“When you’ve put good underwear on, you should forget it immediately. When you feel it during the day, it distracts you. You feel that something isn’t right.”
Marcel Hossli is passionate about pants. The CEO of luxury garment maker Zimmerli is an expert in luxury branding, though his previous job was a far cry from his current sector.
“I used to be in the watch business. I’m a mechanical engineer, and I love watches – I got infected by the watch virus,” Marcel jokes to me when we meet at the George Club. Mount Street. “I was looking to get into watches, and had a friend who used to work for Swatch. This was in the hot period, so he got me a job at Swatch as a product manager in 1994.
“I worked for Swatch for three years, then went to Lucerne and worked for Bucherer, taking over responsibility of its watch brand. We developed the newly positioned Carl F. Bucherer, named after the founder. I spent eight years there, then moved to Patek Philippe in Geneva.” Prestigious indeed.
Why switch between a profession you love to a small brand in a different industry that you know very little about? “I was at home one Saturday morning and saw in the newspaper that Zimmerli were looking for a new CEO,” Marcel explains. “It had always been my dream to manage a small but very fine Swiss company. They were looking for somebody who had worked for luxury businesses – they weren’t asking for specific product-related experience. They knew they had a very good product, but they had no clue about marketing and branding.”
It’s a job Marcel has taken on for the last decade, growing Zimmerli from a niche brand into one of the world’s leading producers of quality underwear, nightwear and loungewear, with approximately 600 outlets worldwide, including a 250 sq ft shop floor in Harrods.
Zimmerli was founded in 1871 by Pauline Zimmerli after her husband’s dyehouse went bankrupt. Seeing a gap in the market for high-quality hosiery and socks, Pauline began selling further and further afield from her small home town of Aarburg. With a rapidly growing demand for her products in Paris and elsewhere, the entrepreneur actually invented a machine to knit ribbed elastic fabric, sending her plans over to the USA and receiving her first two-needle knitting machine in 1874. The entrepreneurial spirit has persisted throughout the company’s history, which has continuously produced clothing since the day of its inception. I sat down with its most recent entrepreneurial chief to discuss modernising a traditional company, and why the world’s leaders should all wear Zimmerli.
How much of an entrepreneur was Pauline Zimmerli?
She was an innovative person. Her two sons were in the business too – they travelled to the United States, took the orders there, came back. The whole process took months, but Pauline Zimmerli only focused on producing very high quality products. That’s why she was so successful: she sold most of her products in the western part of Switzerland, where you have the watch industry, already a very rich industry at the time. Zimmerli has always been very innovative, and that’s part of our philosophy.
You have a total of ten boutiques around the world. How do you decide which cities to open in?
We have a very selective distribution, but you can find Zimmerli in places from Los Angeles to Toyko to Melbourne. We always try to work with the best partners at the most prestigious locations. It’s about expanding the Zimmerli universe. Luxury is never mass. You need to be selective in what you are doing, in terms of fabrics, the way you distribute and so on.
How do you ensure Zimmerli stays relevant?
You need to know who you want to appeal to. You need to be relevant, to reinvent yourself; not in a drastic way, but a brand should always have movement, otherwise you’ll die with your customers. When we entered the Russian and Chinese markets, there were different customers with different expectations. They’re younger, especially in China, and they’re looking for new things. If they hear that Zimmerli’s producing the finest underwear in the world, but they don’t like the style, they won’t buy it.
How important is respecting Zimmerli’s past?
Hugely. We have some products where the design is 50 or 60 years old, but you always need to readjust the style. Take the Porsche 911: it was first produced in 1964 and is still a huge success. If you compare the first Porsche with the latest Porsche you can see it’s the same product, but it’s evolved over time, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
What makes Zimmerli different?We are always trying to find ways to increase the sense of wellbeing whenever you’re wearing our products. When you get up in the morning you take a shower, and the first thing you put on is underwear. If you put something on and it’s caressing your skin already because the fabric is so fine, you feel well in yourself. It’s a change in attitude. You don’t feel scrappy, you feel that you have a purpose, that you are somebody. People don’t necessarily think of the value of good underwear, but I always say that successful people wear good quality underwear. It changes their attitude in the morning.
How important is it that your products are made in Switzerland?Very. We have the tag on every single piece of underwear. It’s all made in our own factory in the south of Switzerland. I think the big asset of Switzerland is the notion of having a good-quality product. Everybody knows Swiss watches: Rolex, Omega, Patek. You wouldn’t necessarily think of fashion when you think of Switzerland, but the value of ‘Made in Switzerland’ is so strong that it really helps. ‘Made in Switzerland’ is a quality seal, a promise that it’s the real product.
What’s it like to work for Zimmerli?The average time that people have been with us is 14 years. One lady who’s just retired was with us for 41 years as a seamstress. You need to find new staff, but it’s not easy. They’re walking a fine line: on the one hand, they need to work at a really high level of quality but on the other, they can’t spend half an hour on a piece of underwear. You need to find a good compromise: they need to be really quick and productive, but also extremely skilled.
What motivates you about this job?Every day is still a pleasure, and that’s what’s so great about this job. In the morning when I get up, I love to put on my Zimmerli and go to work.
Would you describe yourself as a brand man?Absolutely. Maybe I’ll still be here in 10-15 years. That’s very possible.
Do you smile every time you sit down?Yes! ‘Great, I can’t feel my pants!’ Very good.