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How a Designer Brings a 1920s Tailoring Brand Into the Digital Age

By Terence Poh

German designer and fashion industry veteran Ingo Wilts is the chief brand office of Hugo Boss.
 
Yu Cong
German designer and fashion industry veteran Ingo Wilts is the chief brand office of Hugo Boss.

Like most industry greats, Ingo Wilts’s early career in fashion followed a conventional path that prides itself on decades of hard work and perseverance. Born in the town of Leer, in north-west of Germany in 1965, Wilts’s youth converged with a time when the internet and social media platforms were a fantastical pipe dream; transmission of news, ideas, and information was predominantly a prolonged undertaking, taking days or weeks on end, traversing across land and sea.

Wilts studied visual marketing and fashion design in his youth, which led him to take up various internships in fashion, before starting his professional career in 1991 as an assistant for sportswear at Henri Vetter. Wilts does not hesitate to credit his first job at Hugo Boss in 1997, where he held a product manager position for the Boss Black label, as the turning point in his career. Since then, the designer has branched out and embarked on various appointments in the fashion industry.

The 54-year-old designer’s partnership with Hugo Boss has seen a few starts and stops. Returning to Hugo Boss for the third time in 2016, the designer and industry veteran now holds the reins as the chief brand officer and is also a board member of the German luxury fashion house. Offering a glimpse into his state of mind, Wilts shared that his return to Boss in 2016 was marked not only by a new digital era, but also a new pace in the design process, almost completely divorced from the previous decade. “When I came back in 2016, the world of fashion had changed so much. Social media [is] something, which is much more important,” he acknowledges. His work at Boss today demands an entirely new set of knowledge on utilising digital platforms, and it also forces one to adapt quickly or face losing out to countless brands and competitors that have emerged from the great internet revolution. For one, there are virtually no borders now, and Asian and Western markets converge on a global e-commerce platform, creating countless consumer segments with eclectic spending patterns.

Tung PhamBoss jacket, shirt and trousers.
Boss jacket, shirt and trousers.

However, Wilts comes across as well-informed and discerning of the differences between Asian and Western markets. “I think the Asian market adopts fashion much, much faster than the European or other markets. ... They go into trends much faster and much bigger than other markets, for example,” he points out. The Chinese market, for one, still remains the top priority for any fashion house looking to expand and harness the spending power of the burgeoning Chinese consumer base, and ultimately gain an edge over competitors who are rushing to do the same.

No stranger to the prospects of the Asian market, the brand’s first-ever 3D fashion show was streamed live in Beijing back in 2012. For the Pre-Fall ’20 collection, Boss returned to China, this time to Shanghai, the nation’s biggest city and commercial hub that is quickly becoming one of fashion’s most favoured Asian venues to present their work. Held in the artistic hub of Tank Shanghai, formerly home to oil storage tanks, the show, titled “Boss loves Shanghai”, welcomed 800 international attendees, including international film stars Henry Cavill and Wu Chun.

“You have to stand out from the other brands while still believing, also, in your heritage.”

Wilts shared his sentiments regarding the colossal shift in the way businesses work in the digital age. Brands are ever aware of the need to keep pace with the constantly changing digital landscape that is offering a wealth of sartorial options online for the modern man. With cultural shifts towards more easy and functional dressing for expeditious lifestyles and professional duty, men today no longer buy as many suits, let alone the luxury selections that have defined and distinguished the Boss house code from ordinary tailoring since the 20th century. Rather, men fill their wardrobes with garments that can serve in multiple, diverse occasions; it is, then, up to brands to offer pieces to accommodate such a way of life.

“In the past, we were thinking about a nice product. But now, we think digital first.” He continues, “You have to stand out from the other brands while still believing, also, in your heritage,” cluing us in on the three key values of Boss today — precision, ambition, and diversity. “We do it very precisely, especially in our tailoring,” he says, describing the quality of product engineering at Boss in creating luxury clothing that lasts, which ultimately sets the foundation for the level of ambition in designing a range of multifunctional apparels. “Then, you also have all the technologies these days... Fabrics have more stretch, more comfort.” Wilts adds, “You do suits, maybe, in different fabrics, which are much more comfortable than what you had in the past.”

Tung PhamLeft: Boss jacket, T-shirt, trousers and shoe. Right: Boss sweater.
Left: Boss jacket, T-shirt, trousers and shoe. Right: Boss sweater.

Back in his first Autumn/Winter ’17 collection shown in the United States, Wilts had already focused on tailoring while riding on the booming athleisure trend at that time, notably styling turtlenecks under suit jackets and utilitarian trench coats to achieve the popular “sport coat” look. Continuing his efforts to delineate what the modern Boss label means, the latest Spring ’20 ready-to-wear collection, staged in Milan, treated us to minimalist outerwear and suiting. Wilts brought sportswear and luxury together with even greater cohesiveness, particularly in the majority of tone-on-tone looks that worked beautifully on the runway in a train of colour-coded successions, shedding conventional suiting expectations of Boss. In addition, soft leather jackets and coats in shades of white, beige, blue, and black are promising classics that, although nondescript, serve as sleek wardrobe staples across the board.

Tapping on the best parts of Boss, Wilts reformulates them with sensitivities of our time by marrying trend, luxury and heritage to dress a diverse generation that is seeking functional wear that doesn’t come across dated or old-fashioned.

Wilts is a man who walks the walk. His personal style and visage also embody the modern Boss man. He candidly draws on his own outfit to exemplify the new design language he is expressing for the label: a pair of drawstring pants, which he understands to be “typically from athleisure”, paired with a “double-breasted [jacket], or with a sweater” to pull together the look, while keeping with the formal tailoring that Boss is known for.

Tung PhamBoss shirt.
Boss shirt.

One could easily understand how Wilts’s appointment at Boss made sense for the brand seeking to stay on top of the game. Wilts has also been able to seamlessly incorporate womenswear into the brand’s co-ed collections. “When we look into men and women... The way I always wanted for the man is very masculine, and for the woman very feminine,” says Wilts in response to the question on the difference between designing for the Boss man and the Boss woman. “The heritage is the same.”

However, femininity to Wilts veers towards a certain freedom in dressing, one that says the Boss woman is a modern-day woman who can don a suit, but still look sexy and feminine, rather than androgynous or masculine. Wilts’s Boss woman then redefines what it means to be feminine by playing with proportions and innovative design or tailoring. Take the Boss women’s trench coat for instance, which sports the same sleek and minimalist design, but in glossy patent leather that mimics a “wet” texture for added glamour.

Similarly, suit jackets and long coats resemble the men’s counterparts — simple and utilitarian — but tailored to look subtly slimmer at the waist, or cinched with a belt. Instead of simply power-dressing women in men’s clothing, Wilts carves out pieces that are set to define a new Boss category for women.

As we wrapped up the interview, the designer opened up about what he calls a “personal fit”, alluding to the importance of an affinity with people he works with, especially in the careful task of selecting brand ambassadors for the Boss brand. Ultimately, these strategic alliances will go on to truly connect and appeal to a diverse global audience beyond digital platforms; Wilts’s attention to details demonstrates a potential to reinvigorate Boss to its former glory.

Yu CaiIngo Wilts on one of the three covers of T’s “Men’s Fashion” February 2020 issue.
Ingo Wilts on one of the three covers of T’s “Men’s Fashion” February 2020 issue.
Profile photograph by Yu Cong
Styled by Jack Wang

Fashion photographs by Tung Pham
Styled by Michelle Kok
Grooming by Ziwei Yang (Palette Inc.) using Keune and Urban Decay
Model: Carty Caruso (Mannequin)