Riding the creative tidal wave that's been sweeping through Shanghai in the last decade, designer William Volcoff decided to switch things up and dive headfirst into the luxury startup scene with Wolkov Design—even amid the COVID pandemonium(!!!).
Wolkov Design stands out in its niche: an expat-helmed luxury watchmaker rooted in China, with a Shanghai-based french mastermind calling the shots. And the timepieces themselves? Pure artistry. Sporting an elongated profile and sophisticated flair, these watches strike an eye-catching balance between modern, vivacious, athletic charm and timeless elegance. Plus, you can customize each piece to reflect the individuality of its wearer (huzzzah!).
Like many of us in this bustling city, William's tale is one for the books, his career and creative evolution reflecting the highs and lows of Shanghai's burgeoning creative scene.
So, SmartShanghai got up close and personal with the man himself to delve into his experiences in commercial art and design, and to uncover the origin story of Wolkov Design. To truly savor this interview, picture William's words rolling off his tongue with a rich French accent—that's when you'll truly hear him.
SmartShanghai: Maybe to start can you give us your background? Where are you from and what brought you to Shanghai?
William Volcoff: I'm from Lyon, France, and arrived in Shanghai in 2009. What brought me here? The lack of options in Europe...
I was working in Paris, and thought it was a bubble. Went to the UK for a year and a half and let's say... I wasn't too happy with the environment. So, I moved to Finland, and again, same thing. Very small country and limited opportunities. So, my options were Brazil... or China.
I moved to Brazil to open a small hotel there. I embraced it at first but over time I started to get the feeling that Brazil was too messy, too crazy, too dangerous. So I explored other options, and was looking at India and China. In the end, I thought to myself, "Well, Indian food isn't my favorite but I do love Chinese food, so let's go."
So, I moved to China in 2009, and about two weeks after I landed, I had a job. Compared to my previous experiences abroad, the integration I had into China, was actually very smooth.
As for Shanghai, I thought Beijing, too much traffic jams, the roads were so big. I loved the food and the people there; it was just the city itself that I didn't like. But Shanghai, was different because it felt so international, and many areas of the city reminded me of home in France.
The early years in China...
SmSh: So this was in 2009. What were you doing when you first came here?
William: After my first two years in Shanghai, I met some Chinese friends, who encouraged me to set up a design agency in China, like I had done before in Europe.
In Europe, I set up a design agency but it was more like a collective of designers. We were working from different parts of Europe, which is why I was always moving around.
In Shanghai, I got investment, opened a new branch of my office, and that was my first company here, Octopus Innovation.
Last year we merged with another company that became a larger design agency with more services. Gave us much more opportunity for work in product design, innovation, and branding.
SmSh: What sorts of things have you been involved in through the agency?
William: Lots of projects from the government, doing school architectural design, including universities, and projects for designing city parks.
These projects would start small, like designing one classroom, and then the clients love the concept, and then they ask you design a building, and from there it turns into designing an entire school where we are creating the entire architectural and landscape design of a 35,000 square-meter campus, then doing the website design, then the design of the Uniforms. We had to go through entire pitching processes for each stage of these projects, but we won each time, furthering our project gains and reputation.
We would have projects that were supposed to be one or two months that turn into two- or three-year projects. In China, project scope can just expand and expand, and unlike France, it makes this momentum in China very, very interesting.
SmSh: Expats working in the creative industries are always remembering these years — 2007 to 2017 or so...
William: Yeah, it's a stereotype, that everything moves fast here, but maybe not as correct as I thought.
When I came back two years later in 2009, I thought, "Man I am too late. I should have been here earlier."
Maybe I missed the chance to build something because things move so fast. I remember back then the market was growing by 20%, ANYTHING we did was working. Even if we had a bad idea, the clients STILL wanted to try out. And we had to try things and be different, being pushed by clients to be innovative, not just branding, or building bars or clubs...
In those times, Chinese firms were in competition with brands in Europe, and trying to outdo them on that playing field. We had to tell our European clients , "No, the market is different here, and we have to try different things." Embrace the aspects that make you unique, and this ethos is something that has seeped into Wolkov watches, I'll talk more about this later.
But yes, the sheer pace of it. I would return every few months to France, and it was always boring as hell. My friends were working on tiny projects, and it took them six months to open a small storefront. In China, in six months, we would have already opened two or three concepts per month.
China moves FAST.
SmSh: It's hard to keep up with the pace of it... Is that why you switched gears to teaching?
William: Yes. Exactly.
In 2016, while I was doing my agency, I felt like I was too much into it. So, I joined the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts (SIVA), a University in Songjiang. Different from corporate design work, being in Education is a way to give back to society. It's rewarding to pass down your know-how, and experience to future generations (and this idea of passing something down... is also part of how Wolkov got started).
I became the head of the industrial design department supervising the teachers and curriculum for the department. It was a very nice breath of fresh air, working in a university let me to step away from corporate design. I still kept my design agency going, but during this time our commercial strategy shifted to being more selective of our clients. Instead of chasing after clients, I now only had a limited time to devote to a smaller client base which gave me the freedom to decide who we worked with.
