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As Etienne Aigner Tackles Its Rebranding, Functionality Comes First

For years, Etienne Aigner was a shadow of its former self. Creative director Daniela Bardazzi walks us through her plan to reinvigorate the brand.
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After years of over-distribution and less-than-luxe luster, the house of Etienne Aigner shut down for nearly two years in 2011, resurfacing last year with a mission to bring the brand back to prominence. The latest step in that process? Introducing a full ready-to-wear collection for fall 2014, in addition to the handbags that once made Aigner a go-to for designers like Hermès and Christian Dior, under whom he apprenticed.

With her first full collection under her belt, Aigner's creative director Daniela Bardazzi sat down with us to talk about her plans for reigniting the once-stagnant brand.

When Bardazzi took on the job, she dove into the house's archival images and Aigner's autobiography, an unpublished work that his wife commissioned someone to write in the designer's last days. Although the brand itself had become diluted in recent years, she saw that Aigner's riding boots, loafers and cross-body bags are on point with what women want right now.

Trained as a bookbinder, Aigner arrived at handbag design out of necessity: He first made his wife a wallet for her ration card and later built her a drawstring bag with a handle to wear on her bicycle. The brand's signature burgundy leather came about because Aigner only had money for one can of dye.

"His hardware was always a little kooky because it was fashioned from hinges and found objects," Bardazzi says. "If you look in the archival book, he had a refrigerator thermometer as a closure."

Although Aigner was born in what is now Slovakia at the turn of the century, this practical, survivalist approach to life is a story that might resonate with anyone who descends, however distantly, from American immigrants.

"[Aigner's] industrious attitude built an original product," Bardazzi says. "It has to be fresh, it has to be new, but it has to function. I think in this market space, that proves through."

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With its range of beautiful leather bags outfitted with compartments, pockets and business card holsters, the new Aigner is all about function inspiring form. In many ways, Bardazzi is looking to make Aigner women's go-to for a "best friend" bag -- the purse that stores your life and travels everywhere with you. While Aigner's bags may not get pulses racing in the same way that a season's super-luxe "It" bag does, the goal is to win out in the market for day-to-day life.

"I think if you can make a product that you can get onto people -- and it's hard to find a replacement for it -- then they come back to the same place and see if they can just freshen it up. Then you win," Bardazzi says.

Since its relaunch, Aigner's super-utilitarian Stag Bag has proven to be the most popular, Bardazzi says. A men's bag in Aigner's day, Bardazzi has given it a more feminine silhouette while maintaining its 24/7 functionality. On the ready-to-wear side of things, anything with leather sells, meaning consumers are recognizing it as a cornerstone of the brand.

Outside of inching in on market share in ready-to-wear and accessories -- the clothing hangs next to brands like Vince and Burberry Brit, while the sub-$600 price point of the bags makes it a competitor to Coach or Kate Spade -- the new Aigner is tasked with re-educating consumers about its history. As the brand evolves, Bardazzi says she's looking to teach customers not only about the products' beauty, but also about their utility.

This involved opening up a new SoHo store that houses a reading room where women can hop on the WiFi and hang out. When looking at spaces, the label opted for a larger footprint not only as a declaration that Aigner is back in business, but with the goal of making it an event space. The team is planning a series of talks with original, working women akin to WSJ's Preetma Singh at the moment.

Bardazzi is also working on re-issuing bags from the archives, with the aim of producing them in a manner true to the way Aigner first did, ideally in time for fall 2015. Aigner's first bags were made on the presses that he used in book bindery, so it's difficult to find partners who have the machinery to create that look.

"We want it to feel like it just jumped off the page," she says. "We did some this fall that were inspired by the original, but I want the patina and the antiquing and the burnished edges."

Revitalizing a brand is often about going back to the beginning and figuring out what first worked for it, Bardazzi says. If that's true, reissues could be just the ticket.