Fogal poised for a renaissance, hunkers down during the pandemic
There is nothing like a centenary to focus attention on a brand, especially one on the mend, like Fogal, considered by many as the nec plus ultra of legwear.
Founded by Léon Fogal in 1921 in Zurich, the marque suffered a difficult second decade this century, but is now under a new ownership and management. As a result, it is definitely on the mend.
In December 2017, Edouard and Margaux Burrus bought control of Fogal, beginning two years of major restructuring that has left the house well-placed for a period of rapid expansion. Precisely at a moment, however, when the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world, and the entire fashion and luxury industry, to a dramatic halt.
Nonetheless, once this dark period ends, Fogal would appear to be right-sized for a true renaissance. So, we caught up with the Burrus and their highly-experienced creative director Jean-Luc Amsler for their take on the future revival.
“Fogal will be 100 years next year. It’s a marque of true quality, but one that ended up on its heels. But in the past two years we integrated a new IT system, to better control our supplies, production and reach our clients. And we have worked hard on optimizing our products,” explains Edoaurd, the CEO. His wife Margaux is co-chairman and chief communication officer.
Fogal products are made between Switzerland and Italy, and are produced in eastern Lombardy, around Castel Goffredo – known as La Città della Calza (which means "Tights Town" in Italian). Like all factories in Italy, those plants are currently closed, though Burrus is in talks to modify their current order and help in the production of surgical masks.
“This is not the time to think of competition. This a terrible ordeal for the world and for so many people’s health. Our first goal is of course to guarantee the health of our staff, partners, suppliers and all clients. We personally remain at home, with our children,” explained Edouard in a phone call from Geneva.
Switzerland has a less restrictive lockdown than its neighbours France and Italy.
“There is a confinement at home. Yes, it is a little lighter than France. But people are respecting it in that rigorous Swiss manner,” he noted.
Fogal remained family-owned until 1968, or six years after Léon Fogal’s death, before it was acquired by Zurich banker Walter Meier. In 2009, it was sold to Gaydoul, and achieved certain popular dazzle when Cary Mulligan wore Fogal in The Great Gatsby. Also, Catherine Martin won the Oscar for costume design for that film in 2013. However, a half decade later, Fogal found itself in serious financial difficulties before Edouard and Margaux stepped in.
Edouard is not unfamiliar with luxury. In 2015, Burrus and financier Philippe Camperio bought Borsalino, the Italian hat manufacturer. But he relinquished his executive position at Borsalino in 2017 to fully concentrate on Fogal.
“Borsalino is taking off again; and I am still an important shareholder. But now I concentrate on Fogal,” said Edouard, who was born in Paris but is Swiss and grew up in Geneva. After studies in Singapore and Boston, at Northeastern University, he completed an MBA back in Paris at business school ESSEC.
Margaux is Paris-born, but grew up in London and studied at the Lycée Français, in Kensington.
“What is important about Fogal is that from its first day, the brand was constructed with the best possible quality. We want to conserve those fundamentals, but also add new codes, those of 2020. We call it modernizing what is timeless,” explains Margaux.
Beside the smarter, revamped image, one can find new packaging – which is made of recyclable cardboard. After bringing on board designer Amsler, they noticeably altered the waistline. Previously, it was sewn in; now it is all done in one knit, making it largely invisible, flatter, wider and more comfortable.
The medium-term commercial strategy is to return to big department stores, a plan already in the works. Indeed, Fogal retails in Bloomingdale's and Saks in the US, and has a successful space at Tony Fenwick, in London. On the web, Fogal is sold on Luxury Legs and UK Tights, as well as department store sites like Saks. The brand also sells on its website. Plus, it is in talks with other e-tailers for Internet pop-up stores.
Currently, they have just one free-standing Fogal boutique in Zurich. The Burrus are also actively searching suitable retail spaces for stand-alone stores in London, New York, Paris and Tokyo.
Fogal began this year selling across 100 sales points worldwide. Its goal is to expand to 500-700 of those within three years, even if coronavirus will slow that progress somewhat. A mixture of poor management decisions and archaic design led to Fogal’s rapid decline in the past decade. Back in 2010, Fogal had annual sales of around €40 million, but by 2017, it had sunk as low as €5 million.
Aided by Amsler’s fresher vision and a powered-up website, the new owners believe Fogal can triple its sales within the next two years. After clearing out old stock, the trio took the new designs to New York, impressing buyers with their fresher approach.
The global market for legwear is estimated at $51 billion annually, and it’s a market in net progression. Prior to coronavirus, it had been expected to grow to $53 billion as of 2022.
“Mass brands had their moment of glory, fast fashion is fading. People realize the negative ecological impact and that is another reason they want to wear tights that last. A pair from Fogal just doesn’t run. Our tights have extraordinary resiliency,” said Edouard, taking a pair in hand and pressing his thumb hard into the mesh - without breaking through.
Somewhat curiously, Margaux sees Fogal’s main competitors as jeans.
“In terms of marketing, jeans are our competitors. A 35-40-year old woman often wears jeans and boots. Jeans cover a woman’s legs. But she still wears skirts with tights. What we want to do is accompany women in their lives, comfortably, with shapewear, if they have an extra kilo or two. We all do, really. Fogal is truly a legwear brand. Not just tights,” she insists.
Fogal has also been active in co-branding; partly for strategic reasons, partly for reasons of savoir-faire.
Like, for instance, with Sigvaris: Fogal has been working with the Swiss medical brand to create a new socks line that feature special colours designed for people with hypertension, those who travel and those who stand all day at work.
Fogal also linked up with Dries Van Noten for one of its shows. The former produced a capsule collection of opaque, multiple-coloured tights, sold for Fall/Winter 2019. The capsule was defined as Dries Van Noten by Fogal. Plus, Swarovski crystal-studded tights are in the pipeline for Fogal's 100th anniversary.
“We want a noble product, and we’d like to democratise legwear. We don’t sell for 5 euros, of course. Fogal had been for many years the reference in tights, but sadly that has faded. We want to see that phenomenon again internationally,” said Margaux. Machine-washable Fogal tights are priced at €39.90 – not unreasonable seeing as they can last a decade.
The duo hired Amsler after feeling a complementarity with him in terms of vision and taste. A noted creator in his own right, Amsler has done stints with designers of the caliber of Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Courrèges. He was also a creative at Smalto, and launched his own label in the '90s.
“I have always believed that tights are an integrated part of fashion. You can make the most beautiful dress in the world, but if the tights are wrong, that takes away a lot of the effect,” Amsler argues.
“Plus, I am Swiss, and this was a chance to go back home and concentrate on a Swiss brand,” he adds.
“We want to operate in the terrain of the myth. How a woman expresses herself, meaning not just as an object of seduction. We want her to emancipate herself and be on trend,” adds Amsler, who has even added houndstooth and Prince of Wales-print tights.
Innate entrepreneurs, the Burrus are deeply committed to Fogal. They haven’t taken a vacation since the summer of 2018, for their daughter's first birthday.
“We have a small team to relaunch a great brand. So, we see everything, and meet everyone, and do everything. Except when we wake up with our kids and when we dine with our kids. Otherwise, we are working. When we finish eating, we pull out our laptops and start working again,” smiles Edouard, hardworking as, well, a pair of Fogal tights.
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