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Bally's High

Can a thirtysomething New York boy (with a Harvard M.B.A.) turn a stodgy Swiss accessories house into a hot fashion name? Meet the new breed of designer.

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It was one of those moments when the fashion world seems, well, a little spooky. Early one March morning in Milan, an intimate little crowd gathered at a showroom on Via Togni to see the fall 2001 runway show from the Swiss brand Bally. It was the same spot where, until recently, Jil Sander had shown her collections. But with Sander banished from her own label, Bally had taken her space to use as its showroom. All of which acted as an eerie reminder of just how quickly a designer of Sander's stature can blip off the radar, and a staid accessories dealer like Bally can transform itself into a fashion name hot enough to move into Sander's old digs without raising as much as one highly maintained eyebrow.

And just in case anyone doubted Bally's ability to step so boldly up to the plate, the show was one of the best in Milan. The collection was that rare thing: smart and sophisticated and grown-up, fashion that had edge without going over the edge. There were everyday urban basics (leather or suede coats, pants and wrap skirts with buckled waists), flavored with a touch of both the equestrian (jodhpurs and riding boots) and the Edwardian (strict, high-necked shirts with ruched shoulders and fan-pleated skirts).

It was the latest move in a carefully orchestrated campaign that began last October, when the word was out that change was afoot at Bally. Key editors were sent a groovy, geometric B-print tote with their invitation to the company's spring 2001 presentation, which featured sporty perforated-leather zipper jackets and miniskirts, purses with striped webbing straps, and leather sandals with colorful plastic heels. From there, the company's makeover gathered steam. In came a red-and-white B logo, based on the Swiss cross, created by graphic designer Boris Bencic, a sensual spring advertising campaign lensed by Norwegian photographer Solve Sundsbo (a man, a woman, a beach, and a consignment load of bags and shoes), and a team deployed to update the company's boutiques. Already a new prototype Bally store -- designed by Australian architect Craig Bassam with a wooden interior crafted by Swiss cabinetmakers -- has opened in Berlin, with a similar store due to appear in Los Angeles in spring 2002. Out went more than 100 stores in less hip and desirable locations, along with most of Bally's more traditional (read: dull) inventory. For a 150-year-old company that's always gone about its business without anyone bothering to check its vital signs, this unexpected and sudden transformation was nothing short of a coup.

The man behind this metamorphosis is Scott Fellows, an amiable 36-year-old Chautauqua, New York, native who has been Bally's creative director for the past eighteen months. Fellows doesn't have the most conventional résumé for a designer -- he didn't spend his formative years plucking pins off the floors of Parisian couture ateliers, instead picking up a B.S. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and an M.B.A. from Harvard, which he followed with a stint at FIT. But in a fashion arena where the corporate culture of LVMH and the Gucci Group dominates, Fellows could well be indicative of what the next generation of designers will be like: savvy operators as versed in sales projections as they are in skirt lengths. "Can fashion be art?" asks Fellows rhetorically. "Maybe, but that doesn't make for a $500 million business." Words that would no doubt be music to the ears of many a chief executive.

"Can fashion be art?" asks Bally's Scott Fellows. "Maybe, but that doesn't make for a $500 million business."

Fellows, fresh from a six-year stint at Salvatore Ferragamo as global marketing director, arrived at the Texas Pacific Group (a large, private equity fund that owns Ducati Motor, Continental Airlines, J.Crew, and Del Monte) before it bought Bally in late 1999. He was hired by his former roommate at Harvard, Abel Halpern, a partner and managing director at Texas Pacific (now also chairman of Bally), to act as an "industry consultant" -- to identify a fashion or luxury-goods house that the fund could buy. First they went after Fendi, but that potential merger was derailed by an alliance between LVMH and Prada. Then came Bally. At first, it didn't seem like the most obvious choice on which to spend, according to sources close to the company, around $60 million (with another $175 million reputedly earmarked for future investment), but Halpern thought otherwise.

"Scott and I looked at it and thought it was intriguing," says Halpern from his stark dark-wood-and-leather office in Texas Pacific's new European headquarters in London. "It had no point of view and it was overdistributed, but it had this interesting archive. It was the global jet-set brand in the fifties and sixties." Fellows agrees. "We discovered this jewel of a company, but one that needed to be polished. My aim was to take Bally back to what it used to do -- making beautiful things for everyday use."

Fellows is fond of repeating his mantra for Bally: ''Everyday extraordinary.'' In short, he's interested in making fashion that's hip and desirable but isn't going to scare the life out of you. Fellows is relying on his ability to tune into the tastes and sensibilities of what every Prada-wearing, Wallpaper*-reading, sushi-dependent thirtysomething worldwide wants right now. That shouldn't be too difficult, since he -- flitting between Bally's Swiss headquarters in Caslano and his cantilevered glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut -- fits that description perfectly himself.

"It's what I'm all about and it's what my team is all about," says Fellows. "We all love fashion, but we're not slaves to it. We're all in or around our thirties, we all used to go out every night, but now we're always traveling, always working, and because of that we need fashion that performs for us 24/7."

But getting a label to walk the line between high-fashion fantasy and straightforward sartorial needs is a tricky balancing act. Fellows believes that many of his contemporaries are crying out for clothes that are basic without being Banana Republic, and are as luxurious as anything you'd find at Prada or Gucci without being quite so avant-garde. Talking about Bally's latest accessories, he cites the workmanship of the hand-stitching on the shoes, or the leather linings -- rather than the more usual (and much less expensive) nylon -- in the bags. "I really do think that people will understand the difference. They'll recognize the quality," he says. Nor is he too worried that the collection doesn't push the fashion envelope quite enough. After that first show, cutting-edge model Stella Tennant was clamoring to walk off with the riding boots she wore in the show -- and, marvels Fellows, "they were a size too small for her."


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