Dressed for success

Luxury is a word synonymous with the Middle East and with close to 40 years in fashion, Werner Baldessarini knows a thing or two about opulent products. The former CEO and head designer of Hugo Boss tells James Bennett about his love for polished green apples, why crocodiles make good jackets and how his own brand is set to become a regional success

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By  James Bennett Published  May 11, 2006

|~||~||~|Some would say that starting your own business at the age of 57 years old is a decision that would lead to inevitable failure, but imagine if your doctor told you that you were going to live until the ripe old age of 120 – only then would you feel as youthful and as vibrant as Werner Baldessarini. The Bavarian-born fashion designer and former CEO and head designer of Hugo Boss for over 35 years, has just opened his first non-European branch of his eponymous luxury men’s fashion clothing brand in the Binhendi avenue section of the City Centre mall in Dubai. But despite being four years from the official retirement age, he remains as fresh as the 20,000 white ‘mumies’, as he calls them, or daisies, he imported and had hand-stitched onto a display board for the shop’s official launch. “I made the decision to go it alone four years ago at 57 years old. My doctor told me that I had a maximum of 120 years to live, so why not? Life is too short and I wanted my own business and didn’t want to work for a huge company anymore.” Despite turning over €70 million (AED311 million) last year, Baldessarini is extremely modest and calls his self-titled company ‘small’. He is confident that the exclusive brand can grow even further in a region where the luxury goods market is expanding at a faster rate than the number of new malls and commercial zones combined. “We have an excellent location, it’s a great area and people here want very expensive items, so you must have an area where people can spend their money. “People need special Baldessarini, there is no other fashion shop like ours. We make luxury items and when I see people’s cars here and the hotels they stay in, they love luxury things so it’s perfect for us.” Baldessarini proudly says he “does what he likes” with design and materials, not selling to ‘concessione’, as he calls it, or mass market retailers, and only caters for the luxury hungry customer. His products are certainly different. Every item is handmade in Italy, using only ‘natural’ products including collars made of grey fox and jackets made of python or eel lined with goatskin. Ironically, the use of these materials neatly fits into his motto that “luxury has nothing to do with reason”. This may not be to everyone’s tastes but the demand is there he insists. “We don’t care about price and nor do many customers. When you like a Bentley or a Rolls Royce you buy it anyway. The most expensive thing you can buy in the shop is a crocodile jacket for US $20,000 (AED73,460). When questioned over the meaning of his motto, however, Baldessarini backtracks slightly claiming that he had forgotten saying that in a previous interview. He quickly recovers though and explains that compared to water, luxury is not necessary in the grand scheme of things, but that it is “nice to have” and that it can be the “key to some people’s lives”. Interestingly, he adds that after being surrounded by glamour for almost 40 years, “when you are in the luxury market it is very difficult to get out”. On the issue of using animal skins and fur, however, he is more guarded, defending it to the hilt. “We are allowed to use these animals but the question is which animals can we use? We already use cows, so crocodile is okay. We have laws so it’s very clear which kind of snake you can and can’t have. I believe in the law. “We just use natural products. I hate synthetic, I hate it. The only synthetic I like here is when I felt the quality of the national costumes. I was astonished at the quality.” Backed by Mohi-din Binhendi, business entrepreneur, serial investor and director general of the department of civil aviation of Dubai, Baldessarini has one of the strongest financial partners in the region – and fortunately for him, Binhendi was a huge Hugo Boss fan. “We have very good contact with Mr Binhendi and this section of the mall was his plan. He’s worked for 15 years with Hugo Boss so he knows and likes the product so we feel comfortable with him. We believe in him and the market. It’s important to have a partner you believe in and we work well together.” A series of strong partnerships between himself and his employers has been a constant theme during Baldessarini’s long career, spent wholly at Hugo Boss, where he bizarrely says that he didn’t experience a single low point. “The experience was incredible,” he proclaims. "When I first started at the company it was very small making €15 million (AED66.8 million) and when I left it was making €1.3 billion (AED5.79 billion). When you see this difference you can imagine how great I feel. You can imagine how proud I was because we are