Rebecca Tan Hui Shan meets designer Damiano Biella, who has infused the 128-year-old brand with a contemporary lifestyle vibe
If age was a measure of size, German brand Braun Buffel would be a behemoth.
Founded in 1887 by Johann Braun, a master saddler, Braun Buffel has been producing handcrafted leather goods for 128 years. The brand's heritage is impressive but, until recently, seemed to prevent it from connecting with young, design-conscious consumers.
Enter Damiano Biella - a prolific Italian creative director who has worked for Gucci, Carolina Herrera and Valentino.
In just 11/2 years, Biella, 44, has transformed a somewhat dated accessory line into a contemporary lifestyle brand, complete with stunning media campaigns. The designer who, in 1999, became one of fashion industry's youngest creative designers at age 28, insists that his role has merely been to facilitate the "natural evolution" of this behemoth.
Despite the changes in marketing direction, the brand seems to have held on to its core principles of craftsmanship and quality construction. This is, perhaps, unsurprising considering that Biella studied art in college.
Following that, he took four years of night lessons in art history at the Louvre Museum while working for French fashion house Celine.
Now, as the creative director of Braun Buffel, Biella lives in Singapore and works from the brand's main office in the Republic.
Speaking from his office in Tan Boon Liat building, the designer, who is single, describes his appointment thus far as "compatible". The brand's success in the past few seasons certainly bear testament to that - most recently, the Delia collection from their autumn/ winter 2014 line saw a 100 per cent sell-through.
Why were you drawn to Braun Buffel?
Initially, it was curiosity. The opportunity at Braun Buffel was in Singapore and I was interested to find out how this part of the world was evolving. Even as a child, I was fascinated with Asian art and heritage. I had to read Marco Polo in school and, till today, I consider it the most beautiful book written. The other, and perhaps more important reason, is that I wanted to work for a well-established brand. Braun Buffel has an incredible history that appeals to me.
You studied art history at the Louvre and cited Braun Buffel's long-standing legacy as a big draw. Is history important to you?
Absolutely. I believe that we are nothing without history. The future is made on the back of our past. In Italy, there are so many things we have learnt from the Roman empire onwards that defines who we are today.
What are your design priorities at Braun Buffel?
There are values in the Braun Buffel world which existed before I came. One is quality and the other is practicality. A bag can be pretty, but if it cannot be used well, it won't be part of our brand.
You started out as a designer, but now you work as a creative director - what are the differences between the two roles?
As in everything in life, a career in fashion should start from the bottom.
I started my career doing the most humble things, which has given me a specific sense of who does what and why. It is too easy for a creative director to say "yes" and "no" to things if he has no idea what goes on at each step.
Even today, I try to spend time in factories and on the sales floor, so I know what can or cannot be done.
What are your plans for the brand?
A brand like Braun Buffel can only be reinforced, not reinvented. The two ways I want to facilitate this natural evolution is through greater design and better brand awareness.
On the business side of things, I plan to globalise the brand and expand it from just accessories to lifestyle goods. Instead of just bags, we will also roll out fragrances, eyewear and shoes.
This is why I have started to create a visual world to go with the brand. You can see from our new advertising campaign that we are really trying to express who the Braun Buffel woman and man are.
Why were you attracted to facilitate this transformation? Why not set up your own line?
That is a very interesting question. Perhaps it is because I like history so much. Perhaps it is because I feel that there is something amazing about a brand that was created in 1887, survived two world wars and travelled all the way to Asia.
One day, I might have my own line, but before I do that, I need to build up my own history and heritage.
What were the ideas behind the latest collections?
The spring/summer 2016 collection, which we have just finished, was inspired by Morocco. The autumn/ winter 2015 collection, which will be in stores in July, was inspired by Paris.
Every season, I take my team and, by extension, our customers, on a visual journey to a new destination. For the spring/summer 2015 collection, which is in stores now, that place was Capri, Italy.
Capri is this very chic, elegant town along the Mediterranean. The light there hits the sea in such a way that everything looks bright and clean. The yellows are really yellow and the blues, truly blue. There are no filters or intermediates, which explains the bright visuals in this collection.
Do you miss Milan?
I go back pretty often, so no. Besides, I love Singapore. It is hard to find reasons to dislike being here.
Not even the heat?
(Laughs) That is a compromise I am willing to make. My friend refers to the constant heat as the "back-sweat syndrome", which unfortunately, applies to me. However, I always feel so privileged in December, when I am lying in the pool on a Saturday morning while people in some parts of the world are freezing their toes off.
The beauty of Singapore is that it is a mix of places I have already lived in. It is a bit of New York, Paris, Milan, but, at the same time, it has a distinctly South-east Asian flavour.
This article was first published on May 15, 2015.
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