When Frank McKenzie told his wife that he and their son Joe were going to start an online business, she had one question: “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
As it happens, it was a very good idea.
Today, their company, Xupes, is one of the U.K.’s most prestigious retailers — not just of pre-owned and vintage watches but also of top brand-name handbags, jewelry and artworks.
The men clearly share a collecting gene. Frank has been buying and selling art and antiques since leaving his job as an accountant in 1988. Joe started collecting vintage watches while studying photography at the University of the Arts in London in the mid 2000s. Tapping into the new phenomenon of eBay in the late 1990s, he began to search for and buy models online and soon noticed a lack of attention to retail essentials like repair and warranties, customer service and beautiful presentation.
“eBay was a jumble sale, and you took your chances,” says Joe. “There was a strange gap in this luxury category.” He began to service and photograph the watches he bought before reselling them, with considerable success. Meanwhile, Frank was doing something similar with the art and antiques he was buying and selling online. “One day, Joe showed me some of the accounting figures from his sales,” Frank recalls. “I said, ‘Come up with a short, sharp name, and we’ll set up shop.’ ”
That’s what they did. At first they worked out of Frank’s home office in the small market town of Bishop’s Stortford (in Hertfordshire, 27 miles northwest of London). By 2013, however, the business had expanded considerably, and they moved to a 17th-century thatched-roof barn on a former farmstead just outside the town center. “We needed photography, a dispatch room and also realized that customers often wanted to come in and collect things,” Joe says. “We wanted to find premises that would extend our story and feel prestigious. We had noticed that often, in luxury stores or galleries, it was quite stiff, and you feel a bit judged. We decided it should feel like being welcomed into a house.”
They designed the interior of their new headquarters from the ground up, with a special space for a full-time photographer and rooms for repairs, polishing and shipping, as well as a showroom to display their most alluring pieces. “One of the most important things for us is that we want you to have the same experience, or better, than if you were to buy your watch from Cartier or your bag from Hermès or another big-name brand that we sell,” Frank says.
When the second photographer they hired, Reece Morgan, kept turning up sporting, as Frank puts it, “the most amazing bags he had pinched off his mum,” they asked him if he would like to set up a handbag department. Morgan accepted the challenge with alacrity and now heads up the business’s fastest-growing segment: Twenty percent of Xupes’s $15 million in sales turnover last year came from bags. “And it will be more this year,” Morgan says, with a gleam in his eye.
Between appointments with clients at their headquarters, the trio found a moment to answer five questions for Introspective.
1. Joe, did you always love watches? Why did you begin to collect them?
Joe McKenzie: Yes, my great grandfather was a clock- and watchmaker, and I’ve always been fascinated by mechanics. Watches are among the most mechanical things on the planet. I don’t know why, but when I was a teenager, I saw an advert for an IWC Portugieser, and I fell in love with it. It had a beautiful exhibition case with sapphire glass, and you could see the movements and mechanics of the watch, which fascinated me. I was fortunate enough to be given one for my twenty-first birthday, and I would look at it and try to figure out how it all worked. While working for a celebrity photographer, I began to invest every penny I earned in vintage watches, and I realized I had a bit of a penchant for finding rare pieces and restoring them.
2. What are some of the more unusual pieces you have discovered over the years?
JM: It was amazing what you could find on eBay when I started out. Once, I found a really rare Rolex Pearlmaster in yellow gold encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. No one had really spotted it, and the bid went to ten thousand pounds (about $12,800), which I paid. When I went to collect it, the watch turned out to have been a special commission by the Saudi Arabian royal family, and its retail value would have been around $110,000. Another time I found a rare Tiffany cocktail watch that combined the aesthetic of a tennis bracelet with the function of a wristwatch. It was really a piece of jewelry with a spring-loaded watch-face cover. I bought it from a lady in Dublin who turned out to live in a huge stately home. I didn’t really know what the watch was, I could just tell it was a piece of great quality. Later, I sold it to a customer in Tokyo, and a year later, she contacted me to tell me that she had worn it to a party at the Tiffany headquarters in Paris. One of the directors discovered it had been made for a U.S. senator’s wife and had offered her a lot of money for it. That experience taught me to research things a bit more thoroughly!
Although we are a bigger corporate business now, the treasure-hunting side of our work never loses its thrill. We recently sold a rare [Rolex] Daytona that came to us through a contact. We take a lot of time finding rare stock that you can only find with us and building a prolific network of customers, some of whom have great collections of their own. I am always on the hunt.
3. Reece, what about the handbag hunt? Are you very specific about what you look for?
Reece Morgan: Yes, just as with the watches, we are very selective about the bags we’ll source and stock. For Chanel, Vuitton, Hermès and Dior, we’ll take any era. With other brands, like Fendi or Givenchy, it will be from more recent seasons and unused. We won’t purchase an item without the original serial number or date stamp in the bag.
A fun part of the business is that we will also look for specific bags from specific seasons. Someone might want an emerald-green crocodile leather Hermès Birkin bag from a specific year with a box, or a bag that is on a wait list. Social media plays a lot into the popularity of bags now. If one of the Kardashians posts a bag, the demand and retail price go up immediately, and we know we’ll get requests. Usually, we can fulfill them.
4.Frank, you and Joe decided to create an in-house watch-servicing department. Why?
Frank McKenzie: It’s faster and more efficient. We had a lot of clients asking us to service their watches, and we were doing it externally, which was slow. We also realized it would allow us to offer our customers the chance to sit alongside a watchmaker. There can be as many as three hundred and fifty tiny pieces in a small watch, and they are working with measurements of microns and millimeters. It’s a real art, and seeing it gives customers confidence — also an education.
We have Cartier- and Omega-accredited watchmakers who evaluate the condition of every watch we acquire, service it and make sure it works perfectly. We probably service about thirty-five watches a week on average, and at the moment, we do about twenty in-house, in addition to doing direct repairs. Our intention is to grow. We envisage becoming one of the leading service centers in the U.K.
5. Joe, what are your ambitions for Xupes?
JM: We want to really build awareness of our name and brand. To that end, we have just opened a shop at the Royal Exchange in London, because a big demographic of our customers is there. We have a retail area upstairs and a space downstairs that is more experiential, with workshops on watchmaking, consultations and talks. When people are buying something over a certain price point, they often want to see it and have an experience.
We also now have a European base, in Amsterdam, which made sense with Brexit coming and because we buy a lot in Europe. At the moment, about seventy percent of our buyers come from the U.K., and we’d love to increase our numbers in Europe and the U.S., which we see as an important market. We joined 1stdibs because we associate its values with our own, and it opened up exposure to the U.S. market and to other markets where we don’t currently advertise. It’s also brought us some high-profile customers, which is great. We are the only company that offers these categories — watches, handbags, jewelry, art — plus three-hundred-and-sixty-degree service. And we stock everything that’s online. If you want it immediately, you can have it immediately.