in the bag

The rise and fall of Etienne Aigner, Germany's luxury handbag brand

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Must be this season's "must have." Source: Aigner PR

When the current owner of the company finally gained full control, the most valuable thing left to one of Germany’s best-known leatherware firms was its good name.

Etienne Aigner, a fashion brand from Munich, was deeply in debt, weighed down by long-term logistics problems and struggling on the cosmetics market. But Evi Brandl became its unlikely savior. The 79-year-old Bavarian is the scion of a chain of butcheries, a traditional sausage-maker called Vinzenze Murr. She and her sons inherited and ran the 300 butchers for 24 years, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country.

She started to buy shares. Etienne Aigner caught her eye, a fellow company in Munich and the last German leatherware brand. By 2014, she held 99 percent of them and could finally call the company her own.

The handbag brand had a proud history. It was launched by a Hungarian designer of the same name, who set out as a binder of books. He then started making bags for the likes of Christian Dior in Paris. Later, Mr. Aigner moved to New York and made a fortune selling distinctive handbags made from top-quality leather matched with unexpected materials like raffia and mesh. In the 1960s he licensed the global rights (apart from North America) to a German businessman, Heiner H. Rankl. The latter used Mr. Aigner’s name on bags and accessories produced in Italy, a clothing collection and perfumes, among other goods.

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A fancy new campaign by fashion's favorite multi-media artist, Quentin Jones. Source: Aigner PR

When the label moved to Munich, the company became cool. A sponsor of race days, it was beloved of Munich’s 1970s jet set.

But by then Etienne Aigner had become better known for fights between management and shareholders than for its distinctive horseshoe-shaped logo. But when Ms. Brandl secured the majority, she put a stop to the bickering by firing the entire board. Then, in 2008, she hired Sibylle Schoen from another German luxury brand, Goldpfeil, bringing experience from Escada and Wolford, well-known fashion labels.

The secret weapon

That’s when the real change came, Ms. Brandl boasted. Ms. Schoen scaled back the Aigner collection to its core business, overhauled management, changed suppliers and stockists and took the brand online. She brought the design office back from Italy to Munich and hired a young German she knew from Goldpfeil, Christian Beck, as creative director.

Now, the company is growing, though Ms. Brandl won’t divulge any numbers. According to tax records, in 2016 Etienne Aigner booked a €44 million turnover and €5 million profit.

Today Aigner handbags are sold in 35 countries and cost between €299 ($344) and €2,500 ($2,880). Buyers span older businesswomen to students looking for accessories to wear at their graduation. Etienne Aigner even puts on its own show in Milan, a costly undertaking for a small company. Last year, the new flagship Etienne Aigner store opened in Milan, home of luxury leatherwear. Next up is a new HQ in Munich.

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Appealing to pattern-loving youth. Source: Aigner PR.

Despite all this, Etienne Aigner remains a small fish in a large luxury goods pond, alongside conglomerates such as LVMH and Hermes. It’s a tough market: The time span during which a luxury bag can be sold at the full retail price is only about two and a half months. Then the discounts and factory outlets kick in with reduced prices and a profit is harder to make.

Marketing is crucial for anyone who wants to win in this sector. That’s why Aigner tasked Paris-based multi-media artist Quentin Jones with the brand’s newest campaign. She has also made videos for pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and worked on campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

Onlookers say the only way is up: Ms. Brandl has earned the respect of peers and celebrities alike, who call her a tough-as-nails businesswoman with bags of charm.

Georg Weishaupt covers the retail sector for Handelsblatt. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: weishaupt@handelsblatt.com

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