killed in a race in Holland.” Mille is referring to French racer David Ferrer, who crashed his March 701 at the Zandvoort Historic Grand Prix. “It reminds me that we have to be humble and careful. Those cars are very, very quick and you can get hurt. I want to enjoy myself but I know my limits.”
The Renaissance man in Mille is, naturally, always up for a challenge. “My brain is well divided,” he says. “I have one part that is very creative, a bit crazy, and one part that is very reasonable, down-to-earth. I love to control the strategy, the image, the creativity, the numbers.”
We get up to leave and he shakes my hand with gusto. Very quickly, he makes his way determinedly towards another group of well-wishers who have come to say hi. There are jokes and laughter before he heads out for a glass of champagne where he sees yet another friend from afar. He waves enthusiastically at her – “Salut! Big bisou!”