Reissuing classics with a host of spanking-new upgrades – welcome to the full-circle world of retro design.
Earlier this year the Land Rover marque unveiled its brand-new Range Rover Velar model, a sleek, sporty luxury SUV to rival similarly spiffy 4×4 models made by Porsche, Audi and BMW. Designed by Land Rover’s creative director Gerry McGovern, the Velar’s fashionably reductive configuration is all rakish lines, touch screen dash tech, modernist leather interior and V6 grunt. And that name, ‘Velar’? It’s not just some heroic sounding portmanteau dreamt up by the Land Rover branding team, but a genuine tribute to Range Rover’s five decades plus heritage.
As far back as the 1950s Land Rover was already developing the idea of a socially mobile, ruggedly capable vehicle that could transport a well-to-do farmer from muddy yard to hunt ball – a smarter, slightly urbanised version of its 100% rural Land Rover models. Shrouded in secrecy, the brown coats at Solihull produced some 26 prototypes of its ‘Road Rover’ concept. The code name for the project was ‘Velar’.
Industrial design has a habit of doing this; looking back to go forward. Paying tribute to classic examples of engineering, hi-fi or horology, but also adding new colours, alternative materials, luxurious touches, sleeker lines and improved functionality. The fashion business employs the same retro-inspirational tactics with many luxury brands, making repeat revisits to an iconic, tent pole item from its ‘archive’ to prop up its more contemporary collections.
Burberry has built a brand that turns over a quarter of a billion pounds a year on the reliability and versatility of its check-lined trench coat, a hardy item that was first manufactured for the military by company founder Thomas Burberry back in 1879, but has been through countless iterations and reinventions in recent collections. Similarly, Ray-Ban has its Aviator sunglasses model and Belstaff the robust and multi-pocketed motorbike garb as worn by Steve McQueen et al. Barbour? Their waxed, thornproof jacket.
Reviving heritage models and taking inspiration from archive designs has been a mainstay of luxury horology ever since TAG Heuer reissued its distinctive, square-faced Monaco back in 1997. The motor racing-inspired chronograph, once worn by boy racer/actor Steve McQueen is now regarded as something of a modern classic, but it was an underappreciated, commercial flop when first launched in 1972.
Fast-forward a few decades and some clever people in TAG’s marketing department captured a zeitgeisty moment when they figured that the discerning 1990s horologista was ready for a dose of 1970s go-faster styling and kitschy chic chronometry, so inventing the fine art of the classic watch reissue.
Omega’s new, limited edition of its Seamaster Diver 300m Commander’s Watch from 1957 being a perfectly re-styled example. Leica, Germany-based manufacturer of premium cameras and sport optics products, produced the world’s first fully functional prototype of a revolutionary still picture camera for 35mm perforated film in 1914, changing photography forever. Technical finesses and constant innovations – think an integrated rangefinder and interchangeable screw-mount lenses – soon followed. In 1968 Leica presented its M3 – a completely new camera construction combining features such as bright-line viewfinder/ rangefinder, a bayonet mount for interchangeable lenses and a non-rotating shutter speed dial with click stops.
Film winding also became much easier by the replacement of the winding knob with a rapid wind lever. Design-conscious photographers the world over loved the Leica’s minimalist architecture – especially its simple, ergonomically correct and curvy monochrome body – and it became an instant, quasi-fetishised classic. The Leica M3 has also managed to survive the digital revolution – with only a few exterior modifications – and is the reference model for all M-Cameras constructed to this day.
A special-edition M Monochrom rangefinder with a brushed, brass finish, named in honour of late rock ’n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall, is our pick of Leica’s more recent M-centric output. The camera costs around £10,000 – and shoots only in black and white.
But why are brands like Leica and TAG Heuer intent on delving into their own back catalogues for inspiration? Having an authentic story to tell, a bonafide legacy and an iconic product portfolio arouses powerful emotions in the customer. The notion that a watchmaker or a clothier, an automobile or camera manufacturer can continue to innovate while staying true to its original design values in an increasingly fast-moving and fickle marketplace engenders a feeling of assurance, wellbeing and solidity. They pretty much got it right the first time, and now they can make it even better – in weapons grade titanium and tangerine coloured leather.