‘We get people thinking all sorts of things,’ says Bernd Hake. ‘In the UK it gets seen as an American or Italian brand. Go to France and people think it’s British. It seems that lots of consumers don’t even know that Hugo Boss is German – but then Germany has never been a focus for premium or luxury brands in fashion. It’s always been about cars. But that has helped: it’s allowed us to build the brand slowly. To make it in this business you have to be consistent in quality above all, and you can’t have that if you’re rushing.’
The power of advertising
To say that Hugo Boss has made it, as Hake, managing director for Hugo Boss in the UK, suggests, is something of an understatement. Some people may be unclear on its origins: that 90 years ago next year a tailor called Hugo Ferdinand Boss set up shop in Metzingen, near Stuttgart, with a thriving business making workwear and uniforms by the time he died in 1948. In 1967, the business was acquired by Boss’s grandsons Uwe and Jochen Holy and began its ascent, in part through shrewd business moves, being one of the first major menswear manufacturers in Germany to modernise its production facilities and to learn the power of massive advertising campaigns. From here, the brothers began making more youthful, fashion-conscious, dark and slick suiting from lighter Italian fabrics.
Even more people are unclear on the sheer size of the company; its 622 shops worldwide aside, the company has a turnover of some €2bn, which it expects to increase by another billion over the next four years. That is what comes from helping to define the ‘modern classic’ sensibility of grown-up urban style today: some will recall Boss Man, the dress-to-impress, mid-1980s media-made stereotype of the perfectly groomed, assuredly successful international man, his jaw square, his suit business-like without being boring.
‘The brand was particularly smart in following the interests of that new male luxury consumer, who wanted smart, innovative clothes without them being too funky or fashion-forward,’ says Hake. ‘Boss Man today might be the likes of a George Clooney – which is to say he’s very masculine.’
Clothes aside, Hugo Boss has been careful to keep its image masculine, too, through its sponsorship associations with the likes of Formula One, sailing, Davis Cup tennis and the Guggenheim’s art prize, established back when fashion brands rarely made such ties. Hake reckons that, with advertising and shopfronts added to the mix, most city dwellers are exposed to some kind of Hugo Boss message once a week. ‘People know the power of the brand,’ as he puts it.
Of course, the company has since found a softer aesthetic as well, launching sports and golf collections, fragrances and accessories lines and, above all, womenswear, now a €200m-a-year business in itself and set for considerable growth. It developed separate brands at different price points, including a luxury one named after Werner Baldessarini, the company’s long-time design chief, extending the company’s reach but also ensuring that the cachet of its top lines was not diluted. It moved some production to eastern Europe, yet ensured that the more complex finishing was carried out by experts in Germany.
One might even say, in keeping with Hake’s notion of German design being traditionally limited to the car, that Hugo Boss’s growth has been carefully engineered. ‘Certainly we have a heritage and heritage is all the more important now,’ says Hake. ‘In a recession people turn to what they know; they’re less experimental in their choices.’ And for all that ‘German fashion’ will always be oxymoronic for some, its characteristic rigorous lines, monochrome palette and its seriousness seem particularly timely.
‘We’re certainly not loud. We’re not into big logos,’ concedes Hake. ‘It’s a characteristic German style to be understated, which works for a lot of our business customers especially – you don’t want to be walking into a boardroom flashing labels. In fact, in Germany Hugo Boss is perceived as being very much about classic style, one that leaves the very fashion-y looks to the Italians. But that classicism is done well. And Germans are certainly proud of that.’