Past won't hurt Fashion: Retailers say Nazi connection will not affect sales of Hugo Boss line.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are many skirmishes in the fashion world, but reports that the founder of Hugo Boss used forced labor to produce uniforms for Hitler's war machine have been met with peaceable restraint.

Retailers with an investment in the high-end men's clothing line are willing to put the evolution of the label into historical perspective. The Hugo Boss management is promising a spirit of openness.

The story of the Nazi connection broke in the Austrian news magazine Profil, which said that Hugo Boss, the founder of the original company, used forced and POW labor to manufacture uniforms for the SS and Hitler youth.

The present company was first made aware of the connection a few weeks ago, when the Hugo Boss name appeared on the Swiss Banking Association's published list of dormant accounts, says Monika Steilen, spokesperson for the international fashion house.

"We felt it was a matter for the family," says Steilen, "because the company has no connection or claim to the money."

Although the Boss company of today has no links with the founding family, they are making attempts to clear the records.

"We know very little about the early days because the company archives don't go back that far," says Steilen, "so we are thinking to employ a historian to fill in the missing information."

The short history provided by the company states that in 1923, Hugo Boss founded a clothing factory in the southern German town of Metzigen that manufactured work clothes, raincoats and uniforms until 1948. During World War II the production plant was integrated into the centralistic wartime economy. The company now admits it is likely that the facilities were partly staffed by forced labor and POWs during this period.

Hugo Boss died in 1948, and the company passed to the next two generations. In 1989 the family sold its shares to a Japanese investor. Today the company is held by the Marzotto Group of Italy.

The company says it will not close its eyes to the past but will deal with the issues as they arise.

"The response from our retailers has been positive. They trust what Boss is doing today. The media, too, has shown a high degree of understanding and we hope people will be aware that this is a different company," Steilen says.

The Daily News Record, a trade paper of the men's apparel industry, last Friday polled major menswear retailers and reported that most downplay the story and do not believe the Hugo Boss past will have an effect on future sales.

"It's an interesting revelation, but it's unlikely to have a major impact," says Tom Julian, trend analyst for Fallon McElligott. "A partnership is a partnership and when it is a profitable product companies continue to operate as usual."

Eddie Steinberg, whose store J. S. Edwards Ltd., in Pikesville, carries a full Hugo Boss line, considers the time frame. "It is a completely different company than it was in the war years and ideas change," he says. "The customer buying Hugo Boss today is much younger, and may not even be aware of the world situation 50 years ago. Today's customer wouldn't have the same sentiments as would his parents' generation. That may be sad but it's real."

From a fashion perspective, the wartime vintage Hugo Boss uniforms will forever be classics. They are the quintessential example of monstrous but perfectly tailored villainy.

Pub Date: 8/19/97

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