Interview: A Continuous Lean's Michael Williams

Talking watches, community and golf with the guru of menswear

The boss of blogs; the eminence of menswear; the rector of Red Wing; the-don’t-call-it-a-comeback-listen-to-the-Barbour-go-boom of newsletters. It’s finally here, ladies and mostly gentlemen: Michael Williams, the founder of A Continuous Lean, the preeminent blog/newsletter/don’t-call-it-a-podcast podcast of menswear, joins Rescapement. Never one to waste a crisis, Michael burst back onto the writing scene earlier this year, with what is still one of the most insightful takes on the pandemic, some 7 months and 12 million Covid cases later. Since then, Mr. Williams has re-dedicated himself to writing, turning ACL into a newsletter and weekly conversation with his friend David Coggins. It’s worth a subscribe.

On a personal note, Mr. Williams is one of the primary people to blame for Rescapement. His writing at ACL inspired this otherwise normal kid from the Midwest to believe that he too could launch a niche blog. It’s been a pleasure to see his return to writing, and a joy to be able to meet and chat with him.

In our conversation, we talk about what the watch community is doing right and wrong, the watches that mean the most to him, and trying not to be predictable by embracing and collecting the weird.

Q: You started ACL as a blog back in 2007, and dove back into it this year, but as a newsletter. What's different about the newsletter world compared to the old blog world?

The metrics are different. I think I see the landscape well with platforms, and that helped me be in the first wave of men's style bloggers. The newsletter thing just made sense to me. It seemed pretty obvious how you can reach people directly, and how it's not being manipulated by Facebook or social. The whole era of mass traffic breeding scale, and that being the goal for publishers was the time I was at my worst or not participating. I'm more of a quality over quantity publisher. I might not publish very much, but when I do, I feel like it's a little bit purer than trying to post 10 things a day. Having a blog is demanding because it’s this sort of unlimited vessel of content. To me, I could never keep pace with it, and it was very stressful.

The newsletter is more manageable. I'm publishing 3 days a week, but that gives me enough time to think about ideas and nurture and polish things more than I would have for a blog. The pace of it feels more human.

Q: How can someone new build an audience for a newsletter? In other words, how can the next ‘Michael Williams’ build an audience without falling into the same traps of going after social, clicks, etc.?

There are a lot of things you need to be able to do well, and there is also some luck involved. You can build an audience by featuring stories or people that will then share it or help you organically get picked up and get PR or earned media.[1] Everything needs to have a defined point of view, and I think the more niche you are the easier it is to build an audience. People have to land on your page and immediately get it. If it's not clear what you're trying to do, it becomes even harder to build an audience or get people to come back.

Q: Watches in 2020: what are your thoughts?

The watch market is crazy. It's cool to see how mass and widely accepted the watch world has become and how many people are into watches compared to even 10 years ago. I'm not on the forefront of watch collecting but even I've even noticed the tremendous growth.

The community aspect of watches is super cool. It's gotten to the point where it can be a little judgmental from a lot of people, when it shouldn't be. I think people take it a little too seriously or personally sometimes. To me, that's what I struggle with. I think sometimes the hardcore watch community can be a little too crazy. I'm not a reference number guy — I'm not one to ever say a reference number, and I think some people will say 'you're not a real watch guy' because of that. To me, that's a little silly. I come at stuff — clothing, men's style, watches — whatever makes you happy is how you should pursue it.

What should the watch community be doing to make it feel more welcoming to a guy who may come it at from the menswear side of things?

Put it this way: If I meet someone that's into tennis, and I'm into tennis, we can find the overlap and what we share in that. That's what watch collecting needs. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, because I see it occasionally, but it should just be: 'cool, you're into watches, I'm into watches too.’ If I see someone wearing an interesting watch at a cocktail party (when we did things like that), I know I can talk to them on some level. I think people should be more open to how other people want to be into watches and not be crazy about it. I love collectors as a personality, but it shouldn't be 'this is my surf spot and locals only, get the fuck out of here'.

“I think people should be more open to how other people want to be into watches and not be crazy about it.”

Sometimes there’s a sense that you have to prove yourself, in the worst of cases by buying an expensive watch. It should almost be the opposite way: hardcore collectors should be proving to you why you should spend so much time on something so silly.

Yea, that's true. They should be selling you on why this is where you want to spend your time or money. Everywhere else, it's a battle for people's attention. I struggle with — if it's a sport, surfing, collecting, watches, whatever — there being gatekeepers. To me, that's a real shame. There are a lot of people that are into watches that are super happy it's gained so much popularity, but some people seem to want to keep it for themselves. There's so much bullshit flying around on social media too; that's the hardest part of watches, the showmanship of it.

Do you feel like there's a showmanship to watches, more than menswear at large?

The stakes are higher. If you're wearing an AP, that's a different beast than wearing a suit, even if that suit costs eight grand. By the way, there aren’t that many APs I would wear. A lot of people outside the watch world look at the Royal Oak and think it's ugly.

Q: Do you think the Royal Oak ugly?

