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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Buying Luxury Watches For The Busy Man

Some of the best-known online retailers include Tourneau and Saks Fifth Avenue. And some watch brands, like Rado and Bulgari, also sell through their own sites. Many others, however, such as Patek Philippe, Breguet, A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet and Rolex, refuse to sell online, either on their own sites or those of authorized dealers.

The reasoning? They’ve spent decades or longer building distribution networks and don’t want to squander that effort. They also believe buying a watch should be a special, emotional experience—one that requires a real-world environment where a customer can speak with a salesperson, try on a variety of watches and leave with the winner on his wrist. I have always purchased new watches in stores. I imagine the feeling I have coming home with a new timepiece is similar to the rush our prehistoric ancestors felt when returning after a successful hunt.

More caveats: First, there simply aren’t that many authorized online sellers. If you Google a watch model, a number of sites pop up, but most fall into the dodgy “gray market” category, sometimes associated with stolen watches or timepieces whose warranties won’t be honored. So, tread carefully and buy only from authorized dealers or brands. At reputable sites—like Cartier’s or menswear e-tailer Mr Porter—online selection can be limited. Cartier doesn’t sell its very high-end watches online. And while Mr Porter has a well-edited selection, you’ll find more options in stores.

Yet Mr Porter is worth exploring. The site is an official partner for several brands, including IWC Schaffhausen, Bremont, Oris, Zenith and Junghans and has seen success selling watches online. Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s managing director, believes that’s due to the way their customers—mostly affluent, busy men—shop. “A lot of men will research to a large extent before they press the button on a purchase,” said Mr. Bateman. When they finally buy, he added, the purchase is often made using the Mr Porter app on a smartphone between meetings. They don’t have time for brick-and-mortar stores.

For brands, one advantage of selling online is the ability to reach a younger customer. As such, some have used the internet as a marketing tool—teaming up with a high-traffic watch website to sell a limited-edition timepiece.

In 2012, online watch magazine Fratello Watches started running an editorial feature known as “Speedy Tuesday” focused on the Omega Speedmaster chronograph. In January, the site announced a limited-edition Speedmaster ($6,500) to celebrate Speedy Tuesday’s fifth anniversary. Another editorial site, Hodinkee, partnered with Vacheron Constantin on a limited edition chronograph, priced at $45,000, inspired by a 1950s model. With both initiatives, customers requested the watch on the editorial site and were contacted by the brands to confirm the order. The brands handled the transactions and delivery.

The results? In 4 hours, 15 minutes and 43 seconds, all 2,012 Speedy Tuesday Speedmasters were ordered. It took 30 minutes to sell all 36 of the Vacheron Constantin chronographs. Impressive numbers. We are bound to see more of these partnerships. Said Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO and president of Omega, which does not sell on its own site and allows only a few authorized dealers to sell online, “It’s a new way for the people who are very interested in our watches to connect to us.” For his part, Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor and director of operations at Hodinkee, confirmed that the site is working on similar projects.

But we’re far from seeing a rush to get online. One hundred thirty-eight year-old watch retailer Wempe, which doesn’t sell on its website, recently more than doubled the size of its store on Fifth Avenue in New York. “Luxury shopping should be a pleasure,” said Wempe president Ruediger Albers, “not just a point and click and that’s the end of it.”

Next Top Fashion Designer? A Computer

Apparel seller Stitch Fix recently introduced a coral, sleeveless blouse with a split neckline—and an unusual creative provenance. It was one of three new tops designed with the help of artificial intelligence.

The San Francisco-based e-commerce company, which sends customers boxes of preselected outfits, is leveraging computers to analyze purchasing behavior and learn what elements of style are popular. The software then recombines well-liked sleeve types, cuts and prints into new looks to maximize the odds a client “loves the resulting style,” said Erin Boyle, a Stitch Fix data scientist.

The three tops sold out as part of preselected boxes last year, according to the six-year-old company, and in February, it started selling nine more items designed with the help of computers, including dresses and tops. It plans to sell more than two dozen others by the end of the year. (AI-created styles are priced similarly to human designs, according to a company spokeswoman.)

The “hybrid designs,” as they are known inside Stitch Fix, are part of a movement in the tech industry to develop software that can be creative, and produce content such as songs, logos, videogames, clothing and special effects. The field of computational creativity dates back decades, but is flourishing thanks to advances in machine learning, plus increased access to data and computing power.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Adobe Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. , and SonyCorp. have active research projects related to computational creativity. Some, like Adobe, have spent millions in this space. Tech companies and researchers hope that teaching computers to be creative could lead to more powerful AI systems. Long term, the results could improve processes that require complex analysis, such as computer-vision systems in self-driving cars, according to machine-learning experts. And some companies, like Stitch Fix and Adobe, are already using such software to produce products.

