Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 06/09/2011

It’s been 14 months since Joachim Beer signed on as president of global fashion and retail for Victorinox, the brand known worldwide for the Swiss Army knife.

This story first appeared in the June 9, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Since coming on board in April 2010, the former head of Hugo Boss’ U.S. business has worked to reposition the line into a full lifestyle collection, one that complements its long-standing strength in technical outerwear. Wholesale distribution is being expanded, there’s a significant retail rollout in the works and Beer has signed British designer Christopher Raeburn to create a capsule collection of men’s and women’s wear for fall.

“It’s been a rough walk,” Beer said of his tenure at the brand. “But we’re now at the [start] of our growth path. Over the past 12 months, we’ve changed the collection and repositioned it as a European sportswear brand.” There are now six deliveries a year instead of four, with a focus on the spring, summer, Father’s Day, fall, winter and holiday seasons. “An entry-level luxury brand doesn’t need 10 collections a year like the fast-fashion companies, but six is necessary,” Beer said.

In addition to the frequency, other changes to the apparel offerings include expanded classifications, improved quality, updated color selections and different weights. Shortly after Beer joined the company, creative director Pierre-Henri Mattout exited and was not replaced. Instead, the collection is designed by a “multicultural” team in the company’s offices in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.

“Fall ’11 was the first under our new design team,” Beer said, “and we got very positive feedback. We sold 51.1 percent more — and the base wasn’t small. So collectionwise, we know we’re correct.” He said that previews of spring 2012 are also receiving “extremely positive feedback.” He said retailers are responding to the “fresh color” palette, “signature details and functionality” of the collection.

As an example, he pointed to a navy “traveling jacket” that is water-repellent and features lots of pockets and other details — the “hidden secrets,” according to Beer — but is still classic enough to be worn to a business meeting.

Outerwear has been a mainstay of the collection for years, and represents 40 percent of the company’s apparel sales, but the performance of other apparel categories has been spotty. “Our outerwear and knitwear were good,” Beer said, “but the rest of the collection fell apart. Our jerseys are strong, our bottoms have gotten better and now we’re offering good cut-and-sewn shirts and wovens, which is where we see our biggest potential.” The company also offers fragrances, watches, travel gear, pens and, of course, knives. “We’re offering more accessories and fun things,” he said, “things that create a twinkling of the eyes. We need that.”

Now that its collection is in good shape, the company is turning its attention to retail.

Right now, the company operates the SoHo store, an outlet at Woodbury Common in Central Valley, N.Y., and a factory store at the distribution center in Monroe, Conn. There are also stores in Germany, London, Geneva, China and Japan and Hong Kong, as well as in-store shops in Taiwan.

“Last year was a consolidation period for us,” Beer said, noting that Victorinox opted to close a store at the Jersey Shore Premium Outlets in Tinton Falls, N.J., that was a poor performer. Next week, the company will shutter its SoHo store on Prince Street off West Broadway and relocate in the fall to 114 Wooster Street near Chanel, Barneys Co-op and the reported downtown Tiffany unit. “That will put us in the middle of where the customer is,” Beer said.

Beyond that, the company will open a new unit in The Westchester Mall in White Plains, N.Y., at the beginning of July; a unit operating there currently will close at the end of the year.

That will be followed by a 4,200-square-foot flagship at Copley Plaza in Boston in July. “And we just signed a deal for the Beverly Center [in Los Angeles],” Beer revealed. That too is slated for a fall opening. Outside the U.S. borders, a store on Bloor Street in Toronto is expected to open in late fall.

In January, Victorinox opened a 5,500-square-foot store/showroom in Düsseldorf. That three-story store, with its smoked oak accents, and “sexy” displays for cutlery is being used as a model for the other new units. The company’s eight Hong Kong units will be updated to reflect that design.

Beer is also beefing up the company’s wholesale business and it will show in an expanded way at Pitti Uomo in Florence next week, followed by Bread & Butter in Berlin and the Project show in Las Vegas.

Victorinox is currently sold at major department stores such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and, for fall, the brand will be sold at select Lord & Taylor stores. It is also sold at over 200 specialty stores.

One initiative that Beer is keen on for fall is the capsule collection being designed by Raeburn. Tying into Victorinox’s roots with the military, the U.K. designer is producing a seven-piece capsule collection — a total of only 100 pieces — called Remade in Switzerland. The line, which is being produced in the same house where the founder created the original Swiss Army knife, is being produced from military surplus fabric, or dead stock. Jackets are being produced from old sleeping bags and parachute fabric and Swiss wool blankets are being used for scarves, for example. The collection will be sold at Ron Herman in L.A., Scoop in New York City and the company’s own stores beginning in September.

“We hired Christopher for a one-shot deal, but we expect the collaboration will continue,” Beer said. “It’s really creating a lot of buzz.”

Beer declined to reveal a volume figure for the privately owned company, which was founded by cutler and businessman Karl Elsener in 1884, but said it is profitable.

“Swiss companies don’t speak about money,” Beer said with a smile, “but the company is well-funded, it’s a good size business and we want to grow it.”