I think it's ugly, but it's a thing. It's an acquired taste. I think I suffer because I have contrarian taste in watches, and it's sort of fucked me a bunch of times along the way. I struggle with the person who has all the grail items: a Porsche 911, a Defender, a Daytona, a Leica. All those things in one package — all that stuff is cool, but my goal in life is not to have those five things.

It’s putting it all together that’s the problem with you?

Yea, exactly. It's like driving a Tesla, having a Lange, working in venture capital and living in the Bay Area. That as a set is too much for me. It's so predictable. Putting it all together, it's like you saw the ads and just bought the whole kit. I love the weird, original, 'what do you own that's so weird that people don't get?' That to me is original, and I want to know what's wrong with them that they like it. That's interesting.

You said you have contrarian taste in watches, what do you mean by that?

I like Rolex, but I was never fawning over it. There are Rolexes that I like, but even the Submariner, which is arguably the most classic watch of all time, you see it everywhere and everyone has it, so it seems too accepted. I'd rather own an IWC Pilot's Watch. But that's a good way to lose money, to buy things that aren't very collectible.

IWC is an interesting one that we’ve talked about before. It’s a brand with a ton of heritage and potential, but the modern collecting community hasn't totally embraced it.

It may be like Breitling, where the business is too big and it informs too many decisions. With IWC, there's a lot in the collection I wouldn't wear, but there are certain families, like the Portugieser and Pilot’s Watches that I love.

You posted an Instagram with your watch box and a few of your watches recently [photo above]. On the far right, there's an IWC Portugieser which you called your ‘serious watch’.

That was the first serious watch I bought. I went and looked at that at Torneau or Wempe at one point when I made 42 grand or something. I was early in my career and I remember thinking 'I'm going to come back for this one day.’ And then one day, I did go back for it. I finally went back when I could spend $7,000 or whatever it was and bought it. it's not the most collectible watch, but to me the significance of it is huge. I look at it and I think about, shit, I think about the day I went to buy it and the day I went and couldn't buy it, and what happened in between. That was pretty big for me. That was my first real watch purchase and it had a lot of professional significance to it.

A post shared by A Continuous Lean. (@acontinuouslean)

In that post, you also say that a Black Bay Blue is your most worn watch.

I like Tudor, partially because I meet with clients a lot, and it's sort of the least obnoxious nice watch. It's unpretentious in a lot of ways because I don't think a lot of people actually know Tudor. It sort of signals that they’re not overpaying me. I can just wear it all the time and don’t worry about it. Even in quarantine, I still do, but right now I have a broken hand.

That takes away one of my questions, what your thoughts are on wearing a watch during quarantine.

I have been wearing a watch, but it's mostly an Apple Watch, which kind of makes me sad. I also wear a regular mechanical watch sometimes. I feel naked without a watch.

Apple Watch, I like it a lot more than I ever thought I would. I kind of shit on it initially, but there's a lot about it I like. It's kind of embarrassing, and wearing a mechanical watch is so much better, holding it, wearing it, what it says about you, the idea of it, I love them. The Apple Watch kind of feels like a Starbucks cup.

Another one in that photo was your JLC Reverso, which I think was a wedding gift?

My wife bought that for me. It's the Tribute to 1931 Reverso. She's smart, she knows Ben Clymer through me, so she asked Ben what she should get me for our wedding, and Ben told her to get a Reverso, which is exactly what I would want, so props to Ben for that. So she got it for me and then had the flip of it engraved with our initials and wedding date.[2]

A lot of people don't like modern watches, and I think that's another reason I'm a contrarian. I'm kind of over vintage watches and vintage cars.

A post shared by A Continuous Lean. (@acontinuouslean)

Have you owned vintage watches before?

I’ve had an older Sub, a Deepsea. But the whole idea of having to service things, I always feel like they’re going to fall apart at any minute. I still have a vintage Omega Speedmaster.

It's a pre-Moon Speedy: a caliber 321, really fucking nice Speedmaster that was rarely worn, a real safe queen. My friend gave it to me when it cost maybe $2,500. I helped him get a big job, and he bought it for me as a thank you. It's funny, the only watch I own that has appreciated is the one I didn't buy for myself.

A post shared by A Continuous Lean. (@acontinuouslean)

Do you see yourself buying anything in the near future?

I'd love to consolidate my watches, maybe a box of 5. I came really close to buying the ceramic Daytona (getting it allocated), but ended up dragging my feet and it didn't happen. I'd like to consolidate and buy a Lange 1815 Up/Down. I love that watch.

Do you see watches as potential heirlooms to give to children of yours?

I've talked about buying my son a case of wine every year until he's 21, and then he's got all of his future French wine, which would be an amazing beginning of a wine collection. But who knows if he's going to be into wine. I'd like to give all these watches to my kids, or at least the Reverso, which I'm obviously never going to sell. It's cool to pass down things, but it's also cool to go out and earn your own watch.

“It’s cool to pass down things, but it’s also cool to go out and earn your own watch.”

From your parents, did you inherit an interest in watches or style?

