Tailored for Impact

Gerrit Ruetzel explores global markets on the ground for German fashion house Hugo Boss, keeping the multibillion-dollar brand relevant

From his forty-eighth-floor office high atop a south Manhattan high-rise building, Gerrit Ruetzel gazes out across the iconic New York City skyline. It’s a picture-postcard view as the president and chief executive officer of the Americas at Hugo Boss needs to only look in either direction to see the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, or One World Trade Center.

On the inside, his office’s chic, black-and-white palette is a testament to the simple, modern aesthetics embodied by the global premium luxury apparel brand. But Ruetzel admits he is more likely to be facing the stack of reports mounting on his desk than admiring his office or the scene outside his window. “I can hardly see the desk anymore,” Ruetzel says, laughing. “E-filing hasn’t reached me yet.”

Yet sitting in front of a computer screen is Ruetzel’s least favorite task. He would much rather be in the brand’s hundreds of stores gleaning insight from customers and team members, or say, taking a stroll through Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, or Los Angeles to gauge the latest trends. This inspiration serves to help the company make its next big move. “I’m not a big fan of sitting in the office and telling people what they have to do,” Ruetzel says. “I like to lead by example and send a signal to the rest of the team. I want to be close to the business.”

In the late 1990s, one could scarcely walk a city street without catching a whiff of the brand’s eponymous fragrance, or seeing the word “BOSS” emblazoned across the chests of celebrities, or the sweaters, tops, and accessories of the young and fashionable. It was the brand’s big moment, but the German fashion house has managed to endure well beyond the fads of the decade.

Hugo Ferdinand Boss founded the small clothing company in Metzingen, Germany, in 1924, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when its ready-to-wear menswear brand was established. That was the brand’s initial focus until slowly over the decades its popularity soared with expansion into sportswear, sunglasses, footwear, and fragrances.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the brand became synonymous with luxury. “A lot of people in the US were driven by Miami Vice, or saw Rocky [Balboa] wearing a BOSS sweater,” says Ruetzel, referring to Sylvester Stallone’s classic Hollywood boxing saga. “That’s what helped to launch the sportswear. There was certainly a moment in the US, where the male supermodels were wearing the brand. It was the new thing; it came from Europe.”

Growing up in Germany, Ruetzel wasn’t exactly in tune with the BOSS brand’s ascension, nor could he tell the difference between an English cut or Italian cut suit jacket. In fact, it wasn’t until he was finishing up his degree in business administration that he was introduced to the brand. It was his fourth and final internship, and he fell in love with the job. This was the company where he knew he wanted to launch his career.

Indeed, it seemed it would happen that way when one of his bosses offered him a full-time position following graduation. “That guy left the company a month later,” Ruetzel recalls. “The offer didn’t materialize. It was a huge disappointment. I was really putting all my eggs in one basket. I definitely didn’t want to work at a bank.”

With no job prospects on the horizon, Ruetzel returned to school to obtain a doctorate in international marketing. Two years later, he applied once again to Hugo Boss feeling that at the ripe age of twenty-four he had nothing else to lose. This time, the hand played in his favor. He “started at the bottom” in a back office position at the German headquarters, where he was tasked with checking on wholesale shipments in the warehouse. He would offer fragrances to the workers to get the shipments out faster. “It was very operational, but very important,” he says.

A few years later, he was on track to business development, which was much closer to his studies. In this new role, he had exposure to the board and his knack for numbers quickly led to a promotion to vice president of international sales at just thirty-two years old. “It was a lot of pressure,” Ruetzel recalls. “I had to watch two movies in a theater to kind of relax before the announcement. It was big shoes to fill, but every job is somewhat new, with new responsibilities.”

With internal responsibilities for Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Ruetzel also gained valuable perspective into international markets. “I got to travel to all those places,” he says. “It made me understand what their concerns were. It’s not just about design and fashion. They need businesspeople, like myself. You need people to market the product and make it successful.”

Shortly after, the company was sold to a private equity firm. With the change in ownership, the brand took on a new, global board who had their hearts set on transforming the retail side of the business. “It was really interesting because my career until then was really on the wholesale side,” he says. “But retail was the name of the game.”

