A portrait of the company Bogner
BY SANDY STRASSER
Bogner has represented passion for sports and fashion for 80 years now. What began so modestly and with dedication by Willy Bogner senior and his wife Maria, developed into an international brand with the characteristic B zip over the course of the decades. With his success as skier, director and cameraman, who also produced racy skiing action scenes in four of the James Bond films, Willy Bogner junior and his Sônia have given the brand Bogner a face for many years. We met him in Munich for an interview and to review the history of the company.
Mr Bogner, the history of your company begins with your father, Willy Bogner senior, and his passion for skiing. Today, you are carrying on this heritage with your wife, Sônia. What was your parents’ idea behind founding their company in 1932 and what vision did they have?
Willy Bogner: At this time, ski sportswear was not so elegant. Actually, the clothes looked like hunting apparel. At that time, the type of materials that we have available today just did not exist. As a former winter sportsperson, my father more or less came from this metier. At that time, he had a ski shop and friends in Norway who made some of the best skis in the world. At some point he worked as an importer for them and initially sold these skis as a representative. When my mother came on board and had decided to build up a business together, she said: “Let‘s sell clothing as well”. It must be said that my mother was the creative one between them. She took care of topics such as design, the products themselves and their development. Then, they continued pursuing her idea and were always the ones who brought new products onto the market.
My parents‘ greatest and most courageous step was to bring colour into, what was until then, a boring mountain look. Fashionable aspects which were to attract women to the sport. On one hand functional clothing was necessary then as it is now, on the other hand they wanted to create fashion which was fun, which was nice to look at and allowed a particular playful choice.
And how is that today with you and your wife? Who takes on which area of responsibility?
W. B.: With us it is similar to how it was with my parents. As the feminine part, my wife is responsible for the ladies’ collection. I am responsible for the numbers and the communication. Until now that has worked very well.
At the Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Patenkirchen in 1936, the German team wore Bogner for the first time. Today that has not changed. Where do you think the reason for the fascination with your brand lies?
W. B.: As my father and I were participants of the Olympics ourselves, we always had a good and close connection with the Olympic committee, which, among other things, is responsible for the clothing. Then you know what it’s all about, what the criteria are in order ‘to be seen’. You have to know that the procession is the greatest media event in the world. Because of this, TV has an enormous potential. The team’s outward impression is therefore extremely important. Basically, it is the biggest designer competition time and again. International teams are sent into the running – in other words onto the catwalk in front of millions of viewers. Above all it is important that the athletes feel good in what they are wearing and that the Olympics officals, the country and all its politicians are proud and in the best case say: “Wow, the German team looks great again.”
Of course we are really happy that we can take on this important job again and again, and put in a lot of effort. It takes about two years until we have designed, discussed, improved and realised such a look – always with the goal of making the world’s best winter sporting apparel.
The athletes have worn the silver ‘B’ on the zip 18 times to date. This very special branding was created by your mother in 1955. Why was this such a coup?
W. B.: I never asked her what went through her head. But it was absolutely ingenious. Whether then or today – branding is one of the most important aspects in this quickly advancing world. The logo is therefore an important element for a brand.
In 1948 your parents presented another revolution: trousers made of stretch material. These stretch trousers were worn by stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Ingrid Bergmann. The so-called ‘Bogners’ even found their way into the dictionary in America. What idea did your parents have of good fashion and how did the stars of the time become aware of their clothing?
W. B.: The stretch trousers were a great risk, looking at it from a fashion point of view. The reason for gathering the courage to make stretch trousers was that they were extremely close-fitting and still are. Particularly the stars mostly want to be perceived as being sexy and attractive. And as it was the task of wardrobe artists and costume designers to search for the right outfits all over the world, our stretch trousers were in demand. My parents have also built up a great brand position here.
In 1972 they started working in the business full-time. A year later they decided to expand and set up the subsidiary ‘Bogner of America’ in Newport, Vermont. Why did you decide on America as a second location at this time?
W. B.: That was linked to the exchange rate, through which our export into the USA had become much more expensive. The solution was a production facility in a country with the US dollar. At the beginning we did this with a partner. Then my wife and I decided to go to the USA ourselves and further expand the facilities in Vermont. However, we had our showroom and our shop in New York. We were able to lead two lives – one in which we had business with international top people, and one in the country, far away from all the hustle and bustle. A week in New York is really enough for a while.
To what extent is the American market different from the European market? What challenges are there to be mastered where? Where are there opportunities?
W. B.: The main difference is the size. Concerning the variation, the different products and styles on offer, it is similar to Europe. But like all over the world, even the USA has different scenes. For example, they are not necessarily the same in New York as they are in Los Angeles. Every region has its own dynamic. Therefore you have to know exactly where which clothes are going. The customer in San Francisco buys differently to the one in Chicago. And you have to be more multilingual here of course. That is much more homogeneous in Germany.
