Sartorial Success

Rags to Riches, Ahlers Climbs Europe's Apparel Pyramid

Ahlers' Pierre Cardin showroom at the Panorama tradeshow attracted plenty of buyers.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Brands such as Pierre Cardin, Baldessarini and Otto Kern accounted for two-thirds of Ahlers’ €247 million in sales last year.

  • Facts


    • Adolf Ahlers founded the company in 1919 as a clothing wholesaler.
    • Three generations of the Ahlers family have run the company.
    • Stella Ahlers, the chief executive, is developing an own-name store concept.
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Most people have heard of fashion brands Pierre Cardin, Baldessarini and Otto Kern, yet few outside the industry are aware of the company behind these brands, Ahlers. The German company is among the largest publicly-traded apparel makers in Europe. In the course of its 95-year history, it has transformed itself from a supplier for clothing stores such as Peek & Cloppenburg and Dyckhoff into an independent brand group.

How did a mid-sized company manage to acquire such well-known fashion labels? Sometimes through a mixture of good timing and boldness, like in 2006, when chief executive Stella Ahlers heard that Boss was giving up its Baldessarini label and reacted swiftly.

“I simply called Mr. Baldessarini,” said Ms. Ahlers. The company then bought most of the apparel marketing rights from the renowned designer Werner Baldessarini.

“Baldessarini is a great label with a great brand core,” Ms. Ahlers said. It is now one of Ahlers’ premium brands, along with the Otto Kern and Pierre Cardin labels. Together they accounted for almost two-thirds of the company’s €247 million ($326.23 million) in sales last year.


Stalle Ahlers_DPA
Under Stella Ahlers’ leadership, the company has been focusing on upscale fashion brands. Source: DPA


These fancy fashion names are a world away from the clothing wholesale business founded in 1919 by Adolf Ahlers in Jever, northern Germany. He moved to Herford in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1932, then a center of the German textile industry, and began manufacturing garments.

In peak times, the company had 2,500 employees in Herford, making suits and jackets for clothing stores. But the textile landscape changed dramatically in the 1970s, when factories in Asia and eastern Europe started producing clothing at a fraction of the price companies were producing in Germany.

Jan A. Ahlers, who took over after his father’s death, launched his own brand of jeans and pants, called Pionier. After U.S. giants Wrangler and Levis pushed into the German market, the founder’s son was forced to counter with an international brand; he redesigned Pioneer into a polyglot label.

Produced in company-owned factories in Poland and Sri Lanka, Pioneer Authentic Jeans today compete with international brands in German retail trade and department stores such as Kaufhof and Karstadt. Pionier Jeans & Casuals offers “refined pants and outsizes,” Ms. Ahlers said.

Her father took the company public in 1987 and continued to expand by adding premium labels. In 1992, he acquired the first license for the French label Pierre Cardin and at the turn of the millennium, the marketing rights to German fashion designer Otto Kern.

Ms. Ahlers made her own changes when she took over in 2005, selling off companies such as shirt maker Eterna. She expanded the work clothing division that her grandfather began with just blue overalls and grey smocks. For the past couple of years, company sales have hovered at about €250 million ($330.2 million).

“We can imagine opening three more stores next year in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.”

Stella Ahlers, Chief Executive, Ahlers

Each generation of Ahlers reshapes the company’s remit to fit with the times. Ms. Ahlers is currently developing a store concept to compete with international brand stores. The first one is set to open this year in Hamburg, where she plans to sell the Pierre Cardin and Baldessarini brands, as well as upscale Pioneer jeans all under one roof.

“We can imagine opening three more stores next year in Germany, Austria and Switzerland,” she said.

Art is also on her fashion agenda. “We are thinking about having small exhibitions for customers in the future,” she said. Ms. Ahlers and her company own a large collection of contemporary art, with works by A. R. Penck and Andy Warhol adorning the headquarters in Herford.


This article was translated by David Andersen. To contact the author:  

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