The D1 Milano "PolyCarbon" watch.

MILANA test-and-try mind-set has led Dario Spallone over the years, launching and building the D1 Milano watch brand in the affordable luxury segment since 2013 with a new approach.

By Spallone’s own admission, his decision to embark on the project may have sounded counterintuitive as the brand was set to compete in an already saturated market, often guided by “low price” competition and blatant references to the signature designs of luxury watches.

Conversely, the brand has managed to strike a balance between affordability and quality, adjusting the three main variables impacting the price, such as clock mechanism, manufacturing country and materials employed.

The first hero timepiece D1 Milano has become synonymous with is its PolyCarbon 40.5-millimeter black watch with a soft and velvety touch and available in a range of versions.

“How can you sell a product crafted from polycarbonate and position it in the upper range of the market? This is possible only by relying on a solid supply chain” and people’s inventiveness, Spallone said.

The company’s offering has grown to include stainless steel options and even a premium self-winding collection called Mechanical. Injected with a vintage, ’70s feel, the D1 Milano timepieces are recognizable from their octagonal case and sleek quadrant.

A D1 Milano stainless steel timepiece.

A D1 Milano stainless steel timepiece.  Joval Arderiu Studio/Courtesy of D1 Milano.

“The industrial watch category has a decorative purpose, [affordable] timepieces are viewed as an accessory and to this end our offering nods to the premium watchmaking industry for our attention to quality and details, but also exudes a younger and cooler tone of voice that positions us in the accessible luxury segment,” Spallone said.

While material sourcing spans two continents with leather and fabrics for straps coming from Italy and clock mechanism from Japan, the brand’s watches are assembled in Shenzhen, China, like many industrial timepieces.

“They are the best, if I were to bring that production step to Italy I’d lose the quality I can get there,” he said, noting that he favors quality over the Made in Italy label just for the sake of it.

The entrepreneur is clearly in self-questioning mode all the time, which has led the company to “live multiple lives,” as the brand’s founder and chief executive officer put it.

As part of this approach Spallone moved the company’s headquarters to the United Arab Emirates, since the brand was generating 80 percent of its revenues in the Middle East region within years from its founding. It recently returned to Milan and opened regional offices in Dubai and Hong Kong, mirroring the evolving customer base and brand’s global reach.

In the Italian city, D1 Milano in December opened its first retail outpost, a 505-square-foot store in the arty Brera district, a sign of the brand’s expansion strategy abiding by the principle that it should provide a relatable and immersive experience, aimed at showcasing the products’ qualities, both on- and offline.

The D1 Milano Milan's store in central Brera district.

The D1 Milano Milan’s store in central Brera district.  Courtesy of D1 Milano.

Filled with design pieces including Cassina’s Tulu chair designed by Kazuhide Takahama and Artemide’s Shogun lamp by Mario Botta, the space is inspired by the site-specific artwork “Untitled” by U.S. artist Dan Flavin that takes over the Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa church in Milan.

While opening a unit in the midst of the pandemic was another risky move, Spallone stands by his business plan. He ruled out turning the brand into a direct-to-consumer company as he believes it is not scalable or operationally and financially sustainable unless the brand is backed by investors.

In addition to brick-and-mortar, the company — started as a purely wholesale player — has strengthened its online presence, with e-commerce now accounting for 25 percent of sales.

By expanding the brand’s global footprint, the entrepreneur aims to fill the gap in terms of brand awareness. He believes that only 20 percent of potential D1 Milano customers actually know the brand and he is committed to reaching out to expand the consumer base by investing in dedicated marketing and product-related initiatives. These include a number of unexpected collaborations the company has inked, including with arcade game Metal Slug, photographic specialist Kodak and automotive company Lancia. An upcoming collaboration with Warner Bros. centered on Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” is dropping later this month.

Dario Spallone, founder, president and CEO of D1 Milano.

Dario Spallone, founder, president and CEO of D1 Milano.  Courtesy of D1 Milano.

D1 Milano generates half of its sales in the Middle East while the remainder are split between the APAC region and Europe. Each year it sells around 80,000 timepieces, which retail at between 150 euros and 795 euros.

While much of Spallone’s success story is based on the brand’s founding days, when the young entrepreneur launched D1 Milano as he was graduating from Milan’s Bocconi University, he tends to attribute it to the consistency the brand and its employees have managed to express while securing growth and expansion.

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