It was 11.30am on May 29, 1953, when two men first stood upon the highest point on earth. Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal had finally made it to the summit of Mount Everest, a treacherous climb that had defeated many adventurers before them. The men hugged, shared biscuits and buried sweets in the snow – an offering to the Buddhist gods – before the thin air forced them to beat a hasty retreat to their camp below. They had spent just 15 minutes at the top. On Tenzing’s feet were a pair of Bally Reindeer-Himalaya hiking boots – thick, furry, bulbous-toed footwear that laced up to his knees.

On the fifth floor of an intimidating glass building near Victoria, Pablo Coppola is sitting in his office at Bally’s London design headquarters. He was appointed design director last spring and has perhaps been climbing his own mountain since releasing his first ready-to-wear collections. “I think Bally lost relevance in womenswear. But also, in men’s, it got really gimmicky,” he says frankly of the work of his predecessors, Graeme Fidler and Michael Herz. “I feel like I’m bitching, but it was like, ‘Let’s do the Everest; let’s do a hiking boot like we did in the 1950s.’ It got too literal. I mean, who on earth goes hiking?”

When he first arrived at Bally, Pablo consciously avoided the archive. Over a century’s worth of history sat largely untouched in the company’s Swiss headquarters, neatly wrapped in tissue paper and filed. He wasn’t under pressure to reproduce past hits and considers the archive to be like “a nice attic with all your grandma’s boxes – you’re not obliged to use them but there’s something really good there.” With his venture into ready-to-wear, he hoped that he could reference the history of the company, but with sensitivity. “So it doesn’t look so dusty, or that people almost don’t notice,” he explains. “These things are good to communicate sometimes, but it has to be relevant for the customer. What do you care if Bally has been in business for 160 years or 10 months?”

While a brand cannot live on heritage alone, it was still a gutsy move for a designer who had never made clothes in his life. Pablo had always been an accessories man, but Bally’s CEO, Frédéric de Narp, was looking for a shake-up and gave him the space to experiment.

For his debut, Pablo says he treated the clothing like “accessories to the accessories”. He hid the logo, stripped the accessories of hardware and started designing the clothes from scratch, creating a wardrobe of basics – good widelegged trousers, polo necks, a leather jacket, a shirt and a double-breasted suit.

“The first collection was really dry, like nothing,” he says. “I think we were coming, historically, from a big glam situation. So, to make a point, initially we wanted to link it to the menswear, almost as if she was borrowing things from him.” SS15 continued to build on classics, but added colour with burgundy full skirts and bottle-green blazers. There were low-slung jeans and suit jackets tied around waists. It felt like Pablo was relaxing into his role. This season, he says he “wanted a lower heel, shift dresses, and to play a little bit with python and exotic skins, but in a 1960s fit and not so sexy. We don’t want to go down the Cavalli route. It’s tricky when I am describing thigh-high boots in python, though!” But the overarching idea remains the same: “You always want a good coat, a shirt, a leather skirt, a leather dress. I always try to include those things in a different way.”

His purist collections speak to women who would like to appear as though they’ve got dressed each morning with ease. There’s something in the air – a weariness of gaudy logos and peacocking – that draws them to these clothes. Pablo is speaking to the 30-and-up women who have worked out what suits them but don’t want to disappear into a sea of nondescript black turtlenecks – and who can pay for the pleasure.

“I feel that it’s a reaction to the Céline effect – I think Phoebe’s changed the whole industry, for good,” Pablo says. “She’s changed the way the consumer looks at fashion. It used to be either fashion for editorial magazines or fashion to wear. I think by focusing on the ready-to-wear, the clothes turn out very editorial. But I don’t believe in those brands that do [separate] show collections and collections to sell. That’s dead. Ideally, what you show is what you want to sell. I think it’s a bit of a no-bullshit situation right now. When you’re asking someone to spend £2,000 on a handbag, it had better be a no-bullshit situation. It had better be something you can use for a very long time.”

Before his appointment as design director, Pablo was Bally’s accessories director, a role he knew well from his time at Christian Dior. Before Dior there was Tom Ford, who, for Pablo, was “probably the most technically competent designer I’ve worked with. It was a pleasure to do accessories with him.” At Alexander McQueen, Pablo was designing the impossible: “Lee would always ask things like, ‘I want to have a seamless bag’ or ‘a bag without a handle’ or ‘a bag that doesn’t open’, and we’d have to discuss with Sarah [Burton] how to make it possible.”

There were stints at Burberry and Michael Kors, but his very first job was at Zara. Pablo’s family had relocated from Argentina to southern Spain, where his mother was a piano teacher and his father “had a different business venture going on every month. Whatever you can think of, my dad did it.” It was his father who inadvertently piqued his son’s interest in fashion. Pablo had attended bilingual school in Argentina and, in order to graduate, had to spend a year abroad, leading him to stay with an aunt in New Jersey, where he became fluent in English. When the family moved to Europe, his father was determined that Pablo not lose the language, and made regular trips to newsagents for English magazines. “I got The Face, i-D, things that grabbed his attention,” Pablo laughs.

Over 160 years ago in Switzerland, another young man was also dreaming of entering the fashion industry. Carl Franz Bally’s family was in the elasticated ribbon-making business, but after Carl visited a shoe manufacturer in Paris, he had other ideas. In 1851 he founded what would become his shoe empire, turning the sleepy village of Schönenwerd into a company town, employing 500 craftsmen, following technological advances of the times, buying machinery and opening stores across Europe.

The company remained in the family, passed down to sons and grandsons (it was eventually sold to a series of luxury conglomerates, most recently the Labelux Group in 2008). It was advertising that helped turn Bally into a global phenomenon. Charlie Chaplin reportedly wore Bally shoes and in the 1930s was enlisted to star in a filmed advert that featured him picking out a pair. Artists Hugo Laubi, Lise Berset and Otto Baumberger created posters for the brand, as did the French graphic artist Bernard Villemot in the late 1960s. By 1976, change was afoot and the company extended its range, launching its first ready-to-wear collection along with handbags and leather goods.

Pablo’s mother was thrilled that she had finally heard of the company that employed her son. “She knew Bally because they had stores in Uruguay. Her parents used to wear it,” he says. Yet despite the launch of ready-to-wear, it was still the history – outfitting Swiss Olympians and the Everest expedition; making boots for the 1969 moon landing – that Bally was known for. And of course, its shoes. The women Pablo is trying to woo have little knowledge of previous collections – most wouldn’t be able to recall the clothes or recognise a signature style. What the brand was lacking was a visual identity. Now, Pablo is moving mountains and building one. “Little by little,” he says, “we can start telling a different story.”

Text by Naomi Bikis 

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