SINGAPORE (Feb 7): As Mark Langer walks into the room for our interview, looking every inch a gentleman, the first thing I note is the suit he is wearing. I am, naturally, curious about the sartorial preference of the chief executive of Hugo Boss — more so because, unlike the celebrity brand makers who front many luxury fashion houses, Langer has been more of a corporate spokesman for the fashion house since becoming its head almost four years ago.

While he is well versed in fashion — having spent 18 years with Hugo Boss, starting as director of finance and accounting and rising through the ranks to become chief financial officer before his appointment as CEO in 2016 — Langer is an “operations” man with a background in mechanical engineering and economics. He even did a stint at management consultancy firm McKinsey & Co.

That could be why he was hand-picked to steer the Metzingen, Germany-based fashion house through some rather challenging times.

Langer took over from long-time chief executive Claus-Dietrich Lahrs in the aftermath of what has been described as a global “expansion binge” that saw, among others, the brand’s retail presence increase to over 1,000 stores worldwide and the introduction of womenswear.

That aggressive growth came to a halt following the exit of Hugo Boss’ then private equity owner, Permira, and an overall dip in sales that was primarily linked to the slowdown — which has yet to bottom out — in the US and China markets.

The man who greets me at a quiet salon in The Middle House in Shanghai, China, looks relaxed and composed, even though we are just hours away from the first pre-fall collection runway show for BOSS — the major event that has brought us here.

Immaculate

Langer is clearly accustomed to the punishing schedule typical for someone of his position.

He is dressed in an immaculate white shirt and slim, navy tie paired with a navy blazer and trousers from the BOSS travel line. In this case, the suit does not make the man; rather, it reflects his character — business-like but without the stuffiness — and emphasises his lanky frame while denoting a man on the go. The subtle ‘M.L.’ stitched on his shirt shows a touch of stylish individuality.

“It’s very lightweight and doesn’t wrinkle,” Langer says expressively of his attire, breaking into a smile. “It’s one of my favourites and is part of the first collection we put out under the travel line, a limited edition piece that is made in Germany.”

He professes a natural passion for fashion, one that he had even before he joined Hugo Boss.

The enticement of a leadership role in the fashion house led him to forego an opportunity to work in Porsche. “I was just 30-something at the time and the thought of getting a team of my own sounded good,” he says.

“I never imagined I would become CEO of the company, but I never regretted choosing Hugo Boss over Porsche — except maybe [when having the opportunity for] a nicer company car,” Langer adds.

The mild banter is the sort that one would expect from stars in the fashion industry, but Langer is not interested in becoming such a personality.

Furthermore, Hugo Boss has eschewed having a dominant creative maestro — with the exception of its founder and Jason Wu. The latter was artistic director of its womenswear line from 2013 to 2018, when he left the brand.

In an interview with Vogue, Langer said: “We don’t want everything to revolve around one brand ambassador or one star designer, because we also see the danger that this person might then be bigger than the brand.”

Instead, he has renewed the premium suit maker’s focus on team effort by consolidating its creative minds into one central core group led by chief brand officer Ingo Wilts, who oversees the fashion house’s two main lines — BOSS and the younger, sportier and more casual HUGO, both of which offer menswear and womenswear.

On the operational and financial side of things, however, Langer stands out as a visionary and far-sighted strategist or, at the least, a sure-footed leader. He is certainly optimistic, observing at one point, “In terms of this industry, I find it is in exciting times, even though it is not easy right now. We’re being challenged in important markets and we’ve been disappointed by our performance in the US, but I think it’s a fascinating industry.”

The chief executive also knows how to focus on what he is good at — processes and operating systems or, in his own words, implementing the “tangible capabilities a company needs to have in this fast-moving environment”. He laughs when asked to expand on some of the technological processes he has implemented. “It’s a dangerous question,” he answers, clearly alluding to it being his favourite topic.

“But, to give you an example, we were developing products with 12 months lead time. So, to present a collection, say pre-fall, now, we would have had to
start production more than a year before. In terms of creative decisions, I would say this is not fast and reactive enough,” shares Langer.

Today, the design-to-launch lead time for Hugo Boss is only six to 12 weeks, putting it closer — in terms of pace of production — to fast-fashion labels. This was achieved partly by maintaining a “3D material library” bank of tried-and-tested materials and introducing digital showrooms to allow buyers digital previews instead of having to send them physical samples.

“In terms of technology, we have decided to run some key processes in-house, to own them and not to rely on third parties. We have also simplified our brand portfolio.

“These changes have helped us to optimise the quality of our decision-making, which is the deciding factor between more successful companies and less successful ones,” Langer says, adding that vertically integrated players such as global fast-fashion giant Inditex have proven the success of this strategy.

But apart from streamlining Hugo Boss’ creative processes and speeding up its production, Langer has also been working on boosting the brand’s e-commerce presence — he reportedly aims to quadruple its online sales by 2022, from its 4% share of overall revenue in 2018. It remains to be seen how much online sales would help turn things around, as global sales for the brand fell to a nine-year low last year.