Can Machines Make Art That Moves Us?

Can machines make art and music that moves us? Engineers and artists are testing that notion with an array of new artificial intelligence that is expanding the boundaries of how imagery, music and videogames are created. Image: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal

One primary goal for tech firms is to create so-called general artificial intelligence—machines that excel at multiple tasks. Currently, AI systems are typically good at only one thing, like categorizing objects, and training the systems can require extensive help from humans. Today’s smart systems also aren’t very good at dealing with unpredictable situations, according to machine-learning experts.

To get machines to learn on their own, some companies are employing what’s known as “adversarial training,” which pits two pieces of software against each other. The Facebook AI Research lab recently used the technique—developed at the University of Montreal—to make computer-generated images of churches and faces, among others. Others have since used it to create nearly photo-realistic images of ants, birds, monasteries and volcanoes.

During adversarial training, one network tries to create images the other network can’t tell were dreamed up by a computer. From their interactions, the generator learns to create images on its own that can pass for real-world pictures and the other network figures out what’s real—and what’s fake.

Such training is “a way of handling the uncertainty in the world,” according to FAIR chief Yann LeCun, who says such adversarial networks are the “best idea” to come out of machine-learning research in the past decade.

Other techniques, like that used by Stitch Fix, use algorithms to meld existing ideas into new combinations. Autodesk has spent the past seven years developing an AI system called Dreamcatcher that could be used in industrial design, according to Michael Bergin, a principal research scientist at the San Rafael, Calif., software firm. The system creates designs after users enter certain performance desires, materials and the tooling available.

Researchers at Autodesk created a proof-of-concept car part that was about 35% lighter than the original that could be used to connect a vehicle chassis to the wheel. Autodesk has also used Dreamcatcher to design a chair inspired by Hans J. Wegner’s Elbow chair and is working with design company Hackrod to create a car. The Hackrod team aims to reveal the design to be 3-D printed later this year, according to Autodesk.

London-based startup Jukedeck has developed an AI that composes melodies. Logojoy, a Toronto-based online service that helps small businesses, freelancers and hobbyists create logos with the help of machine-learning software, has sold 3,000 logos, according to founder Dawson Whitfield.

Online, there is also an active community of hobbyists who experiment with various AI techniques to create art, ranging from computer-generated poetry in the style of T.S. Eliot to special effects that mimic artists like Pablo Picasso.

Are You Man Enough to Buy These Skin-Care Products?

SOAP MADE FROM beer. Deodorant that smells like bourbon. Shave cream named after a sherpa. All of these indelicate products come to us thanks to skin-care companies, launched over the past few years, that are marketing strenuously—some would say, overcompensatingly—to men.

As anyone who remembers the musky scent of Lucky Tiger aftershave can attest, aggressively male-targeted products aren’t a new phenomenon. Relegated to the shadowy corners of drugstore shelves by the endless array of eye creams and makeup removers for women, they’ve always seemed like an afterthought, and never particularly cool or stylish.

A shift is under way due to millennial males, more blithely vain than their elders. According to Karen Grant, a global industry analyst for beauty at market-research firm NPD Group, younger men are much more apt to buy these products. “Overall, only 25% of men say they use grooming products,” said Ms. Grant, “but when you go under 35, it becomes almost 40%.”

These relatively fresh-faced customers have made skin care one of the fastest-growing categories at Huckberry, an online retailer launched in 2011 that started out selling Americana-influenced wares like Tellason denim and Topo Designs backpacks. Since it added skin care late in its first year, sales of these products have increased more than 150% annually; and in the first months of 2017, they’re already up 265% from the same period last year. You won’t find a Clinique or Dove product in the mix, though. Huckberry stocks rugged-sounding brands like Duke Cannon Supply Co., Juniper Ridge and Oars + Alps. While each has its own ethos and witty slogan, Huckberry co-founder Richard Greiner said they’re united by “manly names and scents that are not ‘foufou’.”

Both genders might welcome the latter. Oars + Alps co-founder Mia Duchnowski said she launched her company because she was tired of her husband using her expensive, exquisitely fragrant moisturizers. “Whenever I was kissing him,” she said, “I felt like I was kissing a girl.”

Mr. Greiner has found that macho marketing helps men feel more comfortable buying grooming products. But within the macho stereotype in which the brands traffic, there are nuanced distinctions men may not appreciate at first. To make it all clearer, we compared five recently launched brands, breaking them down into helpful, he-man subcategories.


Portland General Store

Back story Lisa and Troy Brodar launched women’s beauty products on Etsy in 2007. Two years later, the Portland, Me., couple turned their focus to men.

