On a cool spring morning in midtown Manhattan, Brian Atwood is sitting on a couch in the Bally showroom, sipping water and fondling a shoe. Distractingly handsome—Atwood’s first foray into fashion, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in the early Nineties, was as a runway model—the designer runs his hands over the rich brown leather of a peep-toe maryjane, the substantial heel of which is shaped like an ice pick. “It’s the Guniga,” Atwood, 41, says in his low, quiet voice and places the shoe on a table in front of us. Six thin straps cross the top of the stiletto, with a tiny silver buckle accenting each one. He leans back and smiles. “It’s very sexy, right?”
Sexy, of course, is the name of the game for Atwood: In his first year as Bally’s creative director, he has gone about revamping the 157-year-old brand and its approximately 250 stores from a staid source of loafers and suit jackets for business guys to the sort of label that someone like Sienna Miller might look to for, say, a pair of killer pumps and a breezy prairie dress. (Indeed, the actress visited the Beverly Hills store just a few days earlier and scooped up a shirt, Atwood says.) Glamour—a certain go-go, endless-naked-legs glamour—is what Atwood has cultivated in his shoe designs since he started his own line in 2001, and it’s this particular sex appeal that caught the eye of Bally CEO Marco Franchini while he was casting about for a revitalizer. “I liked [Atwood’s] style; his sophisticated shoes,” says Franchini, who in late April announced the acquisition of Bally by
Labelux, a Vienna-based company. “There have been major improvements in the collection already. He’s made it more desirable, more modern. I think we’ve been able to provide the customer with a clearer image of where the brand is going.”
“I actually wasn’t looking for something else, at all,” Atwood says of his collaboration with the company, which includes overseeing accessories, men’s wear and women’s wear. “But it had a great name; it was kind of untarnished, so for me it was like a blank canvas that you can really do something with, and that was very interesting.” He pauses and smiles. “And to be able to have control over everything, that was good too.”
Atwood set to work in early 2007 by visiting the place of Bally’s birth (and the site of its archives): a sleepy Swiss town named Schönenwerd where, in 1847, Carl Franz Bally took over the family ribbon-weaving business, which he expanded into a shoe line, selling everything from delicate pumps to boots for schussing around the local snow-covered slopes. “There is literally a room full of 13,000 pairs of shoes, from the 1800s; from the Fifties, the Sixties. You have to wear gloves in there, and as a shoe designer, it was like being a kid in a candy store,” says Atwood. “I had no idea they did these beautiful glamour shoes, with an archive that would rival Ferragamo’s. And that got my head going about the possibilities.”
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.”
By the late Nineties, however, while working as the company’s chief women’s accessories designer, Atwood was getting restless, as well as distracted by what he calls “the sexy-shoe-girl thing.” “Women were buying shoes instead of paying their rent,” he says, laughing. “It was definitely [a market] where I wanted to place my product.” After mulling the move for a while, Atwood started his own line with Donatella Versace’s blessing, designing shoes characterized by beaded and feathered detailing; intricate, bondage-inspired straps; and high—very high—heels. Two years later, at the 2003 Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, he won Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Award for Accessory Design.
While Atwood says he has no plans to shutter his company, and even hints at possible expansion into ready-to-wear, his current focus is very much on Bally, for which he spends a majority of his time in Milan. “My goal is to make it an aspirational brand, a desirable product, and we want to inject that sexiness without scaring people away,” he says. As if on cue, a publicist hands over photocopies of the company’s new ad campaign, photographed by Mario Sorrenti, and Atwood holds one up to the light. Sure enough, there’s a pouty model, pale skin bared in all the right places, draped languidly in front of a window overlooking a glittering nighttime Gotham. It’s classic Atwood: alluring and just a bit racy. “We’re focusing on the strength of all the lines now, from the suits to the blouses,” he says. “And we’re turning up the volume.”