I didn't inherit anything. I grew up in a very blue-collar place, and expensive watches were not anything that was ever talked about. Recently, I helped my dad buy a Rolex, something that was on his life-long list of goals.

I didn't get any of this from my parents, but I think that's partially why I'm into watches, style and all this stuff, because I grew up with a lot of curiosity around it, having not been exposed to it. It sort of made me seek it out, and that got me into clothing.

What does the future hold for ACL and Central Division?

I feel a little bit bad saying it, but the pandemic, this whole year has been the most productive time of my life. I have had tons of clarity on what I want to do professionally. I've had a lot of output in terms of writing and being creative; the newsletter has been really great in terms of creativity. It's great to have this intimate relationship with the reader and not having to do this dance with advertisers or monetizing it in a weird way. Everyone is there for a reason, and they know what they're getting into. I look forward to building that — it feels a bit like old times with ACL.

At the same time I'm building a golf site, ACL Golf. It's sort of ACL meets golf, or for people who are getting into golf but also like the style and lifestyle aspect of it, and don't want to do it their dad's way or Trump's way. [Ed. note: Just recently, Michael published an article about his approach to golf.]

I don’t like to admit it, but I’m actually a big golfer myself. I’ve really gotten back into it during the quarantine this year.

Golf is kind of interesting. In the same way I don't want anyone to tell me how I should be into watches, I don't want anyone to tell me how I should be into golf. It’s great because you're outside, you can be with interesting people, you're not on your phone, and out trying to master something physical and mental. I understand all the challenged optics around it and agree with a lot of it.

But this has been the best year for golf. There are a lot of people that are into other stuff and creative and have all these other interests but don't want to talk about being into golf. It's like anything else: sometimes I want a $250 Seiko, sometimes I want an expensive watch. Sometimes it's cool to play at a historic, prestigious golf club, but sometimes it's also cool to go to a muni and listen to music and drink beers.

Any advice for Rescapement or other young writers?

Don't be a sell out. If you do one good thing a week, and people really like it, that's better than doing five shitty things a week. Just do good shit.

Subscribe to A Continuous Lean, or Central Division to get both Michael and David Coggins’ newsletters. Look out for the launch of ACL Golf soon.

[1] Thanks for the tip, Michael — pls share this newsletter.

[2] This is a favorite recommendation of Clymer’s: as legend has it, it’s also the watch he recommended Jay-Z wear at his Carnegie Hall performance.


Through the Wire

Introducing Oak & Oscar Olmsted Matte

Chicago-based Oak & Oscar has released the latest addition to its growing collection of watches, the Olmsted Matte.

Based on the Olmsted, released last year, the Olmsted Matte features a limited production, matte ceramic coated case. But unlike the Olmsted, the Matte strips away the date window at 6 o’clock, making for a clean, time-only design. The result is a 38mm field watch with a two-layer sandwich dial, screw-down crown, and a charcoal grey dial and matte ceramic coating that perfectly complement each other.

As the proud owner of an Olmsted, I’m thrilled to see this extension of the line. There’s something classic and All-American about the original Olmsted. Sure, as a Chicagoan it felt like a small act of patronage to acquire a watch from a local brand doing things the right way out of Ravenswood, but the appeal of Oak & Oscar is broader than one city. As Norman Mailer put it, Chicago is the “great American city.” It makes sense that a modern watch that still feels so quintessentially American would come from within that city’s borders. Check out the full intro.

The Cartier Crash (feat. Jack Dorsey)

Phillips takes a look at the Cartier Crash, including some of the recent (bonkers) auction results. Two more Crash examples are up next week at Phillips Hong Kong XII Auction.

Up first is a 1991 Crash Paris, a limited edition of 400 cased in yellow gold. I covered this model back in May, when an example came up at Antiquorum, setting a record for the highest price for the model, selling for HKD 812k (~$105k). This week’s example from Phillips has a more modest estimate of around $42,000-$62,000, but don’t be surprised if it goes higher. See Lot 874 here.

Recently, the book The Cartiers by Francesca Cartier Brickell has dispelled the common origin story of the Crash: it was never the result of a car crash melting a Baignoire, but instead was the result of a collaboration between Cartier and other designers. Sometimes, a great design is a great design — it doesn’t need some apocryphal story to raise its stature.

Next up from Phillips is a 2019 Crash Skeleton. In 2016, Cartier re-introduced the Crash Skeleton, producing 67 in a limited run. This one’s a pink gold example, and interestingly, the estimate is pretty similar to the 1991 Crash above: the Crash Skeleton’s estimate is $32-65k. Meanwhile, it looks like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has scooped up a skeleton Crash for himself, along with a Sports Illustrated model 20 years his junior (h/t Charlie). I suppose when you eat one meal a week, you have plenty of money left over for other stuff. See Lot 967 here.

🎤 In Chicago: Speaking of Oak & Oscar: I’m joining founder Chase for a virtual happy hour on Dec. 2. RSVP here.

Rescapement is a weekly newsletter about watches, bringing horological secrets vintage and modern to your inbox every Sunday.