Macho factor Medium. The font and “General Store” moniker feel rooted in menswear’s late-aughts Americana revival with its Paul Bunyan overtones.

Natural habitat In the bathroom of a home with a decorative ax.

Ideal spokesman Johnny Depp—bearded and bespectacled—with an environmentalist bent. The range is mostly vegan and not animal-tested.

And the products? Like the stock of an old-time apothecary: beard oil, beeswax pomade and a gritty bar of pumice soap. A warning: The fragrances, like that of the Wood hand cream (pictured, $14, can be overpowering.


Olivina Men

Back story Olivina has made olive- and hempseed-oil products since 2002. But after noticing that few men’s brands use these natural ingredients, CEO Joseph Moore shifted Olivina toward XY-chromosome clients 18 months ago.

Macho factor Medium-high. Mr. Moore drew inspiration from craft cocktails, so Olivina’s natty labels look straight from the liquor cabinet.

Natural habitat As close to your bar cart as possible.

Ideal spokesman Sam Elliott—a classic with a touch of whiskey.

And the products? Cocktail references aside, items like the all-natural Bourbon Cedar deodorant (pictured, $10, ) are a non-greasy, environmentally friendly alternative to drugstore brands.

Finding Chic Kids’ Clothes

SYLVANA WARD-DURRETT remembers the late nights well: The former director of special projects for Vogue and mother of two (with one currently on the way) would find herself hunched over her laptop, hunting for kids clothing into the wee hours, the only spare time she had. “I would have no less than 25 browser tabs open,” she said. “You have the mass e-tailers for basics, but for more special and higher quality pieces that will last more than two wears, I’d have to scour the internet for small, indie boutiques.” After she vented to fellow Vogue alum Luisana Mendoza Roccia, a mom of three, the pair realized there had to be a better way. “You’re used to shopping for everything in your life with so many conveniences, but then you enter the children’s clothing market and you’re back to 1991,” said Ms. Mendoza Roccia.

And so the pair teamed up to create Maisonette, an online marketplace which launched this week. The site pulls together a carefully edited assortment of kids clothing, accessories and décor from a global network of boutiques and brands. You can find embroidered cotton rompers from Acorn Toy Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., striped chino trousers from cult-favorite Spanish brand Bobo Choses or Oeuf’s mod birch twin bunk-beds. Maisonette, which features merchandise for newborns up to 12-year-olds, is a mashup ofFarfetch with its direct link to boutiques, Moda Operandi for its curated mix of brands and Net-a-Porter for its user-friendly luxury experience.

Rockets of Awesome, launched last summer by Rachel Blumenthal, wife of Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, serves a similar market. “Parents today are really busy. Kids have this recurring need—they’re outgrowing their clothes and staining shirts so you’re replacing their wardrobes every season,” said Ms. Blumenthal, who was formerly the CEO and founder of Cricket’s Circle, a website for new and expectant mothers. Rockets uses a quiz—paired with a data-driven algorithm—to divine the fashion tastes of your children (sizes 2 to 14) and then sends a handpicked box of 8 to 12 items for them to try on. You only keep and pay for what you like. It sends boxes four times a year, at the start of each new season.

Though Ms. Blumenthal describes the company not as an apparel brand but rather “a data science and technology service that delivers a dynamic retail experience,” the clothes—designed by an in-house team of alums from J. Crew, Ralph Lauren and Gap—have plenty of charm and just enough sophistication. The signature item is a silver bomber jacket (printed with “Rockets of Awesome” on the back) that kids can customize with patches and pins. Parents can also write in special requests, such as “my son only likes dinosaur prints” or “my daughter won’t wear anything she has to pull over her head,” which the company can use to further tailor your deliveries.

Existing fashion retailers are also expanding into children’s clothes, which isn’t a surprise considering sales reached $31 billion in the U.S. last year, according to a report from market research firm Euromonitor. Last spring, Farfetch, the e-commerce site that pulls inventory from an international mix of high-end boutiques and brands, added children’s clothes. The response was immediate, said Candice Fragis, director of buying and merchandising. Its children’s selection favors high-end designers whose clothing parents may well wear themselves. Moncler, Burberry and Stella McCartney are top sellers, and Kenzo’s animal-embroidered sweatshirts fly off the site, along with anything worn by royals (see: Prince George, Princess Charlotte) and other tiny influencers (North West).

Julia Sloan, a beauty executive based in Brooklyn, N.Y., used to do a grand children’s-clothes shopping spree once a year while visiting her parents in upstate New York. “I’d take inventory and my husband and I would hit the mall while the kids stayed with the grandparents,” she said. “It was a whole-day affair.”