Switzerland Business Report 2017

Bally: A history of innovation and imagination

Bally has carved a series of indelible marks in the history of footwear for its pioneering and original endeavours

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 12:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 3:00pm

Country Business Reports interviews and articles by Discovery Reports

From crafting boots for Switzerland’s gold medal-winning Olympic team in 1948 to fashioning the fur-swaddled hiking boots worn by Edmund Hillary’s fellow explorer, Tenzing Norgay, when together they conquered the highest point of Mount Everest in 1953, Bally has carved a series of indelible marks in the history of footwear for its pioneering and original endeavours.

The company established its own research and development centre called the “Bally Lab” in 1927 dedicated to the exploration of innovative leather production processes and craftsmanship techniques. The lab has yielded such Bally classics as the iconic men’s Scribe shoe in 1951 – a cornerstone of the brand’s collection today that is handmade in 200 steps and takes six hours to complete.

In 1976, Bally diversified into clothing, bags and other leather goods and accessories for men and women. Within the next five years, it led the industry among the first luxury brands to pursue the post-reform Chinese market. This was followed by new stores in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon.

“Everybody loves Bally because Bally is reliable – a true name in Swiss quality that is never compromised,” says CEO Frédéric de Narp. “We see a massive opportunity for a brand like ours because if we continuously offer something better than the competition, the market comes to us. It’s important to look at the evolution of the future Bally market – where are they going and what are their expectations?”

To honour its heritage and to celebrate the history of its industry, Bally also built a museum in Schönenwerd to showcase artefacts that depict the evolution of mankind and footwear through the past 3,000 years. The Bally Shoe Museum, founded in 1942, is listed in the highly esteemed Michelin Travel Guide as one of the three best shoe museums in the world.

Braving-new worlds: a new era for Bally

The fast-moving global fashion industry, a US$3-trillion business accounting for 2 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, faces a number of challenges that also present tremendous potential for players quick enough to take action.

Mounting production costs, diminishing store traffic and increasing demands on pricing transparency may be hurdles, but evolving digital shopping channels fuelled by a growing consumer demographic of tech-reliant, on-the-go, younger buyers with specific tastes are also springboards for growth.

“The world is changing very quickly with digital platforms that bring transparency, and we in the fashion industry all have to step up our game,” de Narp says.

“Millennials are going to be the biggest spenders over the next 20 years and are rapidly transforming the definition of luxury. It’s all about experience for them and not about accumulating possessions anymore. They want the authentic, the real and the sustainable and are willing to pay the price. They want authentic brands and there’s nothing more authentic than Bally with our 165 years of unique Swiss quality and heritage.”

Armed with a best-in-class executive team and a new design direction, Bally began to revamp its global aesthetic under the leadership of de Narp – whose previous appointments at celebrated jewellers Cartier and Harry Winston led to the successful turnaround of these established brands.

Passionate about taking heritage brands a step further, de Narp’s track record of success stories and decades of expertise in international luxury now include Bally’s re-awakened identity – a transformative journey that began when de Narp took the reins in 2013.

“Bally is a known brand that has been in business forever, and my mission is to bring electricity and fire into the brand so that it invokes top-of-mind awareness,” de Narp says. “We are a truly Swiss brand of heritage following Swiss values: comfort, quality and functionality. Now we are fusing these together with modernity in design, through a co-creative collaboration with our great team of designers. The result is comfort and quality with a real modern take – and at the best price.”

De Narp recruited a number of creative talents to enhance the brand’s aesthetic trajectory. Design director Pablo Coppola – who previously worked with luxury brands Burberry, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen – helped revitalise Bally’s conservative and minimalist image as its design director from 2014 to 2016.

Bally also partnered with graffiti artist André Saraiva last year to design an accessories collection and a poster. Saraiva’s stick-figure character, “Mr A”, appears embossed on boots and leather goods for the brand’s Bally x André collection.

This decision reflects Bally’s legacy of creative and industry-leading collaborations over the years. From commissioning painters such as Otto Baumberger and Lise Berset to design the brand’s iconic advertisements in the early 1900s, to recruiting Swiss architect Karl Moser – known as the “Father of Modernism” – to design the Bally-Kosthaus, Bally continues to transcend fashion’s borders and amplify the brand’s voice in an era of evolving tastes and trends.

“You don’t have other brands with this kind of power,” de Narp says. “We are waking up at this moment and it is a massive entrepreneurial undertaking. It’s a project that’s fascinating and exciting, which everyone wants to be a part of. It is a human journey and a co-creative experience – a true entrepreneur’s project.”

Driven by the momentum and success of its turnaround over the past three years, Bally has set its sights on a new organisational strategy for this year and beyond. The brand will be focusing on developing the dual hubs of Caslano, Switzerland, and Milan, Italy, as its headquarters. Instead of a single creative director, Bally has adopted a “creative collective” model comprised of three design heads for shoes, accessories and ready-to-wear apparel – a move that is expected to foster inter-departmental collaboration and refresh the way the brand develops its collections.

A bright future illuminated by the past

Paying tribute to its modernist design heritage, Bally collaborated with David Chipperfield – renowned British architect behind the new Nobel Centre in Stockholm, Sweden – to conceptualise the latest Bally stores rolling out globally.

Inspired by a picture of a Bally store from 1921, Chipperfield’s store concept invokes elements from modernist architect Marcel Breuer’s original and historical Bally store design. A brass aluminium façade, red marble at the cash desk and a stock wall to display the latest season’s shoes characterise the brand’s flagship stores in London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and now Shanghai – which opened in September last year – offering an innovative retail experience.

“Bally’s historical archives are the strongest and best-kept secret of the whole industry,” de Narp says.

“Our roots inspire us to move forward, as seen in David Chipperfield’s work. We’ve recreated the brand’s original store atmosphere – welcoming, warm and home-like, yet luxurious, using marble and wood inspired by the Modernist movement of the early 20th century. Technology and innovation have been at the centre of this new development as well – most of our flagship stores are entirely wired and our shelves are interchangeable and detachable, making it easy to create a new environment.”

Bally may be a luxury brand riding the winds of change in an increasingly informal, young and digitalised world, but its archives continue to provide the wings it needs to soar high. For instance, the brand’s red-white-red stripe designed in 1939 has become an iconic and established symbol.

“Millennials are more relaxed and casual – they don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” de Narp says. “The Bally stripe, which is our strongest signifier, is extremely well-positioned to capture the casualisation of the world. In fact, we are thriving with our backpacks and sneakers category globally. Without question, we are in the right position to double the business over the next five to 10 years.”

Bally is also actively working to increase its women’s segment from 30 to 50 per cent by 2020 – an interesting throwback to the brand’s romantic origins, when founder Carl Franz Bally bought 12 pairs of lace-up boots for his wife in pursuit of a perfectly fitting pair.

“Bally’s moments of glory in terms of design and strength of popularity were back in the 1930s and 1940s – and the brand’s power of creativity and craftsmanship was remarkably expressed in women’s shoes,” de Narp says. “We discovered this in our archives and this is an exciting opportunity for us. I’m happy to report that we have seen a double-digit growth in women’s accessories over the past two years, for example – so I’m very hopeful.”

As it sails ahead into the future, Bally has also digitally redefined its stores by creating an entire online omnichannel experience for customers. Starting with six test stores wired with tablets and iPads in the United States, Germany, Switzerland – and soon, China – customers can order products straight from the brand’s inventory and have them delivered to their homes.

“I’m here to manage the company in a way that sets the foundation for its eternal evolution,” de Narp says. “Bally has been here for 165 years. I want to build very strong roots that will sustain the company over the next 165 years.”