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How Ferragamo veteran Sofia Ciucchi revived heritage brand Il Bisonte for millennials

Luxury label Il Bisonte has come a long way from a family-owned retailer to a landmark flagship store in Harbour City which opened this month.

Il Bisonte may not be the first Italian brand that comes to mind, but this artisanal leather label has been in existence for more than 50 years, heralding from Florence. For 20 years, the brand was distributed at a nifty mom-and-pop store in the neighbourhood mall of Heng Fa Chuen and had acquired a loyal following from local residents.

In 2015 British private equity firm Palamon Capital Partners acquired Il Bisonte, seizing back full control from franchisees to begin direct selling. The new owners recruited Sophia Ciucchi from Italian luxury house Salvatore Ferragamo, appointed her CEO of Il Bisonte and charged her with revitalising and reawakening the sleeping brand.

Proving her success, Il Bisonte has just been sold to Look Holdings Inc for €100 million.

Originally operating under a wholesale model, Il Bisonte has its footprints on a global level at renowned department stores and through local distributors.

“A couple of years ago, Japan represented 80 per cent of our sales,” explains Ciucchi. “At the end of last year, it was reduced to less than 50 per cent because the rest of the word was growing so much faster.

“Europe and the Middle East have made a high contribution and the US is also growing. So, I think it’s a question of rebalancing and making our brand more international in the rest of Asia and the US.”

For a long time, Il Bisonte has largely been focusing on developing its presence in the US, Europe and Japan and only now has it decided to re-enter Hong Kong with a strong foothold of the market.

Now with a new flagship at Harbour City, Il Bisonte is also guaranteed strong exposure to Mainland Chinese shoppers ahead of a planned store roll out on the mainland.  

“Hong Kong is a strategic market for Asia, especially China and other Southeast Asia markets,” said Ciucchi.

The business in Hong Kong is headed by retail manager Charles Lo, who says the company’s initial location at IFC mall ensured high visibility and established a strong market positioning in the territory. That drew approaches from other mall operators wanting the brand in their properties.

Despite Japan being its best-selling market, Ciucchi has no imminent plans to buy out local partnerships and begin direct selling there.

Ciucchi says due to the unique nature of the Japanese market and the characteristics of local shoppers often hard to grasp, the brand feels more confident having locals continue the label’s success there. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it is Ciucchi’s mantra.

Endorsing the circular economy

Il Bisonte crafts its handbags and accessories from bull-calf leather which ages with time and wear, giving it a distinctive look and making its pieces transgenerational. This inspired the brand to open a secondhand marketplace within its New York flagship store, and online. Consumers can resell their own pieces or purchase from others, embracing the circular economy.

Not only does this initiative coincide with the brand’s heritage background, but pre-loved goods are much more welcomed by eco-conscious millennials these days. With luxury brands usually unwilling to see their products displayed on second-hand platforms, Il Bisonte’s open embrace of the pre-loved strategy makes it somewhat unique in the sector.

Future digital plans

Another of Ciucchi’s innovative strategies is to leverage the brand’s founder Wanny Di Filippo, a cigar-toting, bearded icon of Italian fashion.

Il Bisonte has animated his character into a cartoon series, titled “Dreams Come True” to connect with the millennials and give the brand a more youthful approach. This storytelling is intended to evoke imagination and creativity, embodying the core values of the brand and share the story of how Di Filippo founded the brand.

Next, in a clear progression of its revival strategy, Ciucchi is looking into converting Il Bisonte into an omnichannel brand next, starting with a new e-commerce platform by next fall. From there on, she hopes to create a holistic ecosystem by connecting all retail channels together.

  • Tiffany Lung is a retail analyst with Tofugear.

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