Not surprisingly, reinvigorating a label that was once name-dropped by Eighties rappers Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh (“Threw on the Bally shoes and the fly green socks”) and long thought of as a men’s brand presented a challenge for a designer with a fan base of decidedly current starlets. (Lindsay Lohan and Mischa Barton are regular clients.) Atwood is proving himself deft at a new sort of product placement, however; in May socialite Byrdie Bell donned a gold, caftanesque Bally dress for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala, where she joined Atwood on the red carpet. (His boyfriend of more than a year, interior decorator and Oprah pet Nate Berkus, also made an appearance.) Later that month, Angelina Jolie was spotted swanning around Cannes with Bally’s Jana bag—a roomy tote—hanging from her arm, while both Demi Moore and Kate Bosworth have been seen in Bally since Atwood took over.
To a certain extent, Atwood has already achieved a big goal with Bally: establishing the stores as a destination, a place to which women would make a beeline for the latest It item. “When I started I said, ‘Your stores aren’t really women-friendly. I can’t really imagine a woman going there to buy a beautiful pair of shoes,’” he says of the company, which has opened an additional seven stores internationally this year. “We had to find a key staple.”
The cornerstones of the fall-winter 2008 collection, then, were the shoes and bags. Atwood amped up the label’s va-voom quotient with new details—buckles on straps, shearling on boots, sleek chains on satchels—while maintaining the line’s traditional austere look. There are slouchy flat boots made of paper-thin calfskin, patent-leather ostrich shoulder bags and satchels, and ready-to-wear that includes a printed silk georgette dress, harem pants, a shrunken vest and a black wool cashmere coat with fur trim (very Julie Christie circa 1967). “The style could be described as bohemian, but if you separate the pieces of the collection, there’s always a great dress, a great jacket, a belt,” says Atwood, who has so far jettisoned plans for a runway show, instead quietly expanding the collections every season and offering showroom viewings to editors. “In the last year we’ve had a waiting list for bags, which we’ve never had before. But this isn’t even a millionth of what I think we can do.”
Atwood likes to tell the story of how, at F.I.T., he and hundreds of other undergrads lined up to hear a speech from the man who would become his future employer, Gianni Versace. “I remember fighting all these students, all of us wearing those printed silk shirts, thinking we’ll get priority,” says Atwood, who grew up in suburban Chicago and became one of the first American designers hired by Versace to work in Milan. (He started in ready-to-wear in 1996, with the Versus line.) “It was like being an artist and Picasso saying, ‘Hey, would you like to work with me?’” he recalls. “What I loved was that it was such a small, close-knit group, and you were part of that family. When they asked your opinion, they really wanted to know it.”