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Return of the Hugo Line Under the Hugo Boss Empire

By Kames Narayanan

A line-up of the looks from Hugo’s Spring/ Summer ’19 collection.
A line-up of the looks from Hugo’s Spring/ Summer ’19 collection.

A few years ago, the fashion industry’s retail model underwent a shake up when luxury behemoths, the likes of Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana and Burberry, shuttered their diffusion lines. It signalled the end of an era where fashion houses banked on their subsidiaries to diversify their product ranges and in turn, reach out to a wider consumer demographic. 

With an influx of mid-tier luxury offerings and burgeoning collaborations between designers and high street establishments, diffusion lines inherently faded into the background. “These newcomers have bigger volumes of production (and therefore, can have more competitive prices), very fast product development cycles (which means they can be closer to the latest fashion cycles), and can sustain mono-brand stores, given their wider product offer,” said Mario Ortelli, (then) senior vice president of European luxury at Bernstein, a financial services firm, in an interview with Business of Fashion in 2015. 

While the industry may have previously ruled out the viability of subsidiary lines, today, opportunities are to be found in a conceivable gap between high-end luxury and the high street. Even with crossovers between the two through designer collaboration, there remains space for a permanent filler. 

Approaching secondary lines with the monumental importance granted to a main line remains key in driving a house forward. “Customers are aware if a diffusion brand doesn’t have integrity, and the collection is just really a money earner on the side,” said Lydia King, buying and merchandising director for Selfridges in a 2014 interview with the Business of Fashion. 

In this conversation of secondary off-shoots and their parent lines, one cannot bypass the purveyor of German luxury, Hugo Boss. Since its conception in 1924, the main Hugo Boss line has branched out into several others: Boss Black, Boss Orange, Boss Selection, Boss Green and Hugo. These dissections were specific in their repertoire of offerings. For instance, Boss Selection was an upscale line of English tailoring, Boss Green was primarily dedicated to athletic wear and Boss Orange carried a range of everyday wear. 

Bart de Backer, senior head of design for Hugo’s menswear. Jenny Swank Krasteva, Hugo’s senior head creative for womenswear.
Bart de Backer, senior head of design for Hugo’s menswear. Jenny Swank Krasteva, Hugo’s senior head creative for womenswear.

While Hugo Boss may have held onto its umbrella of brands longer than the others in the industry, last year, the brand announced the collapse of all its brands under either of two brands — Hugo and Boss. The former, in pursuit of youthful casualwear and the latter, a deeper contemplation on the house’s signature tailoring. The two were also differentiated by price points: Hugo’s entry level prices were pegged at about 30 per cent lower than Boss clothing.

“Hugo compared to Boss is meant for a different customer, meaning the Hugo customer has a younger mindset and is more of a progressive type,” says Bart de Backer, senior head of design for Hugo menswear, in an email correspondence with T Singapore.

“Hugo menswear presents sharp cuts and clean designs that stand outside of the status quo. With tailoring at its core and a strong casual influence, Hugo questions the established notions of menswear to create clothing for those who lead rather than follow.” 

As the Boss mainline continued to grow from strength to strength, its Hugo counterpart, fell mostly silent after its Fall/Winter ’13 runway presentation. The unplanned six-year hiatus finally drew to an end last year when the house staged its comeback in a big way at the biannual Pitti Uomo trade fair in Florence. Not only did the co-ed runway presentation mark the brand’s step away from the shadows, it also laid the ground for the debut of Jenny Swank Krasteva as its senior head of creative for womenswear. 

After years of laying dormant, Hugo’s return to the fashion week calendar signalled the start of a recalibrated brand. “Right now, we are in this phase of global expansion in which we are questioning everything. Hugo as a brand is rediscovering the sense of individualism and aesthetic that made us a brand in the first place. It’s a very moving time,” says Swank Krasteva.

Translucent dresses spoke of a new sensuality at Hugo; clashing prints — a push for self-expression.
Translucent dresses spoke of a new sensuality at Hugo; clashing prints — a push for self-expression.

Going by the two collections to date, conceived under the creative helm of de Backer and Swank Krasteva, Hugo veers none too far from Hugo Boss’s locus of menswear tailoring. The inherently stringent codes of formal wear, however, are reconsidered in its enticing assembly of offerings for a younger clientele. 

“When you look at the brand Hugo 25 years ago, we started to wear sneakers with a suit and then we tried to combine formalwear with sportswear and now we go even further. We now have a very strong street wear influence in the brand,” explains de Backer. 

