Sônia Bogner

Sônia Bogner, the Brazilian-born model-turned-designer who helped her husband modernize the family business, died Wednesday morning in Munich after a long illness.

The cause of death was not revealed.

Shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband Willy, a two-time Olympic skier, Bogner, 66, helped to build upon the Munich-based skiwear and sportswear company that his family started in 1932. “Alongside her husband Willy Bogner Jr., the native Brazilian worked diligently to inspire and further the family company for many years. Her distinctive style set both national and worldwide trends. Her warmth and charm will be dearly missed. Sônia Bogner most recently served as a member of the Willy Bogner GmbH & Co. KGaA supervisory board,” the company said.

The couple used films and photographs — often shot by Willy, an acclaimed cinematographer, sometimes while skiing — for the company’s web site and in its boutiques to accentuate the performance elements of its skiwear and their carpe diem approach to life. Established by Willy Sr., the company was rooted in sports and began outfitting West German ski teams from its inception. Willy Sr.’s wife Maria revolutionized ski pants by creating slim-fitting, stretchy styles. Following Willy Sr.’s death in 1977, Sônia and Willy Jr. expanded into other categories, introduced the Sônia Bogner label and the snowboard-inspired Fire + Ice brand, and opened freestanding stores. With distribution in about 35 countries and 800 employees worldwide, Bogner’s annual sales are said to be upward of $300 million.

Born in Rio de Janeiro as Sônia Ribeiro, she left Brazil after earning her high school diploma at the age of 19 to join her actress sister Florinda Bolkan in Rome. She later studied English in Cambridge from 1971 to 1972 before returning to Rome for a sales apprenticeship at Valentino. That post turned out to be life changing after Maria Bogner visited Valentino’s Via Condotti boutique one day. Impressed with the Brazilian’s charisma, modernity and Latin flair, Maria recruited her as a model for the next Bogner Sport catalogue. As it turned out, the photographer on the shoot — Maria’s then 30-year-old son Willy — was equally taken by Sônia’s allure. Willy once said, “She couldn’t have cared less about sport, but watching her play golf was a delight.”

After meeting in July, the pair were married in December in the chapel of Mühlfeld castle, where Willy had his bachelor pad in Saarland, Germany. To describe their nuptials as “fairy tale” would not be overstating the occasion. The day’s light snowfall was the first that the Brazilian had ever seen. Valentino not only served as the best man, but he also designed the bride’s dress and dramatic white fox-trimmed hooded cape.

The designer Valentino said Wednesday, “She was a great friend, a lovely girl, sister of Florinda Balkan, when she moved to Rome. We gave her a job in the men’s boutique in Via Condotti, where she conquered everybody with her great smile! She also conquered a special customer, Mrs. [Maria] Bogner, who decided on the spot that she would be the perfect wife for her son Willy!”

“I made her wedding dress. I was a best man at her wedding,” Valentino said. “I am terribly sad. Her smile will always be with me.”

The newly married Sônia Bogner went straight to work in the family business as a sales assistant in Munich’s English House, meeting with Bogner clients one-on-one. She later took on the role of assistant to Maria, who was designing the collection at the time. The following year, Bogner traveled to the U.S. with her husband to help him launch Bogner of America. In 1979, Bogner succeeded her mother-in-law by handling the creative direction of the women’s collection.

Fluent in five languages — Portuguese, English, French, Italian and German — she was an easy conversationalist and encouraged and promoted a work-life balance. When asked what she despised most in the world, Bogner said “liars and snobs.”

In fall 1992, while was still the chief designer for Bogner Woman, she launched her own collection that included subtle accents such as floral linings and an easygoing style. The designer said she scouted airports, city streets, restaurants, cafés and bars “to get a sense for what women actually need.”

She was credited with infusing a well-received sense of urban modernity to the otherwise sporty Bogner style. While Bogner enlisted some of her well-known friends to appear in her label’s debut advertising campaign, she herself dressed the part. Her unofficial uniform consisted of a blazer, white shirt and jeans off-hours. “For me, every woman who knows herself and who dares to be herself is a Sônia Bogner customer,” she said. “There are still women who dress themselves up like a Christmas tree, but it’s getting better. Every woman has her own style and if she dresses as herself, she instantly looks and feels more beautiful.”

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