As Hugo Boss developed a new game plan, the last thing Ruetzel wanted was to be known as “one of the headquarter guys,” Ruetzel says. He’d been at the company for eight years and voiced his desire to be on the ground. “We had several projects and strategies in the works and I said, ‘Listen, I’ve been traveling, and I’ve been seeing this and that in these markets. I want to be where my customers are.’”

His higher-ups acquiesced to his demands, and when the chance to move to Miami was put on the table, Ruetzel jumped at the opportunity. After his tenure in Florida, he helped shift the brand’s US showroom to New York City, and later was asked by the company to move to Asia to help shore up its market. So, he moved to Hong Kong.

“I looked over the entire region and had a really great time, but there’s always an expiration date,” he says, adding he was in Asia for more than four years. He was delighted when he was called back to the United States, and in late 2014, he was appointed to his current role as president and CEO of the Americas.

Hugo Boss is on the cusp of evolution once again. In the early 2000s, the company launched its BOSS womenswear collection—the latter segment of which is the company’s fastest growing sector today, a factor largely bolstered by the brand’s hiring of renowned fashion designer Jason Wu in 2013 (who has designed dresses for countless stars, and for First Lady Michelle Obama), who also serves as artistic director for its House of BOSS line.

Ruetzel says it wasn’t an easy transition for the time-honored menswear brand, however. “We had to think, ‘Okay, what’s the next big thing?’ We had to think about women,” Ruetzel explains. “Initially, we made a couple of mistakes. We were not feminine, not sexy enough. It was just work attire. That’s why Jason Wu was so important. The second piece was we had to work on our shoe and accessory line. It’s impossible not to have an accessory line in the womenswear world.”

As retailers continue to struggle to get customers into their stores, Hugo Boss focused on its women’s line and simultaneously set fire to its omnichannel strategy, starting in the tech savvy United States. As the US dollar weakens, spending is dropping, and more people are shopping online. This fact prompted the brand to revamp its retail website, put touchscreens and tablets into its stores, and create its shopping app, Endless Aisle, which is driving more traffic to its franchised, licensed, and wholesale stores.

The digital strategy also gave team members at BOSS the opportunity to upsell. “Even if customers shop online, we can ship to the store and do the fitting,” he says. “I think we’re at the very beginning of seeing a fundamental change in the retail side. We’re trying a lot of things with our business and with our staff, and we’re happy to invest in new technology. When it comes to customer service, shop design, and omnichannel, we have to lead the way and anticipate the customers’ needs and shopping preferences.”

It helps that the company has the adoration of Hollywood stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore, Kylie Jenner, and fans in the fashion blogosphere, as well as a prime position on the New York Fashion Week calendar. But outside of the limelight, big picture strategies such as placing stores in the right locations are vital to the brand. While Ruetzel doesn’t compare Hugo Boss to other brands such as Chanel or Dior, he does focus on markets where premium luxury brands excel, or as he says, “Where the money is.”

“The US is interesting because department stores are still so important,” he adds. “But mostly it’s the East Coast, West Coast, Miami, and a lot of business in South Texas. Because of our price points, we are not exactly inexpensive. Touristy spots are comparatively high.”

All of this has been learned by Ruetzel’s “roll up your sleeves” approach. He says the worst thing he could do is sit in an office, looking at numbers, and micromanaging through a telephone. Instead, Ruetzel says that attentive listening and a thorough understanding of cultural distinctions is what maintains the relevance of Hugo Boss, making it into a multibillion-dollar global lifestyle brand.

“I learned the business from scratch; I was not born into this role. I worked really hard to get where I am today. Wherever I travel people know the brand. If they don’t know the brand, they know the fragrance,” Ruetzel says. “But I’m always asking, ‘What’s the next big buzz in the market? How can we separate ourselves from other brands? How do you make sure customers get the message and understand what BOSS stands for?’ It never gets boring. That’s why I stay.”  

Editor’s note: at the time of publication, Gerrit Ruetzel was no longer at Hugo Boss.