German and Germany was not a fashion country before that time.” 35 years ago, men’s fashion was virtually non-existent, he says, but Baldessarini, alongside his tightly knit Hugo Boss team, knew that a gap in the market existed for a purely male but equally stylish clothing brand for slim, elegant and fashionable men. “Only women had access to high fashion then, so we set about only making items for men with very good figures, a very Italian looking man, very stylish and we didn’t make styles for large men,” he says. “We said to ourselves that we must concentrate on the younger generation and not on everything so we had a very clear focus. I was very hungry to take this on and this helps a lot in business.” A blend of passion for design and a hunger to push the brand to its limits saw Baldessarini move to the Hugo Boss’s management team in 1988 – an exceedingly patient 13 years after he began. However, after sponsoring a series of key sporting events, he explains that it was a particularly memorable event involving one of the 1980s biggest action film icons that was the business’s financial turning point, or ‘wendepunkt’. “Internationally, our key focus was sport. We sponsored sporting events very early such as Formula One, golf and tennis. But what helped us a great deal 25 years ago was Mr Sylvester Stallone. The ‘Rocky’ filmmakers asked us to give them an outfit for a particular scene. We gave them a sweatshirt with Hugo Boss written on it. “In this one and a half minute long scene there was a boxer dying in the ring. It was a really bad situation, but its impact on the brand was incredible,” he says almost jumping out of his seat. “This movie was successful worldwide. Whether it was a very good movie or not is debatable, but the impact and brand message it had for us was amazing. It was very strong for us,” he adds. From that moment on Baldessarini says the brand’s sales skyrocketed, but what he fails to mention is that his career also accelerated to new levels. From rising to deputy chairman in 1993 he then climbed to the top rung of the ladder and became CEO five years later. He says this was a great event, but adds that it was one that would alter his management style forever as well as withdraw him from a more creative role – the area he constantly craves to be involved in. “My management style has constantly changed over the years. I was always in an office, we say in Germany ‘the creative room office’, with all the creative people in one room. Then, once I became CEO, I had to leave to go into an enormous office with two secretaries. “After six months I felt like I was in an aquarium,” laughs Baldessarini, meaning to say he felt like he was trapped in a goldfish bowl. “My style is to be very open and speak very openly. Life is too short so you must go directly. Life is too short to not be direct all the time.” His style is so open that he accidentally becomes lost in translation and misinterprets the question: is there anything you would have changed in your career, to mean is there anything you would changes about your appearance? “After many experiences you become wiser inside and outside, you always become more professional, but I hope I won’t change my natural appearance. I hate to not be who I am,” he says as he looks up at his short, perfectly combed bright white Karl Lagerfeld-esque hair. After the confusion is cleared up Baldessarini claims to have no regrets, and rightly so. Why would a man who has been at the top of the world’s biggest mens fashion business want to change anything? “In the end I am a very happy guy because when you work you have fun, that should be the case for everyone, plus when we first started we had no money and we didn’t know where the next cheque was coming from, but we were very hungry to succeed.” Baldessarini says he has only sought to “do good” since the beginning of his career. This ties in with his brand’s main lifestyle collection symbol, a boomerang rather eccentrically packed in leather symbolising the fact that everything that goes around, comes around. But as he tells me he takes his inspiration from real life events and objects, a waitress steadily places a juicy-looking, polished, green Granny Smith with a ‘mumie’ planted in the top of the fruit on the table. Baldessarini has certainly saved his finest symbol until last. “In the Burj Al Arab I saw the king suite, it was incredible,” he shouts in his Bavarian/English accent. “500 square metres, the furniture was so dramatic and gold and red. I asked myself how can a person stay alive in this room? “This I don’t like. I like the green apple and a mumie. You must polish the apple, it’s so fresh and your mouth starts watering. Mr Lagerfeld originally sent me a mumie and now I always take this flower with me because it is so simple. “When you are in a room with this type of flower, as a person you stay alive, but when you have a dramatic flower you start wilting.” After speaking to him, now I really do believe Werner Baldessarini will live until he’s 120.||**||

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