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Bally’s Fashion Turn

Bally tapped Brian Atwood to breathe some glamour into the 156-year-old brand.

Nothing seems to fluster Brian Atwood.

Sitting in the wood-paneled offices above Bally’s showroom in west Milan, the Switzerland-based luxury brand’s first creative director in six years is describing his debut men’s collection, fleshing out details of his fondest pieces. A smile breaks when he recalls a suede-backed linen jacket. He gets an even wider grin when he talks about when the collection will be shown to the press and buyers here on Monday, June 25.

“You’ll see a definite change in the look of the collection—oh, you’ll know for sure,” he says with a laugh. Bally tapped Atwood, hired in February, to breathe some glamour into the 156-year-old brand, founded as a high-end shoe company in 1851, in Schönenwed, Switzerland. The private equity fund Texas Pacific Group, which also owns Neiman Marcus, bought Bally in 1999.

“Up until now Bally has been the quiet lamb,” says Atwood. “It had such a long history of heritage and quality—that was something from the beginning that I didn’t want to change … I want to emphasize it, make it current and tweak it more, just turn up the volume a little bit, letting people know that this is definitely a player in the fashion business.”

For Atwood, a former design assistant at Versace who went on to launch his eponymous footwear brand, the role at Bally hits every design facet. He oversees men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, footwear and accessories lines, as well as creative direction for advertising campaigns.

When the 39-year-old Atwood started at Bally, he expected resistance from the design team. Designers have egos, cautions Atwood with a smile. But it’s been easy going so far, due in part to his sunny nature, he confesses, but also because Bally’s management is committed to changing the brand’s design ethos.

“Before, Bally was a merchandising brand, and that’s what the designers had to do to get it to this point. Now they are ready to take a chance, to make it become a design-led company, and that’s exciting,” says Atwood.

Born in Chicago, Atwood arrived in Milan when the fashion scene was entrenched in the supermodel-drenched, luxury-good-flaunting ’90s. After graduating from FIT he worked as a catwalk model until Gianni Versace hired him in 1996 to assist Donatella on the Versus rtw line. His tenure at Versace lasted five years—where he rose to chief designer for women’s accessories.

In 2001 Atwood broke out with a sexy, Hollywood-friendly women’s shoe line. The namesake collection, which Atwood continues to design today, showed off his sweet tooth for glamour and towering heels—or “one-twenties,” referring to a trade abbreviation for height in millimeters equivalent to around 4 3/4 inches.

Although it may seem Atwood cut his teeth on footwear, he underscores the fact that his experience goes beyond soles and leather uppers.

“I started in women’s rtw, I can drape, I can do flat pattern if I have to. A lot of people don’t know I can do that,” he says.

While Atwood’s brand gained traction, Bally found itself in the midst of a strategy overhaul in 2002. New management, headed by CEO Marco Franchini, steered the company back into profitability. Franchini spearheaded a plan that included boutique revamps, a pruning of stores and a brand identity push toward a more luxury, sportswear feel. It took just two years to turn the brand around to break-even. Since then, says Franchini, Bally has achieved double-digit sales growth annually. Earlier this year Atwood was brought in to take Bally to the next level.

“At this stage, adding a creative director will give [more] spirit to the brand. All the infrastructure is firmly in place. Brian Atwood will help us make a stronger statement about the brand identity,” says Franchini.

Though Bally doesn’t release sales figures, the company said its business is divided equally between men’s and women’s. Shoes represent 55 percent of sales, other leather goods 35 percent and rtw 10 percent.

Bally’s store revamps are still under way, and aside from refurbishing approximately 80 stores plus 200 franchises, it has begun cutting ribbons on new doors. This year Bally boutiques will open in Basel, Berlin and Beijing.

Franchini also reckons the “Brian Atwood effect” will help maneuver better retail space in the U.S. Atwood’s position adds “additional opportunities in department stores, where we are already present with our footwear, but it will move things faster when we propose a 360-degree, full lifestyle brand in the future,” says Franchini. Bally’s lifestyle will eventually encompass licenses, says Franchini, adding he would start looking into watches, eyewear and fragrance deals in 2008. Atwood can see Bally translating easily into sunglasses too, and he won’t rule out a runway show somewhere down the road, but first there’s a new brand message to put out and get in the fashion world’s consciousness, he says.

Since his arrival he’s designed Bally’s cruise collections, but Atwood’s litmus test comes this week when his men’s line bows during the Milan collections. For spring Atwood found inspiration in the 1976 film Lifeguard and the work of photographer and artist Peter Beard. The Bally man will have a new personality, promises Atwood, a “relaxed elegance that’s by the beach in Malibu.” The easy sophisticate is still luxury, he assures. He’d wear “a washed-gray silk suit with a T-shirt, a belt made from woven, hammock-style cord, and hand-tooled leather sandals with riveted studs.”

Atwood’s more than content with how the collection evolved. “It just came right out of me smoothly—it was great, everyone was on the same path.”