AFTER 150 YEARS in the footwear, accessories and leather goods business, Bally International has recently been going through some soul searching. Or rebranding, more precisely. The privately-owned company invested US$250 million in restructuring after being bought out by the Texas Pacific Group in 1999. And as the downturn in luxury goods continues to bite in Europe, the company has been focusing on the Asian market. Chief executive Marco Franchini was recently in Hong Kong for a whirlwind visit. He talked to The Informer about sales, image and his shoe collection. Q: What brings you here? A: Asia is a very important market for Bally. After this visit, I would be pleased to see it become well-developed. Korea . . . Taiwan are strong. We will have another tour in April, to Japan. And also, I would like to go to China. I learned on the street that Bally was the first European brand to be developed in China, pre-Cultural Revolution. We have 19 stores in China, we plan to open two more this year. Q: How are sales in China? A: For sure, I can tell you they are growing fast and we are very focused on the opportunity. Q: What about Hong Kong? A: I'm aware that Hong Kong is going through tough times, but Bally is still doing quite well. Q: What do you think of Hong Kong people's dress sense? A: I have been very impressed in Korea. I couldn't stop being impressed. Taiwan is the same. In Hong Kong, I'm less surprised compared to other countries in the world. Q: What's the aim of your rebranding? A: To try to really understand why Bally has been so important for its customers in the past. Our work recently was to find out the real quality of the brand - the brand value. Q: You worked at Gucci for eight years. How does it compare to Bally? A: There are a lot of similarities. But the direction at Gucci was that it wanted the most fashionable, trendy image. In Bally, we felt that the direction should be different. The approach has been to see what the brand really means. Q: What do you like best about your work? A: It's a challenge and it is extremely interesting . . . exciting. Really, every day I'm happy to be where I am and I really enjoy what I do. Q: And the downside? A: It's a lot of work. Unlimited. We try to be human to ourselves. Q: What are your best-sellers? A: Right now we have a men's line of luggage, which is leather, with a very distinctive shoulder strap in canvas. 'Trainspotting' we call it. It's been the best-seller for the last few seasons. In shoes, we have a kind of basic sports shoe, a sneaker, we call it 'Free'. It's a nice urban sports shoe. Q: Many luxury brands are benefiting from endorsements. For example, Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo made a killing from placements in Sex and the City. Which actress would you most like to see wearing Bally shoes? A: Cameron Diaz. Q: How many pairs of shoes do you own? A: Bally shoes, or all shoes? I have a few, for sure. The politically-correct answer should be that you don't need so many because they are so comfortable. Q: If you couldn't do this job, what would you do? A: I would like to be a chef. Q: What comes first, job or family? A: In my mind, family. My family - which is my wife - lives and works in London. I work in Switzerland. I see her once a week. Q: What do you like most about coming to Asia? A: I think it's very important for me as well as for the group to come because it really is another perspective of our business. We can focus too much on Europe. The market is different and the customers; there are some peculiar aspects. Q: Like what? A: It seems to me that it's like this area of the world lives in a different phase in terms of penetration of brands. There are more opportunities in this market than in the US and Europe. Q: Who is the average Bally customer? A: Aged from 30 to 45, and ideally somebody who appreciates quality first of all; somebody who would invest money in luxury goods, not for the purpose of showing off, but for satisfying particular needs. Q: Any plans to go public? A: It's not excluded.