Switzerland, the land of Bally’s new concept of luxury
Upon arrival at the helm of Bally, Nicolas Girotto dove right in with a major brand repositioning. Forget Hollywood glamour, today it’s all about chic “Swissitude” and lower prices.
By Cristina D’Agostino17 décembre 2020
With pop colors and vintage graphics, Bally is breaking away from its glamorous past. The ad features a pair of curling-inspired boots from vintage collections made in 1956 for the Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo. And for the past few days, the images of the legendary first ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953 have been playing on a loop. On Tenzing's feet, Bally boots worn to climb the 8848m peak. The Bally brand draws on its history and wants to demonstrate that Switzerland is the land of a new kind luxury, one that is chic, discreet, sustainable. We asked Nicolas Girotto, who has led the company for the past eighteen months, to tell us more.
You were appointed to head Bally in May 2019, after four years as its chief operations officer. Since you’ve mostly been out of the media spotlight, the public knows very little about you. How would you describe your professional career to date?
If there's one common thread, it's business transformation. Prior to joining Bally, I was head of finance for the Nuance Group, based in Zurich and a leader in airport duty-free distribution. I also worked with Italian fast-fashion retailer Conbipel after its acquisition by Oaktree Capital Management, and with global optical retailer GrandVision Group, where I began my career in 1997. I was lucky enough to work closely with its founder, Daniel Abittan. From him I learned the importance of customer service and excellence.
What was your impression when you arrived at Bally in 2015?
Bally has a fascinating history. It will celebrate its 170th anniversary in 2021. But the brand needed to rethink its positioning.
At that time, Bally was pushing for positioning in the premium segment, with glamorous and international communication. Was that part of what needed to change?
Indeed, Bally had successfully moved upmarket towards what I would call “absolute luxury.” But after careful analysis, the management concluded that the Bally brand did not possess the right characteristics to be a player in this sector. Bally has always had a democratic image and this positioning was hard to reconcile with absolute luxury. I joined Bally to set the transformation in motion. We decided to reposition Bally in a segment more in line with the brand's roots, a luxury that I would describe as accessible. We devoted valuable resources to reorganizing the supply chain, developing products and collections, planning purchasing and merchandising activities, and optimizing our retail portfolio. This served to improve profitability as well. As a private company, we do not disclose figures.
How would you define Bally?
Since 1851, Bally has been a brand associated with discreet, lasting luxury. We see ourselves first and foremost as shoemakers – footwear accounts for 45% of our sales – in addition to leather goods, which accounts for 50% of our turnover, and a ready-to-wear line which accounts for 5%. The latter may be small in volume, but it’s vital because Bally clothing allows us to define the brand’s attitude. And that's very important.
What brand do you consider to be your direct competitor?
Even though I don't like to define ourselves in relation to others, Salvatore Ferragamo is one I would name there.
Since 2008 Bally has been in the hands of a Luxembourg shareholder, JAB Holding. In 2018, there was talk of a sale to the Chinese group Shandong Ruyi Investment Holding, a leader in textiles and clothing in China. But then, nothing happened. Can you give us some more details and can Bally still define itself as a Swiss brand today?
The brand did engage in serious talks with the Chinese group Shandong Ruyi Investment Holding in 2018. But they did not end in a transaction. JAB Holding, our shareholder, is a Luxembourg conglomerate that is very active in coffee and food distribution.
So what is the rationale behind the holding’s stake in Bally?
A few years ago, JAB Holding created a luxury division, including Jimmy Choo and Belstaff brands. Since then, they have divested from those brands (editor’s note: in 2017 and 2018, respectively). The group has supported Bally for twelve years, and will continue to do so. And yes, Bally is a Swiss brand, with its headquarters, teams and part of its production located in Ticino. Its long history connects it to this country since time immemorial. A quarter of our workforce is in Switzerland. We are talking about 340 jobs out of 1,500 worldwide, including about 100 craftsmen in Caslano. Today, the interdependence between the production sites is obvious, as we the closures of certain sites during the COVID-related lockdowns have shown. Maintaining jobs in Switzerland in order to be able to react adequately is crucial.
What do you manufacture in Switzerland?
Most of our men's shoes, between 150,000 and 200,000 pairs depending on the year, are manufactured in Switzerland. The “made in Switzerland” label is very relevant and we certainly wish to preserve it. But we had to diversify, since not all the skilled labor we rely on is available in Switzerland. Our products are partly manufactured in Italy, Europe, and even China for certain materials. Historically, women's shoes are made in Italy. But we are looking for solutions to repatriate some of it to Switzerland, and you are the first to hear about this. Today, it is a strategic priority to have some of our production units in Switzerland. You should keep in mind that we manufacture 800,000 pairs of shoes per year.
What was the impact of this year’s global pandemic crisis?
Like everyone else, we have seen a decline this year, of around 23%. But in China we are recording double-digit growth week after week.
What is your average price in leather goods?
It is about 500 euros.
Have you lowered it?
Yes, by about 25%. We have engaged in some important price repositioning. This has helped us retain our local customers. It is a point that mattered even before Covid-19, and that is certainly fundamental today.
You say you promote Swiss luxury values. What are they?
Innovation, respect for the environment, discretion, humanism, these are Swiss values. And they define luxury in general today – a kind of luxury that is more sustainable, less gratuitous. I know that at times Bally has appeared somehow disconnected from Switzerland. But we have always been both Swiss and international. Bally opened its first store in Montevideo, Uruguay around 1890. The brand conquered China very early on, as early as the 1980s. We have a solid reputation there. Reconnecting Bally with Switzerland, with our values, is fundamental to us.
You are very much involved in Swiss art and with the artistic community. Is it a way to connect to your roots?
Yes, through the Bally Foundation for Art and Culture, which has existed for fifteen years, we run a program to help one Swiss artist a year. We have strengthened it through our collaboration with Museo dell'Arte della Svizzera Italiana (MASI) in Lugano. We choose a different theme each year. An artistic committee made up of representatives of Bally and MASI selects the artist. The latest award-winning artist exhibited at the museum was Gabriela Maria Müller with her work “Sacred Hearts.” This dialogue with the artistic, but also architectural community, is part of Bally's history.
What is your role in innovation?
We founded the Lifestyle-Tech Competence Center in Ticino, which brings together brands -- some are even competitors -- start-ups, tech players such as Microsoft, Accenture Switzerland, and the academic world (USI and SUPSI), and together we work on lifestyle-related topics, the idea being to join forces to promote innovation. Geographically the Ticino canton is ideally located between the fashion hub of Milan and the technology center in Zurich. It is interesting to attract important brands to Ticino for reasons other than tax advantages. We are also the main sponsor of the Fashion Innovation Awards. And what is more, we have developed programs in connection with start-ups, one of which has helped us improve our business forecasts using artificial intelligence. Then there is the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation, whose products finance 100% of our eco-responsible actions, including the cleanup of base camps in the Himalayas. Today, it is essential for a company to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Our quantified objectives in terms of ecological commitments are clear and have just been published. This is a global transformation, and it is one that I hold close to my heart.
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