China’s week-long Spring Festival Golden Week holiday – traditionally the peak travel season for tourists from the People’s Republic – has ended two days prior, yet the crowds still throng the corner of Peking and Canton roads at the heart of Hong Kong’s Tsim Tsa Tsui shopping district.
At the re-opening party of the Officine Panerai store sited here, security officers are busy keeping pedestrians wielding trolley bags stuffed to the brim with the day’s purchases out of harm’s way, as the latter spill off the pavement onto the busy street.
Statistics from Hong Kong’s Immigration Department say that the number of visitors from the Middle Kingdom has in fact fallen for the first time in 20 years during this Chinese New Year period – in part due to poor sentiment after the Occupy Central movement – but it appears that these shoppers did not receive the memo.
That the emcee for the grand opening event spoke in English and Mandarin – the use of Cantonese conspicuously absent – is telling of where the future of Panerai in Hong Kong lies.
“The flow of tourists coming from Mainland China has increased substantially,” an upbeat Angelo Bonati, CEO of Panerai, tells me in an e-mail interview, “and is perfectly in line with our expectations.”
Thus the aggressive expansion of this Panerai store, from an erstwhile single unit to its entire 11-floor building, with five large display windows facing two of Kowloon’s most prestigious shopping streets.
At the moment, only five levels, totalling 367 sq m, are used for retail, but even with this, it has become the company’s largest boutique in the world. This crown was once held by the store in Singapore’s Ion Orchard, which opened three years ago but, at 120 sq m, now seems comparatively miniscule.
The marque known for its chunky timepieces has seen its fortunes rise from a supplier of material – diving watches and other naval instruments – to the Italian military in the first half of the 20th century to one of the most sought-after brands, ever since actor Sylvester Stallone wore a Luminor in the 1996 film Daylight. The subsequent publicity was widely attributed for the brand’s renaissance. Swiss luxury group Richemont acquired Panerai in 1997.
Milan-based Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola revamped the Canton Road store. Her prolific projects range from crafting the interiors of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona and the site of a former bank, to fashioning lines of furniture and lighting for upmarket Italian brands Molteni & C, Moroso and B&B Italia.
Urquiola’s concept, similar versions of which she has also developed for Panerai shops in Paris, Florence, New York and Miami, features a distinctive facade consisting of panels of undulating aluminium, topped off by an outsized wall clock with a Panerai dial. At night, the markers are lit, just like how the Superluminova found on the wristwatch version would glow.
The interior is the result of Urquiola’s reinterpretation of Panerai’s maritime history and Florentine origins, with the extensive use of materials such as calacatta luccicoso veined marble, bronze, wood and a special “reeded” glass.
On the upper floors, where the sales rooms and a private VIP lounge are located, the display cases are elongated, drawing their inspiration from the underwater universe. The bronze lights and sales counters with wood details recall the nautical world.
Despite the total size of the boutique, due to the small footprint of the building, the atmosphere at each floor comes across as intimate, not unlike that of a living room. In the VIP lounge, customers can ensconce themselves in Urquiola’s furniture pieces, while viewing the latest novelties or waiting for their watch to be serviced.
Three special editions were created to commemorate the boutique’s reopening. The Luminor 1950 models uniquely feature the words “HONG KONG” engraved on the lever of the Panerai’s signature crown-protecting device.
But Panerai fans in Singapore need not feel left out; Bonati has confirmed that a second boutique will be coming in the near future. “We have managed to acquire a suitable space,” he reveals. “Finding space is certainly the hardest thing in planning to organise and expand distribution.”
He has not let on whether this store will feature Urquiola’s design but, given Panerai’s bull run and Singapore’s importance as a market for both locals and the Chinese, we should expect nothing less than the very best.