Silvia Azzali on sustainably helming Wolford back into profit
One brand that had to weather a particularly complicated moment due to Covid-19 is Wolford, the high-end skinwear and hosiery marque that not only went though a substantial lockdown, but also managed to sell its headquarters in Austria during the pandemic.
The sale of its HQ for 72 million euros meant Wolford emerges debt-free and ready to confront a radically new world market. It’s a classy brand that has been through a great deal of change of late, beginning with its acquisition by Chinese luxury group Fosun in 2018.
Few houses in this sector are more storied than Wolford, which was founded in 1950 in Bregenz, an ancient Celtic settlement in northwest Austria. Wolford went on to invent the "body" - its signature product - which boomed during the lockdown; and to develop path-breaking collaborations with major runway designers. Though Mitteleuropean in its devotion to excellent quality and durability, the name Wolford is an amalgam of founder Reinhold Wolff and the city of Oxford. Under his tenure, Wolford did collabs with stellar names like Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Emilio Pucci and Vivienne Westwood. While the likes of Mario Testino, Ellen Von Unwerth and Helmut Newton shot their ad campaigns. However, the company has lost a handful of millions of euros in each of the past three years; while turnover was 137 million euros in the most recent financial year.
So, we checked in with the brand's voluble, Italian Chief Commercial Officer Silvia Azzali this week to hear the latest on how Wolford is emerging from the pandemic. A highly experienced exec who has done stints at Dolce & Gabbana and La Perla, Azzali explains how she plans to make sustainability the centerpiece of Wolford’s revival.
FashionNetwork.com: What are your key goals at Wolford?
Silvia Azzali: I arrived at Wolford last year, in March 2019. I had been at Wolford between 2011 and 2016, but then I left as I had been concerned about the strategy. I came back last year after Fosun Fashion Group purchased the company, and I saw chance to relaunch the brand.
Life has not been so simple with the pandemic, and the situation is not easy, but I stronglybelieve in the future. As CCO, I am in charge of marketing, design and merchandising. Our COO Andrew Thorndike handles products, logistics and finance.
FN: What attracted you to come back to the brand?
SA: Well, the first step was to bring back Wolford's DNA – especially in our 70th anniversary year – to celebrate our brand history and heritage. To reestablish a connection to our DNA, because it had been broken. There was too much back and forth, as well as ‘going after the millennial consumer"...whatever that meant!
FN: So, where do you plan to take Wolford?
SA: To me, what remains important is what I call our three “heritage milestones.” We were the first brand to merge lycra with elasticity. So, we need to revamp our iconic styles. Like the "body" – an important accessory for every woman.
We need to innovate in terms of product category. We launched the first "body" back in 1987. It was a revolution in the market – in a sense, the first athleisure product. It was a trendsetter in terms of attitude and in terms of creating a new product category. And, it’s still very popular today.
Also, Wolford was the first brand to work on major collaborations with designers, well before Moncler!
Back in 1983, our founder did the first linkup with Chantal Thomas, followed by Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
FN: What are your most recent collabs?
SA: Recently, we did a collab’ with Vetements for their January 2020 and September 2019 fashion shows. Tights, dresses and bodywear. Plus, we have another collab in the pipeline, which we should be announcing very soon.
FN: Where are you from in Italy?
SA: I am from Parma originally. But I also lived in Milan, as well as Florence, where I worked for Gucci and Ermanno Scervino. Plus, I spent time in Paris with L’Occitane.
FN: What did you learn at Moschino that you are applying at Wolford?
SA: I learned a lot about to being able to react to the market and being close to the customer. Also, I acquired the skills necessary for "See now buy now": making capsules in an extremely fast and flexible way. A dedicated capsule for dedicated markets.
That’s why we are trying to do the same thing at Wolford. Plus, I learned a lot from the way Jeremy Scott used digital and social media. Moschino became a Top Five brand for its shows, all thanks to Jeremy. He is visionary but still approachable. He was also one of the first designers to stop using fur and some leathers, and to believe in sustainability.
FN: Where will future growth come at Wolford?
SA: I want to focus on sustainability as it’s an essential element. I believe that due to the pandemic, this change shall happen even faster. The images of blue skies during the pandemic, which nobody had ever seen, and seeing all these animals coming back into cities made us realize that we have to change.
Already back in in April 2019, Wolford was the world’s first apparel group to win a Cradle to Cradle certificate. We've believed in circular economy ever since 2007, but have only now reached that. Wolford is about designing product from beginning to end; the eternal cycle of life. Creating something that can either completely disappear or be reused completely.
FN: How many stores will you open next year?
SA: Today, we have a good network – 259 monobrand stores – 70% owned by us. We do plan openings in Asia Pacific. We just opened in Biarritz, a wonderful place; la Rinascente on June 18; and Elements in Hong Kong; in BFC in the Bund (Shanghai). We are also planning openings in Japan and Korea.
FN: How will the pandemic affect you? Especially this quarter?
SA: Our sales have suffered a lot. Our next results are out in July. I believe we were quite smart in converting our production facilities to make face masks. We started production in early March – though not medical. We were able, in the end, to help three hospitals in Italy. Plus, Fosun organized a cargo flight from China where the plane was full of masks and material for Italy; and it was very difficult to get cargo flights in those days.
We actually started selling masks on Friday, March 26 online and sold 1,000 in first hour! Nobody was expecting that. Even if finding the right material was not easy at first, we have since sold 100,000 online. Now, we've started selling them in our retail chain.
But, of course, we had to close stores: first in China, then Hong Kong, France, Italy and then USA. We reopened a few stores 10 days ago, depending on the state. New York still closed, but Miami and Vegas are open.
FN: How has the Wolford management strategy changed since the acquisition by Fosun?
SA: First, I have to say: many thanks! Finally, we have a wonderful organization behind us. Demanding but also challenging. Great leadership who really want our success. We have a weekly video call to share our strategy. And for our anniversary year, we want to celebrate that, even if our Europe and USA stores are closed. So, Fosun is helping organise a big event in Shanghai in their great exhibition space on the Bund. We're planning an exhibition in September recalling our story, from the Helmut Newton era to today. We will also work with a woman photographer in China to show women's empowerment.
FN: Was it hard to sell your HQ?
SA: Not really. We wanted to do it to be completely debt-free from the banks. In the past, we were overexposed to banks and had to give up a lot of possibilities to render our business in the way we wanted.
FN: What is it like living in Bregenze?
SA: I like the city’s culture and the fact that Austria is a country of innovation. It’s a great place for sustainability and for open minds. It may not be an easy place to reach – as it is around 90 minutes to both Munich or Zurich airports. But life is natural here. Plus, it’s located in one of the great nature spots of Europe, on the shores of Lake Constance, in the middle of four countries. Now that the lockdown is ending, I want to see my family. I have not seen mum and dad since Feb 25. So I expect a summer vacation full of more countryside and mountains.
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