I was teaching and supervising at the University until this last August in 2022. I loved the experience, but after a time I felt like nothing was moving forward for me anymore. That's the thing with university work; each year everything is the same. The Ministry of Education wants templated education. Overtime I had a lot of ideas and things I wanted to implement, but the powers that be weren't enthusiastic about change or surprises.
At some point I felt like I was stagnating and not growing, so that is why I left last July.
Add on top of this these two jobs, I started working on my watch work as a side project throughmy design company. The idea of a watch brand, started the idea, back in 2014, after I had my first kid.
The Birth of Wolkov Design
SmSh: So where did the idea of Wolkov come from?
William: It's a strange feeling, and I don't know if this happens to other parents but I got this feeling when my first child was born, "What will I leave to my kid when I am I gone?"
It's not a happy feeling, it haunts you like, "Damn, I'm responsible for this little boy."
So, I thought about developing a product or creation, something that could outlast me after I die. Not a software-based product; something that is outdated in a few months. I thought if I could develop a brand, and in 40 years, he could take over this brand, and by then it will have 40 years of history behind it. I wanted to create something that is timeless.
Because a watch is very much that...
SmSh: What is your own background in watches?
William: My father used to distribute luxury watches in France and so I was around these timepieces all the time when I was growing up. And I came to understand the quality of these pieces and the elegance of these things; these things in life that you could pass on to your children, often they would increase in value over time, and they would always serve their original purpose...
Wolkov: The First Collection
SmSh: So how did the first collection come about?
William: So, in 2014 I started designing my first watch. After four years, I managed to get the first prototype working and I had saved up enough cash to start production and launch the first collection. And... well the first collection wasn't very successful. I mean it was "okay" but it wasn't so successful since nobody came saying " I want to invest 20 million into your brand because your watch is so nice." [Laughs.]
Wolkov: The Second Collection
SmSh: [Laughs.] So how did the second collection come about?
William: During Covid, I launched the second collection using a Kickstarter campaign and it was much more successful. We raised USD 80,000, which just stunned me because the campaign's goal was USD 35,000.
These days, it's progressed to the point that I am thinking of taking a step back, and transferring more of the day to day operations to my business partner to manage the design business, while I focus my efforts on developing the watch brand.
SmSh: What types of consumers are showing interest?
William: A lot of my clients are in US and Europe. My Chinese clients are much more brand conscious and hesitant about new brands. They prefer something like a Rolex — an established brand. But we are doing the work to get out there and share this unique story. In Europe, I couldn't make it. But in China, I could find some small investors, and it could really grow as a unique China-born luxury brand run by an expatriate — something unique to this time and this place.
And we are a part of a community here. And that's important to redistribute my wealth in some way to the community. I pay my tax in China, and they use it to build schools, to build roads, etc, and this investment in society helps everyone to grow.
SmSh: Tell us about the watches. Is there an overall style or aesthetic you can describe?
William: As I mentioned my father handled luxury watches but I always thought... they all kind of looked the same. Yeah, sure the mechanism was created 400 years ago but really these watches were square, or round, but that's it. This market full of options that all pretty much look the same.
I want something different. Something that attracts the eyes because it's different, but also because it's elegant. I didn't want to do the design with sharpness or aggressiveness just for the sake of being different. I wanted the difference to be interesting, but subtle, but still recognizable. And so this is where we started to play with the designs.
The only way to do this was with an oblong shape; a round shape wouldn't work. I want it to be elegant, but also playful. The way I see it, you are sitting at one table, and another person sitting at an adjacent table would be able to notice the difference in design. And so it becomes something of an icon, that would also serve as an ice breaker, or a conversation starter. Innovation with elegance. [Editors Note: William is not overstating his design aesthetic here. Wolkov watches areeye catching even from a distance. It was one of the first things this editor noticed about William, even before knowing he was the author of the brand].
So for a Wolkov watch, it was about time, but also about unique design. So we want to start this next collection.
SmSh: Are you looking to expand the brand further down the line?
William: Yes, we'd like to expand out to other men's accessories. We'd like to give men more of a selection of how we can adorn ourselves. And I feel like going from timepieces to other areas of fashion makes more sense, than starting from hand bags and moving over to timepieces.
I have in mind many ideas like tea sets, cigar and whiskey boxes...
SmSh: What's with this limited edition run of watches you did with the most recent collection?
Within this collection, we have a sub-category design of watches that are only available this year. We call it the "Super 8". They have oversized numeral "8" designs that contrast with a background matte finish. It's elegant, but a playful spin on the concept of accessories that give the wearer some extra benefit, likeluck in this instance.
SmSh: Where can people view or purchase Wolkov watches?
William: Just this month, we now have permanent presence at a store in Shanghai called Tesoro, it's next to the Capella Hotel. We have our online presence (www.wolkov.design) as well, and soon we'll have a permanent presence in Hong Kong as well. It will be at the WAKE Concept Store in Tsim Sa Shui. They are more of a lifestyle concept design store, and I love this because I don't want to only be in Watch stores, these are the two major things happen this month.
And then in the future, to find a partner for an online retail in Europe. And from there, begin prepare designing for Collection #3. We might do another kickstarter, or perhaps start to consider looking for an investor so that we could scale up even further in the China market, and then globally.
A luxury watch back in the day was a form of investment, something that would gain value over time. So that's the plan... to gain value over time.