Boosting Bruno Magli

After eight decades in business, Bruno Magli’s new owners, Marquee Brands, believe their path is well-defined.

“Quality and craftsmanship is what the brand is about,” said Mia Rothstein, senior vice president of brand management, “so we don’t want to or need to reinvent ourselves — we just need to build on what’s been strong and make it better.”

After changing hands several times in the past few years, Bruno Magli is introducing women’s footwear in the fall and expanding into new categories, including women’s and men’s timepieces and men’s tailored clothing, as well as women’s handbags. Rothstein said the company is leveraging Bruno Magli’s “very high brand awareness.” She waved away any possible stumbling blocks in the course of the brand’s history. “I think from a customer perception, they don’t realize what happened behind the scenes, which is very positive, so they just sort of stopped seeing so much [product] in the marketplace. From the design perspective, some were strong seasons, some were more fashion, some were not.”

Rothstein said Magli was “like any other great brand that has had its ups and downs and management issues.” The brand was dented by “nothing other than lack of attention, marketing or brand management.”

Enter Marquee Brands to support the company’s growth and give it proper focus.

“We’ve already seen a positive reaction, and there is a connection to the brand,” Rothstein contended. “People may not have seen any of it, but they know of it and think of it in a positive way. The marketing done to date and in the upcoming seasons will bring the recognition back. Customers associate the brand with beautiful product and really start to connect with it on another level.”

In January 2015, Cory M. Baker, chief operating officer of Marquee Brands, and partner Michael DeVirgilio, president of Marquee, acquired the Bruno Magli label and related intellectual property assets from Bruno Magli SpA. Marquee is an acquisition, licensing and development company sponsored by Neuberger Berman Private Equity. It was founded in 2014, and Magli marked Marquee’s first acquisition; it has since taken on Ben Sherman. It has a goal for Magli of sales around $450 million within four or five years.

The purchase followed nearly two decades of uncertainty for Bruno Magli, during which time the company, founded in 1936 by siblings Marino, Maria and Bruno Magli, underwent an extended game of musical chairs with owners: In 2001, Luxembourg-based investment fund Opera acquired a controlling interest from the family; in 2007, it was sold to U.K.-based private equity fund Fortelus Capital, and in 2014, it was acquired by Da Vinci Invest AG, a Swiss fund. Around April 2004, the brand’s U.S. unit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which it exited in January 2005.

Rothstein emphasized Italy’s craftsmanship, since this is a true “Italian story,” in the words of Samuele Mazza in his 1996 book “Magli: Storia e Immagini di una Dinastia” [“Magli: History and Images of a Dynasty”]. The story originated in Bologna, in the Emilia region. Luigi and Cesarina Magli had three children, Marino, Bruno and Maria. “Already when they were children, the three siblings frequently went to the workshop of a shoemaker who encouraged them to carry on the craft according to standards of quality that were carved in stone,” Mazza wrote. “The Magli fairy tale began with capital of 35 lire and a small shop in the basement of the family home, where Marino, Bruno and Maria [began working]. The oldest [child] made insoles, the middle cut leather and the youngest sewed uppers.” The business further developed after their father invested his life’s savings in machinery and tools.

After World War II, the Maglis opened a large warehouse and hired 250 workers, with ambitious plans to export the brand in Europe and open boutiques in Italy. The first shop opened in the heart of Bologna in 1951 on Via Ugo Bassi. In the Fifties, the shoe factory added the men’s line and moccasins, which became bestsellers. In 1969, a new manufacturing plant opened in Bologna.

A generational change took place after that, when Morris, son of Marino; Sandro, son of Bruno, and Mauro, son of Maria, became even more active in the company. Morris took on administration and production; Sandro led sales and product, and Mauro spearheaded the expansion of the stores in Italy.

Fast-forward to today: Marquee Brands is reassessing its distribution. “We have key partners in regions that have historically supported the brand, and wholesale and retail opportunities,” Rothstein explained, noting the company has a “tremendous business in Korea, which continues to thrive,” with 30 stand-alone stores and 50 in-store shops.

Starting this fall, Bruno Magli will roll out more stores in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Ensuring the right location is a priority, observed Rothstein. “We are committed, but it’s not that we want to have thousands of stores — and the first stores are so important,” she said, adding that a balance between retail and wholesale is key.

In July, Bruno Magli said it had inked partnerships with Sitoy Retailing Ltd. in China and with Bruno Magli Partners Co. Ltd. in Japan, to develop its business in China and Japan. Besides wholesale distribution, Sitoy is opening the first Bruno Magli in-store shop in the Sogo department store at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong this month. Also, at least 15 monobrand stores are scheduled to open throughout China. In September, Bruno Magli Partners Co. Ltd. will launch an online store in Japan, historically a solid market for the label. Bricks-and-mortar stores are slated for 2017 and beyond.

The brand’s online store, which launched in September 2015, “continues to grow,” Rothstein said, and the plan is to have localized e-commerce in Japan, China and Europe by the end of this year.