The brand, albeit perceived to be in a state of transition, continued its narrative with a unified vision at its latest Spring/Summer ’19 collection, presented at the brand’s home base in Berlin, Germany — a calculated move in re-establishing the foundations of the house. 

“We actually started in Florence because it is a big platform for menswear and therefore we wanted to give it a bit more attention. We went back to Berlin this time because Hugo is a German brand and we wanted to go back to our heritage, to where we come from, our German DNA. We also want to develop a stronger connection between the brand and our capital city,” says de Backer. 

This said connection between Hugo and its birth city stretched far beyond the shift from Florence to Berlin. Set in Motorwerk — the historic venue for Berlin’s techno parties in the ’90s — the collection drew heavily from the the city’s club scene. From the use of unlikely fabrications to a notably subversive slant in styling, the rebellion imbued into the rave culture was on full display.

Pops of red in a palette of neutrals and pastel hues pack an unexpected visual twist.
Pops of red in a palette of neutrals and pastel hues pack an unexpected visual twist.

Berlin walls plastered with club posters showed up as prints on men’s mesh t-shirts and obscure roses subtracted from album art of the ’90s lent a visual appeal to the collection’s dresses. Coined Mixmasters, the collection is self-explanatory: vibrant hues of acid yellow and neon orange juxtaposed against pared down pale blue and neutrals; sensuous slip dresses worn over bright Lycra two-piece swimwear; and neon shirts layered underneath slouchy suits. 

“When you walk around the city, you see many people meeting each other in coffee shops or bars, dressing themselves in a very individual way, kind of experimenting with their own style. They are mix masters, combining something from 20 years ago with pieces from today,” explains de Backer. “Taking pieces completely out of their context and giving them a new one. That was the starting point of the collection.” 

For a collection intended as a melting pot of stylistic inclinations, the ready-to-wear pieces, in its entirety, spoke of a unified vision of unbridled self-expression. Under the leadership of de Backer and Swank Krasteva, Hugo is fast finding its footing in the contemporary consumer landscape. 

“Jenny brings the American point of view to the table and I bring the Belgian one. But we have a different kind of focus when we design the collection. I am very focused on shape, Jenny is very focused on fabrics and this creates very interesting conversations,” says de Backer. 

He then proceeds to single out the shirt that rapper Wiz Khalifa wore when he performed on the runway as a case in point. “For example, the shirt Wiz Khalifa wore was made from a womenswear fabric but the shape was an oversized men’s workwear style. So these kind of different points of view or different focuses create a very interesting energy when we create the collection,” he says.

Floral prints from the album covers of the 90s era decorate the season’s pieces.
Floral prints from the album covers of the 90s era decorate the season’s pieces.

By definition, Hugo still largely remains as what people would consider a subsidiary line but unlike its
predecessors that have failed, it is progressing into a standalone brand that functions alongside a mainline — think Miu Miu and Prada. Bolstered by a distinct aesthetic and strong business acumen driving the brand forward, the German brand is likely to rise in reputation as a model to emulate. 

For instance, the brand’s Fall/Winter ’17 collection roped in British fashion photographer Harley Weir, who herself has launched investigations into the youth culture with her work, alongside 11 other creatives from diversified industries. 

“You can see this not only within the collection, when we work with artists, we especially look for new talents and personalities that have an individual view on things. People who are progressive and follow their own path, no matter what they do. We sometimes even find them on Instagram. It is more about catching their vision and view on things and bring them in conversation with the brand. Through that, we get very interesting results,” shares de Backer. Swank Krasteva and de Backer have the grounds covered in propelling Hugo to the forefront of the international fashion realm. 

“There are a lot of plans at the moment for Hugo. Several store openings are planned all over the world, especially mono-brand stores. We are also planning new capsule collections and a pop-up store that we want to do soon in Berlin,” reveals de Backer. As for Singapore, the first Hugo boutique was opened in early September at Ion Orchard. 

In laying out the blueprint for the future of the German house, de Backer and Swank Krasteva have also held the opinion of their consumers in high regards. At one point, the duo took to social media to give followers decision-making power into what looks should be kept in the collections. 

“The future of Hugo is about having a strong conversation and much closer relationship,” concludes de Backer. 

The success in the resurgence of Hugo thus far, could possibly be the foreshadowing of the return of more prominent names to the realm of diffusion brands. In the meantime, the German house enjoys a hearty share of consumer spending.