Roadbumps ahead
The CEO also seems to have anticipated a bumpy road ahead. He says: “Unfortunately, we’re operating in an environment with a lot of macroeconomic disruptions, be it the Brexit discussions or the impact of the strong growth in e-commerce, which puts physical retail under pressure.

“But I’m confident we’re doing the right thing, “Langer continues. “Some of these we can turn into opportunities for us, like e-commerce, but for situations like that in Hong Kong currently, which has affected people’s mood for shopping, it is out of our control. It’s something we have to deal with and just weather the storm.”

Another opportunity Hugo Boss is seizing is its growth in the China market, which reached double-digit figures for the most part last year. Now back in Shanghai six years after its last fashion show, Langer says the pre-fall show is a new level for the brand in terms of its presence and familiarity in the country.

The Chinese are a sophisticated customer market now, knowledgeable about product quality and craftsmanship, he adds. Known for its “tailoring competencies”, the premium suit maker has made considerable effort to woo the millennial generation and those in the China market have been particularly receptive. This will be the driving force for the brand to grow its group revenue from Asia to 20% by 2022, with China playing a key role, he notes.

“Today, the suit is completely different from five years ago, let alone before that. The innovation is in the play of materials, fabrics, and on the construction — especially for the male audience … something that makes you feel comfortable while looking sharp, for example,” says Langer.

While workplace attire may not be as formal as it used to be, the right jacket is the core element of any wardrobe and style, he stresses.

“It has never gone away and may come back in different ways but it is here to stay.”

Evolving styles
Hugo Boss has evolved its offerings to complement the versatile and ever-on-the-go lifestyles of people today, from a tie with a classic shirt to a piece of knitwear, or a sophisticated cotton round-necked T-shirt.

“We are living in a visual world where people are fully aware that dressing right for the moment is decisive for their success. And this could be a job
interview or to win a pitch, or it could be the first date with your intended girlfriend or boyfriend. I find it exciting that these worlds — the blending and blurring of lines of, say, formal and athleisure — are coming together. It becomes less predictable and [challenges us to be innovative]. We’re already talking about fabrics with new tech features, which might measure body functions for you, or maybe help with heat regulation. There’s a lot of development there,” says Langer.

Hugo Boss has already invested in sustainable materials. A large number of consumers today are conscious of their impact on the environment and they recognise apparel consumption as a major contributing factor. Thus, in 2019, the brand launched its traceable wool and vegan suits, marking another milestone in redefining the business of suiting.

Then there is the element of personalisation — rather than following trends, Langer believes in offering customisation services. The fashion house’s Made To Measure bespoke service is one that has proved popular, especially in China, and there is an option of meeting a personal stylist who can suggest pairing products to complete one’s wardrobe. There is also the more playful personalised prints on T-shirts offered through HUGO, under its Made For Me line, while BOSS offers an extensive level of personalisation for sneakers, from colour and choice of thread and shoelaces to adding one’s initials to the shoes.

At the tail end of our conversation, I ask Langer about the unique advantage of being one of the rare German fashion houses with a presence on the world stage.

“Of course we see ourselves as a global fashion brand, but if there’s something with a German background to it, it’s maybe the [fixation] on reliable processes and efficiency,” he says with a smile.

“That, and we are quite competitive. Whatever we want to do, we don’t want to be second or third — we want to be the winner, we want to succeed,” Langer continues, but, after a short pause, adds, “I think this trait applies to everybody.”

Very much the gentleman, indeed. 

BOSS loves Shanghai

By taking over one of Shanghai’s trendiest spots, Tank Shanghai — a former oil storage tank facility turned arts and lifestyle space created by Chinese collector Qiao Zhibing — Hugo Boss unequivocally announced its return to the city where it first launched its brand in China. An acid lime green neon sign declaring “BOSS loves Shanghai” could be seen from a distance, illuminating the space in a bold tribute to the vibrant vibes of the city.

Traditionally known for its suits, Hugo Boss has steadily transformed itself into a brand that also speaks the fashion language of the millennial generation. One only needs to look at its pre-fall 2020 collection to realise that.

While maintaining its legacy of excellence in tailoring, the fashion house has imbued its collection of menswear and womenswear with sporty, playful and edgy energy, adding an element of “cool” to its flair for elegance and structure.

With colours ranging from pastel pink, mint green and eggplant to bright, neon blue, the vibrant collection is also balanced by neutral and grounding shades of beige, white and navy.

Oversized shirts and jackets, long sporty parkas, and animal and graphic prints are among the more outstanding styles on offer. The play on materials and fabrics is also evident, possibly the most exciting element of the collection.

The show — with a circular runway that mimicked the shape of the converted storage tank — was Hugo Boss’ first in Shanghai since its 2013 collection, and coincided with the city’s fashion week. In attendance were its ambassadors, English actor Henry Cavill, Taiwanese actor Mark Chao and Bruneian star Wu Chun.

Held in conjunction with the event was the fourth edition of the Hugo Boss Asia Art award, which featured an exhibition of its four nominees at the Rockbund Art Museum. The award was established with the aim of supporting and providing a platform for emerging Asian artists, and the 2019 prize went to Filipino artist Eisa Jocson.