Aigner CEO Sybille Schoen talks about the reviving the 50-year-old German brand and closing the generation gap between its customers.
Seven tongue-tied reporters stared back at Aigner CEO Sybille Schoen as she began the interview, somewhat unconventionally, by asking each one of us for our ages. Nodding to the replies, which ranged from 25 to 32, her next question was:
“What is luxury to you? What is sexy? I ask you because you’re a totally different generation. In Germany when I was growing up, Aigner was the No. 1 brand. You’re so young. You didn’t grow up with Aigner, did you?”
Another round of replies, and then Schoen surprised us again with a very blunt statement: “Obviously, Aigner is not sexy enough,” said the 46-year-old. “Because you all came today with all kind of bags. I saw nice bags. Everyone is doing a good job.”
What she means by this is there wasn't one Aigner in sight.
Six years ago, Schoen was tasked to give the ailing German brand new life, an appointment that would become her dream job as she had grown up with its products.
“I asked myself, would I buy this product? And obviously my answer was no. So I had to change the product. I had to change the designer. That was my first step, hiring Christian (Beck) who I had been working with for a couple of years already.”
And so the process of making the brand more desirable began. Everything from silhouettes and colour to skins and cuts saw a major revamp. To celebrate this and Aigner’s 50th anniversary, they came up with a limited edition of 50 of the bestselling Cybill bags – named after Schoen – and this makes up 50% of the brand’s turnover, with prices ranging from RM22,000 to RM39,000.
While they're delighted that the brand’s popularity has had a major boost among the younger generation, as well as in the non-European market, Schoen maintains that they will never become mass.
“The point is, we have a target group but we are elegant, authentic. We are not a mass market product and this is what makes the difference. Every woman wants to be different, doesn’t she? It’s sometimes really hard, department stores will give you 30 outlets and we have to say no. You have to keep the boundary. We could do the mass market, but we don’t want that.”
Finding the balance between the old and new, and the different age ranges in the market, were some of the challenges Schoen faced.
“Sometimes it is much harder to revive a brand than to establish a new brand,” she said. “You have to do something new but you have to keep your old customers as well, and that’s the challenge. We have customers that have been with us for 20 years.”
In the six years she’s been with the brand, the average age of its customer has come down to 40. Her target is 38. And all this without losing sight of the brand’s DNA.
“What could I do with the brand to give it new breath? We changed everything, starting with marketing, the fashion shows… We now have watches and jewellery but we are still a leather lifestyle brand. We have 50% production in Italy. A lot of brands say they are made in Italy, but they only do the stamp there.”
Today, Aigner’s customers range from people in their 40s to 70s, but Schoen notes that the 30somethings have been coming into the store, too.
A jack-of-all-trades, having had numerous different roles in Escada, Timberland, Wolford, Gabriele Strehle Blue and Goldpfeil prior to Aigner, Schoen understands all aspects of the business, and this has been the secret to her success.
“To be honest, I’m very happy. I was in design school and I had to admit that I was not the best, so I had to go another way. It makes it easy for the team to talk about the new collection. I understand their language. I understand all kinds of jobs in my company. I’ve done them all,” said Schoen, who was once a pattern cutter at Escada.
At the top of her game, and enjoying the many challenges and rewards that come with being CEO, Schoen reveals that Aigner is still not quite the brand she envisioned it to be when she took over. “Not yet. I’ll tell you in two years,” she laughed. “It takes time to get in the head of people, the target groups, and to stay there.”
Perhaps, the next time she visits Malaysia, every single reporter might turn up with an Aigner bag on their arm.
■ This article was originally published in Life Inspired, out every second and fourth Sunday of the month, and distributed exclusively with The Sunday Star to selected areas in the Klang Valley. Next issue will be out tomorrow, Jan 25.