The cellar of the Hamburg car museum already looks the way Christian Kurtzke envisioned. Displays of fashion are on the fringes of the room with watches taking center stage. The new head of Porsche Design, which operates independently of carmaker and co-owner Porsche, displays an array of goods including luggage, handbags and even a hookah featuring the brand’s clean, functional design.
Mr. Kurtzke wants to demonstrate a new direction – and quickly. The former chief executive of Meissen Porcelain, a luxury fine china producer based in east Germany, has been responsible for Porsche Design for just a few weeks. But he is already moving away from the path followed by his predecessor, Jürgen Gessler, who sought to make the brand a player in the fashion sector with design-oriented luxury articles.
Of course, Mr. Kurtzke is also thinking big. “This company has written history with Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and it will be writing history again in the future,” said Mr. Kurtzke. “The question is, do we want to continue going full speed or, first of all, make the brand harmonious again. Focus it.”
“This company has written history with Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and it will be writing history again in the future.”
His predecessor, Mr. Gessler, certainly epitomized the full-speed-ahead approach. He announced a year ago in Handelsblatt his intention to double the number of shops by 2018. He also sought to double sales, which at the time were in the range of €128 million, or $141 million.
But it quickly became clear that Mr. Gessler’s aggressive plans weren’t working and sales stagnated, prompting Porsche AG and the Porsche family, who respectively own 65 percent and 35 percent of Porsche Design, to bring in Mr. Kurtzke.
The new managing director has for the time being called a halt to expansion plans. Mr. Kurtzke is convinced the brand must first be positioned correctly before it can consider opening more stores. The right products already exist, he said.
The first watches from the Porsche Design watch factory in Switzerland will come to market at the end of July, including a racing driver’s chronometer in black with a seven-layer anti-reflective treated crystal. Another series scheduled to debut soon has a more Bauhaus-oriented design.
Mr. Kurtzke plans to oscillate between the poles of motor sports and architectural design. He calls his target audience the “contemporary business traveler” as opposed to the romanticized traveler image of brands such as Louis Vuitton.
Technical details are designed to win customers with touches such as ballpoint pens that look like a brake hose, travel sports jackets that don’t wrinkle and women’s handbags with adjustable-length carrying straps. He’s currently producing web videos to explain such design touches to potential customers.
He talks at great length about the brand’s concepts. In addition to being the CEO, he wants to be the creative director of all eight product lines, just as he was at Meissen. In his six years with the more than 300-year-old state-owned porcelain factory, he turned its porcelain into a luxury brand while expanding offerings into other areas such as jewelry.
Mr. Kurtzke made few friends at the beginning of his tenure at Meissen by embracing change over the protests of other executives who thought it was occurring too quickly. He also had to convince the state government.
A self-taught designer, Mr. Kurtzke whetted his passion for design at Meissen. First, he completed his electrical engineering studies with a paper on glass fibers, then added a degree in business administration. He later worked as a consultant in the IT division of a kitchen manufacturer.
Today, as self-appointed creative director, he has bold ambitions for Porsche Design. “For me, it’s like a next generation Apple,” Mr. Kurtzke said.
Before that happens, however, a number of uncomfortable decisions must be made. Mr. Kurtzke cancelled participation in the New York Fashion Week because his brand’s place is in Europe. In contrast to his predecessor, women’s fashion no longer holds any promise for the new boss with just a 15 percent share in sales.
Under Mr. Kurtzke, Porsche Design is poised to become masculine again while women’s apparel gets its own sub-brand, Porsche Design Woman, and will be sold only in big flagship stores.
Video: A Porsche production previews a shoe developed in cooperation with Adidas.
Most fashions will disappear from display windows. Instead, watches, handbags and smartphones will be the focus. Porsche Design has worked for years with Blackberry, a brand that long ago lost its luster. Mr. Kurtzke will reexamine all business partnerships with one exception – Adidas, which remains a major ally.
The huge expansion of stores has been halted for now. In China, home to one Porsche Design store, the company will add four franchise shops. In other regions, stores will likely close or be relocated, while a few of the smaller franchisees may drop out.
“The main driver of growth is not the number of stores, but the quality of the locations, brands and products,” Mr. Kurtzke said.
He expects much from the Porsche brand name. While Mr. Gessler distanced himself as much as possible from the carmaker, Mr. Kurtzke seeks a close association. He sees the latest Porsche victory in Le Mans, for example, as a welcome driving force for the new racing-driver watch.
Fashion expert Maximilian Schmid-Preissler sees Porsche Design as inseparably bound to the fortunes of the automaker, but he recommends going even further and eliminating the fashion line, which he argues overstretches the brand.
Products such as luggage and golf clubs are a better fit, Mr. Schmid-Pressler said. “When a fashion collection is hanging around, unsellable, it hurts the brand.”
Mr. Kurtzke still has a great deal of work to do.