In December of 2020, Mitchell Wein received an unusual message. As vice president of Marathon, a watch brand headquartered in Toronto, he’s used to fielding inquiries from potential clients, but this request was altogether different. Most of Marathon’s customers are defence departments, police forces, search-and-rescue teams and other groups who demand the kind of rugged, military-spec watches Marathon produces. This message, however, was from a designer at J.Crew, the fashion retailer best known for button-down oxford shirts and colourful cashmere sweaters. Intrigued, Wein set up a call, and within a few days, he was planning the brand’s entrée into the world of fashion.
To Wein, whose grandfather founded Marathon in the 1930s, collaborating with J.Crew on a watch design was a major departure from business as usual. On another level, however, it made perfect sense.
“We both have significant heritage to our brands, which I think is special,” he says.
Marathon Watch started in 1939 and J.Crew in 1947. J.Crew was family-owned until the late 1990s, while Marathon Watch has been in the Wein family since its inception.
“They wanted to collaborate on something that isn’t commonly available, and that gave them the idea to reach out to us.”
We are in the midst of fashion’s collaboration craze, when anything from Lego bricks to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream can (and has) become fodder for high-profile brand partnerships. The pairing of J.Crew and Marathon has proven particularly synergistic. J.Crew soared in the early aughts, helping to define a classic men’s-wear renaissance with its Ludlow suits and slim rep ties, but its fortunes declined in the teens, resulting in a bankruptcy filing in 2020.
Marathon, on the other hand, was well-known among collectors and military personnel, but its chunky, utilitarian designs in matte black and olive drab had yet to find much traction beyond this audience. As a result, Marathon’s first outing with J.Crew was an opportunity for both brands to present themselves in a different light, J.Crew tapping into Marathon’s reputation for quality and authenticity, and Marathon using J.Crew’s prominence to show off its potential as a fashion accessory.
The result was the Marathon Watch Company x J.Crew Pilot’s Navigator Date watch, based on a piece originally designed for U.S. Air Force pilots and parachutists in the 1980s. With its big, asymmetrical case and austere dial, the watch proved to be an ideal canvas for J.Crew’s designers, who reimagined it in navy blue and added a red seconds hand and a blue-striped nylon strap.
“We had a lot of back and forth with prototypes and designs until both teams were satisfied,” says Wein. “The base watch is an existing Marathon Watch that we revised, and specific design elements such as the bezel colours, the dial design and packaging came from the J.Crew design team.”
Following the success of their first outing together, which sold out quickly last August thanks to praise from mainstream fashion magazines and specialist watch blogs and a relatively accessible price tag around $500, J.Crew has since begun stocking a wider selection of Marathon’s main line of watches.
The two brands have also collaborated on a second piece that is available to Canadian customers through J.Crew’s website. Based on the same Pilot’s Navigator watch as the previous edition, the follow-up will feature a military green case and nylon strap with a contrasting yellow dial.
While most customers will be drawn in by the watch’s bold, sporty looks, the new J.Crew x Marathon watch is still very much the military tool it’s always been, Wein says. Like all Marathon watches, it’s produced at Marathon’s factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, the epicentre of the Swiss watch industry, and is powered by a high-quality Swiss-made movement. It also features a dial illuminated by encapsulated tritium, a radioactive (but safe) isotope that creates a powerful green glow and never requires recharging by another light source.
With its own e-commerce platform, nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, and a battalion of new fans interested in adding a Marathon piece to their watch rotation, Marathon’s profile has never been higher. Despite their newfound status among civilians, however, Wein insists that Marathon’s mission remains unchanged: producing tough, high-quality watches for a mix of pilots, divers and military personnel.
“We’re in business to support our military and government obligations first, but exposure from collaborating with J.Crew has certainly brought more interest from a different group of people around the world,” he says. “We’re now being featured in GQ and Esquire in addition to NATO journals and military publications.”
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