After more than a decade working at the top of men’s fashion, Bruno Sälzer is nearly a year into his role as chief executive of womenswear brand Escada, and he’s feeling ambitious
German luxury brand Escada was once one of the world’s most dominant forces in womenswear. Its new chief executive, Bruno Sälzer, who took over from Jean-Marc Loubier in July last year, is hoping to recapture some of that magic and place the brand back where he feels it belongs, which means being mentioned in the same sentence as global fashion icons like Christian Dior and Chanel. Making the move from Hugo Boss, where he had held high-profile roles for 13 years, was a bold one, but the lure of Escada and the glamour of womenswear was irresistible.
“What attracted me was that it’s a very international brand, and still has high awareness, and in a way awareness is a prerequisite to being successful,” says Sälzer, sitting in the brand’s UK showroom in London’s West End. It’s a grey, wet Monday morning and Sälzer is dressed head to toe in black; the sky and his suit are in sharp contrast to the vibrant colours in the latest Escada collections.
Colour, he says, is core to the DNA of the brand and is one of the values that will be played up in the future as Escada attempts to refocus on its roots but deliver the aesthetic in a more contemporary fashion. “Personally, I think for the core values and heritage of Escada - colour, glamour, femininity, quality and fit - there is even more of a market now than there was in the past,” he says.
Established as a knitwear specialist in 1976 by husband and wife team Margaretha and Wolfgang Ley, Escada went on to enjoy huge success. In the style of the Irish thoroughbred racehorse Escada was named after, it galloped ahead in the market in the late 1970s, and following its flotation in the late 1980s, it acquired as well as launched a host of other successful womenswear labels including Kemper (which produced Cerruti 1881 womenswear under licence), Crisca, Laurèl, Apriori, St John and Badgley Mischka.
Tragedy struck in 1992 with the untimely death of Margaretha, the creative force behind the brand, at the age of just 56, when the last great recession was really beginning to bite. The company plunged into the red and began a restructure, divesting unprofitable activities and rationalising the business into clearer divisions. The Escada Sport line was launched in the mid-1990s and the development of accessories began in earnest.
A further restructure in 2002 led to the spin-off of secondary line Laurèl and other non-core brands into the separate Primera entity, which also includes BiBa, Apriori and Cavita. Primera has now been put up for sale to enable the group to focus on Escada and Escada Sport. “[Escada and Primera] are two very different businesses,” says Sälzer. “There is Escada and there are all the brands in Primera, and there are no synergies; different customer base, different supply chain, everything is different. It was just a participation, there was no active management from Escada’s board, it was 100% a subsidiary. We’ve started the selling process and we’ll see how it goes. How long this will take we don’t know.”
To aid the resurgence of Escada, a new creative director was appointed in October 2006. Valentino’s Damiano Biella was appointed to the role, bringing with him a high-glamour but more modern point of view. However, last month he stood down from the post. Biella remains creative consultant for the business and his influence will continue to be felt.
For autumn 09 Biella took his inspiration from opera singer Maria Callas and presented the collection under the legend “inside every woman there is a diva” (“Well, he is Italian,” jokes Sälzer). “The inspiration comes from a mix of 1990s and 1960s silhouettes, decades not normally associated with each other,” Biella says. “The range represents timeless chic, making women look better with interesting cuts in strategic places like making the bosom higher up. Or simple shapes with interesting workmanship like beading and pleats. “
The trick for Biella, and indeed for many heads of design at major fashion houses, is to attract a new generation of customer while not abandoning the faithful. Evidence that this is working is that younger stars such as singer Duffy and actresses Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes are fans of the label. “Escada is changing and we have new customers now. We didn’t used to be a ‘fashion’ brand but we’re evolving in the right direction,” he adds.
What is also important, says Sälzer, is that the brand takes its existing customers with it and gives them the confidence to evolve their look too. There is a hardcore that has stuck with Escada through thick and thin and is vocal in its opinions. “They complain and it’s a good thing,” he says. “I get letters saying ‘you’ve changed this and that’ and it’s a wonderful sign because they insist on having Escada. ”
The brand’s new, more contemporary take is evident in its stores and concessions. In the UK, one of the group’s top 10 global markets (the US, Russia and Germany are its top three), Escada has a standalone store in London’s Sloane Street, concessions in Harrods in London and Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, and a store at Heathrow Terminal 4. The Sloane Street store and Harrods concession have just had a makeover and are both trading up year on year, says UK managing director Denise Shepherd. “Clients who have been with us for years were really happy and have responded accordingly,” she says.
In terms of wholesale, in the UK and Republic of Ireland the mainline, which accounts for about 64% of the group’s €582 million (£542m) global sales, has 27 doors while Sport has about 43 doors.
Stockists include Michelle B in Nelson in Lancashire and Richard Alan in Dublin and Cork in the Republic of Ireland for Sport, and Angela Beer in Stockport in Greater Manchester and Fluidity in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire for the mainline. About 26% of UK and Irish sales come from the Greater and Outer London area, which Sälzer believes has the potential to grow to 40% of sales.
He sees the mainline sitting alongside labels such as Akris, Chanel and Christian Dior for couture, and Armani Collezioni and MaxMara for daywear. Sport, he says, sits alongside Hugo Boss and Marc Cain, while its sportier pieces are more akin to Boss Orange. Plans are also afoot to expand its UK retail operation with a further store for the mainline and the UK’s first Escada Sport store.
Sälzer also has ambitions to expand UK wholesale. “We have other concessions in discussion but the expansion should come from multi-brand wholesale.” That Sport and the mainline show four collections a year with 16 delivery windows a year should be a further attraction for UK buyers, along with the new modern handwriting, he says.
The global downturn will not knock the brand off course this time, although “it would be better if there wasn’t this crisis”, Sälzer says with a laugh. “The potential for a brand like Escada is there if we show a stable and predictable fashion that women like.” And, signs are that this thoroughbred luxury brand may well be regaining the form that will take it back to its winning ways.
Who in fashion do you most admire and why?
Tom Ford and the incredible Gucci story in terms of creativity, style and buzz.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
I don’t remember, but the most exciting moment was learning the womenswear business after working in men’s fashion for a long time.
What has been the best-selling product you have worked on?
The suit as the big picture for men, and in the future hopefully the dress as the big picture for women.
Which retailers do you most admire and why?
I admire all retailers who go for the innovative, and thus sometimes risky and unpredictable, especially in difficult times.
If you weren’t working in fashion, what would you most like to be doing and why?
I’d like to work in fragrances and cosmetics. That is also a business that is driven by a profound knowledge of beauty and a feeling for fantasy and sensuality.
2008 Chairman and chief executive, Escada
2002 Chairman and chief executive, Hugo Boss
1998 Executive vice chairman, Hugo Boss
1995 Member of managing board, Hugo Boss
1993 Managing director, Hairdressing International Hans Schwarzkopf
1991 Managing director, Hans Schwarzkopf
1989 Director of international sales, Beiersdorf
1986 Director of marketing and sales management training, Beiersdorf