Hugo Boss is a brand that’s associated across the world with style, class, and wealth. They’re known primarily for their premium sunglasses and wristwatches, but historically they’re known for a great deal more. Let’s take a closer glimpse at the man behind the name, and see exactly how he came to establish such an all-conquering fashion label.
Who was Hugo Boss?
Boss was born in 1885, in the Kingdom of Württemberg – a place which has since become a part of modern Germany. He was the youngest of five children, and did military service during his late teens before starting work in a weaving mill. His parents ran a lingerie shop In Metzingen, which he inherited in 1908, before eventually marrying, fathering a daughter and being drafted into the German army for World War I, where he attained the rank of corporal.
After the war, Boss returned to Metzingen and founded his own clothing company, which began by producing shirts and jackets before diversifying to produce a wide range of clothing for all occasions. The business endured turbulent conditions during the 1920s – despite being founded after the worst period of hyperinflation struck in the early part of the decade. In 1931, Boss would have to declare bankruptcy – but he reached an agreement with his creditors, and resumed business with just six sewing machines to his name.
Boss and Nazism
Naturally, this was a period of tremendous historical significance for Germany, and one whose repercussions would echo through world history. In 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler would rise to become chancellor of Germany, Boss joined the Nazi party. His involvement in this formative period of the movement’s ascent to power was not minor, and it is part of the reason that the brand was able to prosper during the time.
Over the course of the 1920s, the Nazi party had proven itself a good client. It supplied Boss with the designs for its uniforms, and Boss obliged. The company, at this point, had similar arrangements in place with other German organisations, like the postal service – and thus the then-young National Socialism Party was just another client.
Whether Boss’s joining of the Nazi party was an act of genuine commitment to the cause, or one of commercial opportunity, is unclear. During the 1930s, the Boss company would proudly advertise their associations with the Nazi party, displaying posters which proclaimed them responsible for the uniforms of the organisations like the Hitler Youth, the Brownshirts and the SS. The brand is even widely-believed to be responsible for the famous black uniform that we’re all now familiar with – though the real designer was a senior SS officer named Karl Diebitsch, in collaboration with an artist named Water Heck.
In the latter half of the 1930s, the company would see its turnover more than quadruple. But labour was difficult to find – and thus some two-hundred prisoners of war were forced to work in the factories, under sometimes unendurable conditions.
For obvious reasons, associations with Nazism are disastrous for one’s public image – and thus the modern Hugo Boss company are eager to distance themselves from any link with the period. This was made especially apparent in a 2013 GQ awards ceremony, sponsored by Boss, in which Russel Brand drew unwelcome attention to the brand’s history.
After the war
Following VE Day, Boss was labelled both an activist and supported of Nazism, and in 1946 he had his voting rights taken from him, and was forbidden to run a business. This might have been the end of the brand, had he not successfully appealed and been reclassified as a ‘follower’. Following Boss’s death in 1948, his son-in-law would assume ownership of the company. Under his stewardship, the company would gradually recover over the ensuing decades – along with the German economy in general. By the 80s, the brand had diversified to produce sunglasses, and in 1999 it agreed to pay around $1,000,000 to compensate slave labourers used in Germany during the Second World War.
Like many of the companies active in Germany during the war, including household names like IBM and Volkswagen, Boss found itself closely tied with the Nazi war effort. Its modern incarnation, however, has little bearing on that legacy. Hugo Boss black watches, Hugo Boss orange watches and a host of other fashion accessories are now worn across the world – by people of all races and creeds. Much the same, then, as cars produced by Volkswagen and computers created by Mercedes Benz.