In addition, branding has a greater significance in the USA than it does here. You can see this merely from the designers’ shows. For example, in Denver there is a big sports equipment trade fair where the entire branch gets together. You can see how the competition is set up and how good each one is. That is always very exciting. We try to present ourselves in the best way possible of course. Mostly through films, as we can bring the sports and mountain landscape inside with this media. Also, we often work with top athletes as we always have to prove that our products really work. You can do this really well with the world’s best athletes.
What relevance does the Asian market have for you?
W. B.: It has an increasingly larger relevance as the Chinese are the most well-funded target group, travelling all over Europe. The consideration of whether the search for the right partner should start or whether we should approach this ourselves requires a lot of effort.
And the structures are completely different. The network of people who are already established is extremely dense. They control the retail possibilities. You also have to meet the right people in order to move forwards. All of this is very complex and the language doesn’t make it easier. America was much easier for us as we grew up with English. For China, you have to have the people who can do all that and who understand the mentality. We are working on establishing ourselves there, as this is the largest future market. The further growth of Bogner will take place here. We have given ourselves a time frame of two to three years.
What is part of setting up a global brand if you want to be successful long term? What professional and human qualities are indispensable in your opinion?
W. B.: I always say one half is the product, the other the person. If you want to have the best product in the world, but don’t have the right people in the company, it’s not going to work. That’s also how it works in China. If someone there says: “That is our goal”, then it is realised that way. They just build 50 resorts in three years. Everything there goes more quickly. For us this is unimaginable.
What role do employees play in the success of a company?
W. B.: You can only realise what you are planning with the right employees. You have to build a unity with them. But first you have to find the right people and support their talents as necessary. That, and being able to lead a team is the most important job of an entrepreneur. Only when the employees feel good, do they step on the gas pedal.
Every year, over 3,000 new models are designed in your studios. Please describe the DNA of your products and the philosophy of the Bogner company.
W. B.: Diversity is our greatest strength. That is why the brand itself and the product are important. Our customers completely trust us regarding trends, as we are two years ahead of the consumers. So the brand promises play a large role – that you still feel well-dressed in three years time and it reflects your own personality.
Where do you take the ideas for new collections from? What do you lay great value on when realising the ideas?
W. B.: We create around 1,700 models per year. At the end, we come to over 70,000 variations. What target group you want to attract and how the price structure should be are important factors for this. We know, for example, that the Russians shop differently to the French or the Chinese. Where a particular article could be successful is already discussed at the beginning of a collection.
In principle our collection is split into three groups. The first are the ‘Basics’, which hardly change. The second group is called ‘Variation’. That is the main part of the collection, which reinterprets the basic idea of the look, but is technically not constructed much differently. Third of all the ‚Revolution‘ comes into play and that has to include something completely new.
Licensing lines in bags, shoes and even jeans and eyewear are gaining increasing significance for you. How do you master the enormous logistical background in order to constantly maintain an overview?
W. B.: That’s only possible in a structure where all the threads come together. This only occurs on different levels, but that’s why you have a team. Of course I have no idea what anyone is doing at the moment and what he is working on. You cannot be at 600 workstations at the same time. But there are so-called checkpoints where you can look at the results. The designers and heads of division do this. They have regular meetings, where they get an exact overview of the development of the collections. Following that is the presentation of the results and then the decision is made together on how things will proceed.
How do you manage the transition of your existing brand communication into the digital world of tomorrow?
W. B.: We were one of the first brands to digitally communicate. That came as a result of my film work. Visual communication has always played a large role for Bogner. We are a brand which moves and which therefore has a lot to do with motion picture media. In this respect the development suits us and doesn’t worry us in the least.
At the current time you are represented by more that 170 stores in more than 30 countries in the world. Even president Putin wears your clothing. Where is the journey to take you in the future? What countries do you still want to take on?
W. B.: As already mentioned, the development and expansion in the direction of Asia is the main topic currently. But of course also the optimisation of all existing markets. We are far from reaching where we want to go, as in addition to our function as manufacturers, we would like to improve the overall chain right up to the consumers.
In whose hands would you one day like to leave your company to have your heritage carried on?
W. B.: We are getting Alexander Wirth on board as a new Manager in our team. He is currently the CEO of Ralph Lauren Germany GmbH and has been in management positions at Burberry and Rene Lezard. At the beginning of the coming year he will begin with us as COO and deputy CEO and after his training period he’ll take over the position of CEO. I am delighted that we have found a real management personality with international experience and sporting spirit. Together, we will continue to positively shape the over 80-year-old success story of our company.
Willy Bogner was born on 23 January 1942 in Munich. There and in Vienna he studied Business Management. Additionally, he completed a degree in Clothing Technology in Hohenstein. As a sportsman, he was just as good as his father, the successful skier Willy Bogner senior: as a 16-year-old he had already been German youth skiing champion, and at 17 he was the first German to win the famous Lauberhorn race. In 1960 and 1964 he was a member of the German Olympic team. In 1972 Willy Bogner joined his parents’ company and followed in the career footsteps of his father. Today, Bogner is one of the leading international lifestyle brands in skiwear and sportswear.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q4 2015. Picture credit © Copyright by Bogner