SINGAPORE (Nov 5): It was love at first sight for Lang Lang when he purchased his first Hublot in Monte Carlo seven years ago. The Chinese classical music superstar was on vacation and enjoying afternoon tea at a hotel with his mother and a few friends when he chanced upon a watch boutique on the premises. Two hours later, he emerged from the store with a Big Bang on his wrist. “I was like, this is the coolest looking watch ever,” he recalls.

Four years later, the brand made him an ambassador.

Options was in Hanoi with the internationally acclaimed pianist in August for the grand opening of Hublot’s first boutique in Vietnam by The Hour Glass S&S, a joint venture between the Swiss watch manufacturer, The Hour Glass and Vietnamese partner Sam & Sassy.

It is 10am on a weekday and dance music is blaring on the sidewalk outside the historical Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in the city’s French Quarter, where the boutique is located, and where the likes of legendary actor Charlie Chaplin, former US president George H W Bush and former French president Jacques Chirac have stayed.

The media are gathered on the street awaiting the arrival of the guest of honour to officiate the ribbon-cutting ceremony just outside the boutique. The crowd of journalists and photographers is spilling over onto the busy traffic and Hublot personnel are urging us to take caution. An odd cyclo slows and lingers every few minutes or so, its rider curious as to the fuss.

The club music soon subsides and two teenaged boys begin banging on traditional drums. Eventually, the doors are thrown open and Lang Lang sweeps out like a rock star. The ribbon is cut. Confetti is sprayed into the air. And the Vietnamese market is considered officially opened for Hublot. Like the iconic Big Bang with its bold proportions and styling, Hublot does everything with audacious finesse.

Lang Lang: Classical music and watchmaking are both timeless and grounded in tradition. We need to respect what has been done in the past, but we also have to create something new. 

We then head back into the hotel for a press conference packed with mostly Vietnamese media as well as the few journalists from Singapore and Malaysia flown in to witness this momentous event in Hublot’s history.

The Vietnamese are excited to welcome Lang Lang back to their country. It has been 15 years since he last performed in Hanoi. He has become a megastar in this time, playing for royalty and heads of state around the world and performing renowned duets with heavy metal band Metallica, jazz legend Herbie Hancock and one of the greatest tenors of all time, Plácido Domingo. He also performed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which was beamed to an international audience of almost four billion. In 2009, Time magazine named the Shenyang native one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Charismatic appeal

In person, Lang Lang looks more the poster boy for pop rather than classical music. Attired in an all-black get-up accentuated with a camel belt and matching shoes, the 36-year-old cuts a stylish figure. He charms the room effortlessly with memories of his past visit to Vietnam, his love of Vietnamese food and, of course, his relationship with Hublot, attending to questions with a magnetism not unlike the way he enthralls his audience with masterful strokes of his instrument.

For a moment, it is difficult to reconcile this confident, charismatic man with the bashful boy he says he used to be.

“When I was a kid, I was not social but very shy. But when I started making music, I started making friends. You play a song and others start singing with you and, in that moment, you become friends. That’s the beautiful power of the musician,” he confides.

While music built his confidence, it was his flamboyant personality and style that earned Lang Lang the collaboration with Hublot.

“He’s trendy, he’s dynamic, he’s creative. Personality is very important and it corresponds quite well to the philosophy of the Hublot brand, even though it’s classical music,” says Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot, who was also present at the ceremony and press conference.

The world of classical music may appear, at first glance, to be an unlikely pairing for a brand anchored on groundbreaking innovation and fierce marketing. But, in actuality, it is a conscious coupling over a shared philosophy: the “Art of Fusion”, a brand principle that artfully melds tradition and innovation.

Lang Lang observes: “Classical music and watchmaking are both timeless and grounded in tradition. We need to respect what has been done in the past, but we also have to create something new. That’s what I’m trying to do in classical music and that’s what Hublot is trying to do in watchmaking.”

The admiration is mutual. Guadalupe adds: “We try to explore different worlds and Lang Lang’s incredible artistry and vision interprets classical music in a new and different way.”

The three-year partnership has so far produced two limited-edition models in tribute to the maestro: the Classic Fusion Tourbillon Cathedral Minute Repeater Carbon Lang Lang and Classic Fusion 45mm Ceramic Ultra-Thin Lang Lang.

Sitting on Lang Lang’s wrist today is the latter, crafted in titanium and ceramic — a combination that is lightweight enough for him to perform with. It is this piece that the pianist will be wearing when he performs at the private showcase for Hublot and its guests at the Hanoi Opera House later this evening — a long way from the days when he was a boy drawing pictures of watches on his wrist before he was able to own one.

The Classic Fusion Tourbillon Cathedral Minute Repeater Carbon Lang Lang (left) and Classic Fusion 45mm Ceramic Ultra-Thin Lang Lang.

Emerging market potential
It was a serendipitous confluence of the right timing, partner and location that paved the way for Hublot’s entry into the Vietnam market.

“The country is doing fantastic,” says Guadalupe on his second visit to the country. His first was last year, when Hublot opened a pop-up store in Ho Chi Minh City. “With a population of over 90 million, the average age [of its citizens] is young, and Hublot is a brand that also speaks to the young generation, so it’s a perfect match for our ‘Art of Fusion’ brand philosophy.”

The brand’s ambitions have been stoked by the trend of well-heeled “Vietnamese travelling around buying our watches in other parts of the world”, Guadalupe says. “The market is getting mature [enough] to receive luxury brands. For [the] watch [segment], we are the first to invest heavily [here]. We are ambitious and our local partner is ambitious. The pop-up store is doing very well. The [sales] numbers we’ve been reaching here has been surprisingly incredible; it’s a promising market with potential to grow,” he adds.

Depending on the “evolution of the market”, Hublot is hoping to open a second boutique on Vietnamese soil by next year. Growth in this market, according to Guadalupe, is likely to be organic, potentially contributing “a few per cent” of global revenue, and he expects revenue to “double or triple” in five years.

“[Vietnam] won’t be our biggest market in the world, but it’s going to be a very good market for us. For Southeast Asia, Singapore would of course remain the leader, but I think Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam could [one day] be on the same level,” he forecasts.

Guadalupe (at the launch): We try to explore different worlds and Lang Lang’s incredible artistry and vision interprets classical music in a new and different way.

A night at the opera house
It was a glorious night to remember. The 106-year-old Hanoi Opera House, modelled after the Palais Garnier in Paris, was elegantly embellished with Hublot livery and the who’s who of Vietnam’s social set were on scene for Lang Lang’s exclusive concert for Hublot. Seated in the front row were Guadalupe, The Hour Glass group managing director Michael Tay and Sam & Sassy’s owner Sam Vu, who each addressed the audience in turn.

The virtuoso pianist was indeed the perfect choice to open the Vietnam market in style. He enthralled the audience for an hour, intervalling his sets with performances by 12-year-old Peter Leung from Hong Kong, a scholar from Lang Lang’s International Music Foundation, which he established in 2008 to nurture a new generation of musicians.

As the performance climaxed with a duet between mentor and mentee, which was simply mesmerising to behold, I recalled Lang Lang’s words from the interview earlier in the day: “When you’re younger, your ambition is to be the fastest, have the best technique. Now, it’s more about creating emotional and artistic works.”

That mastery of one’s craft, infused with artistry and a flair for reinvention — there’s that fine art of fusion again. “This is the spirit we need in our life,” the maestro says.

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful.