A Bold Remake

Germany’s 133-year-old Braun Büffel is fast-tracking its long-overdue re-making, and the results are rather compelling, if not yet all-convincing

 

Braun Buffel store @ION orchardRefurbished Braun Büffel store at ION Orchard

In the business of rejuvenating European heritage brands, Braun Büffel is considered a late entrant. Although it’s only 33 years younger than Louis Vuitton (which was founded in 1854. Older still is Hermes, which counts 1837 as year of birth), it was not until 2016, nineteen years after Marc Jacobs joined LV in 1997, that the German brand initiated its first major aesthetical makeover to meet the onslaught of dramatic retail shifts and changing consumer tastes, here in Singapore (effectively showcased at their Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands store). It’s latest transformation is more pronounced than the last, and seems better positioned to attract a burgeoning consumer base no longer buying leather bags that hark back to an era when the attaché case was a mark of a successful, bag-toting executive, and all that was ever needed.

Audrey Liew, general manager of Braun Büffel (‘brown bull’ in German) told members of the media at the brand’s relaunch event yesterday evening that “believe it or not, the attaché case continues to sell well. Many customers are still loyal to us”. While the popularity of the attaché case (variously known as a diplomat case or, simply, briefcase) may have placed Braun Büffel in good steed in the past, it is possible that those “many customers” are a dwindling group. The new designs and product categories are clearly targeted at those for whom a work bag no longer needs to be prefixed by the classifier “business” or strictly made of leather.

Braun Buffel bags 2020 P1.jpgBoldly hued straps and colour-blocking of the Rebecca and Denise (right) bags for women. SGD469, SGD599, and SGD499 respectively

In fact, Braun Büffel’s Italian creative director, Fabio Panzeri, is certain that what an attendee called “pure classics” have “no future”. Mr Panzeri, a Prada alumnus who is based here and heads the design studio at Tan Boon Liat Building, is committed to making Braun Büffel “more modern and current”. If this was just talk and not given the physical results to show for, believing may require effort. But in the new store in ION Orchard a day earlier, nylon bags of various contemporary shapes and for different functions, as well as those in perforated leather, draw considerable shopper attention, possibly because Braun Büffel has not looked this modish.

If surprise is registered on the faces of those encountering these products for the first time, it is understandable. As one delighted window shopper told his female companion, “I thought Braun Büffel is an uncle brand”. This perception is perhaps compounded by its past, close association with department stores, from Tangs to Metro to BHG. One former accessories buyer told us that Braun Büffel continues to do well in department stores here, as in Europe, “because many boutique-resistant shoppers consider the brown bull a status symbol”. Yet, the stylised bovine had not quite allowed the brand it represents to shed its for-a-certain-age-group image.

Braun Buffel bag 2020 P2.jpgSpecial edit of the Jumper waist pouch, with its hi-vis chartreuse straps. SGD399

It could boil down to snob appeal, or the lack of. Despite its German provenance, Braun Büffel has been closely associated with Southeast Asia (in Singapore, it has been available since 1982) as it is partly owned by the 46-year-old, Kuala Lumpur-based and listed Bonia Corp Berhad (maker and retailer of Bonia, Sebmonia, and Carlo Rino bags—Italian-sounding names, but with no substantial history connected to the land in the shape of a boot) through a joint venture between Braun Büffel and 22-year-old Singaporean company Jeco Pte Ltd (whose subsidiary Lianbee-Jeco is licensee of Pierre Cardin, Bruno Magli, and Renoma), which Bonia acquired in 2010. Despite its consequently wide portfolio, Bonia was unable to un-tether itself from its successful marketing tagline “An Italian Inspiration”, which appealed to middle-aged women who might not have been able to identify Italian inspirations even if they encountered one.

While it may be potted to consider Braun Büffel an “uncle brand” because Bonia has a healthy auntie following, the association sadly has not been completely dislodged. To be sure, Bonia has submitted itself to change and a youthful image, even if they may not have proved effective. In 2013, a roundish Sonia bag was created, named after Sonia Sui (隋棠), the Taiwanese model/actress/social-media star engaged as brand ambassador, who, like many other Taiwanese in modelling and acting, also owns a fashion label, SuiTangTang. Two years later, it installed a former Burberry and Loewe designer, Pepe Torres, as its creative director. With the latest revamped Braun Büffel flagship store and its attention-pulling merchandise, things might move in a different direction, and quickly.

Braun Buffel bag 2020 P3.jpgDiscreet and smart recycled nylon Kendrish shoulder bag with Nappa leather trims. SGD549. Available in February

We were told that Braun Büffel’s operations and creative direction are independent of Bonia, a brand linked to Singapore if only because it was initially conceived for sale here, where its first store opened in 1981 in City Plaza, in the Geylang area, where Bonia once had a factory in the ’70s (it would be seven years later before Malaysia got its own Bonia store in Kuala Lumpur). With Mr Panzeri, who designed the entire collection since the last spring/summer season, forging ahead and eager to embrace traditionally un-Braun Büffel material, such as nylon—recycled nylon, to boot, the brand looks geared to lure a growing pool of customers who do not bother themselves with heavy, traditional leather bags.

The designs under Mr Panzeri’s watch are conceived to forge a stronger—not necessarily new—identity for Braun Büffel. It could, of course, be novel to the aesthetic tradition of the brand, having jolted it from near-inertia, but what’s new to Braun Büffel may not necessarily be so in the bag market, now a tad crowded with other labels also embracing the sporty and the street-leaning as modern. To be certain, this design direction is a necessary move for Braun Büffel—better late, as it’s oft-said, than never. We do, however, see that the trek taken isn’t an untrodden path. Mr Panzeri’s time in Prada has made its mark, so has the influences of Japanese bag makers, such as the hugely popular designer-manufacturer Porter Yoshida & Co, a favourite and go-to collaborator among designers and brands, from Marni to Murakami.

Braun Buffel bag 2020 P4Playful appliqué on the Bully-Digi clutch with detachable pouch. SGD499

Braun Büffel was founded by Johann Braun in Kirn—a small, valley town on the Western side of Germany—in 1887, not long after the Petri dish was invented by the microbiologist Julius Richard Petri. Initially dealing with saddlery and upholstery, Braun Büffel would, under the second-gen leadership of Mr Braun’s son Alois, make bags and small leather goods that proved to be popular, no doubt strengthened by their tangible quality. In Europe, following expansions outside their home country, the brand’s popularity was thought to be mostly within a certain set that counted function over style as incentive to buy. By many accounts, their foray into Singapore in the early ’80s, which saw the rise of the willing-to-spend Yuppy—was met with considerable success, enough for Bonia to acquire the local distributor at the time, Lianbee-Jeco, for the latter’s profitable star brand.

Following a period of plateauing, in terms of image, Braun Büffel began to take small tentative steps towards modernising its product designs and selections; also introducing new categories such as totes for men that had not existed before. It culminated in the opening of a new flagship store in MBS in 2016, which Braun Büffel’s MD Christiane Brunk had said to be “a pivotal chapter”. The swanky space definitively played down the department-store association of its early years here. This, for some observers, came somewhat belatedly, considering the remarkable upswing and subsequent success of heritage brands, such as Loewe, when they put themselves through striking change.

20-01-10-18-40-12-034_deco.jpgThe sleek, soft-hued interior of the new Orchard Road flagship

The new ION Orchard store that would, according to Mr Panzeri, set the direction for future Braun Büffel stores here and in the region, is a palpable contrast of textures—the brand’s signature leather in tan is a luxurious counterpoint to the more industrial, concrete/aluminium/glass surfaces and fixtures, with the overall grey, subtly gradated, part modern rawness, part conventional defiance. The welcome minimalism and the energised product mix make it easy to forget that Braun Büffel was once primarily a department store staple.

Mr Panzeri pointed out that “30 percent” of the new merchandise is directional and youth-oriented. According to him, Braun Büffel’s positioning is close to Tumi’s, with their sight cast towards Coach’s. It appears that shoppers are lured by the new offerings, in particular the sportif Jumper collection—assorted tough-looking bags that one staffer told us are “ideal for work and gym”. Their grouping near the store window is attracting the seriously curious. Probably, the sharp pricing too. Despite Braun Büffel’s refreshing aesthetic makeover, one thing still remains unreconciled for us: they don’t look like they’re Italian-made nor Japanese. Where, indeed, do they stand? Meanwhile, over at the Braun Büffel corner in Tangs, three men were looking with visible satisfaction at attaché cases. Clearly, we spoke too soon.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Erratum (17 January 2020): this post has been corrected from an earlier version which incorrectly stated that Jeco Pte Ltd was formerly known as Lianbee-Jeco

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