Fashion Firm Discovers Its Holocaust History
Clothier Hugo Boss Supplied Nazi Uniforms With Forced Labor

By Robin Givhan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 1997; Page B01
The Washington Post
The German clothing factory that eventually became the international menswear powerhouse Hugo Boss AG manufactured Nazi uniforms during World War II and most likely did so using slave labor.

The revelation appeared in the latest issue of the Austrian current affairs magazine Profil. A statement from Hugo Boss AG, which is based in Metzingen, Germany, details and confirms much of the account.

"The clothing factory founded by Mr. Hugo Boss manufactured work clothes and we think SS uniforms as well. . . . So far, we have no archives in the company and we're currently trying to find what was going on," says Monika Steilen, spokeswoman for Hugo Boss AG, by phone from headquarters in Germany. "This is the first time we have heard of the history."

Boss founded his family-owned garment business in 1923. The company struggled for a time, fell into bankruptcy, and then, during the war, made the uniforms worn by the German SS, storm troopers, Wehrmacht and Hitler Youth. It's likely that the factory was manned by forced labor including concentration camp prisoners and prisoners of war.

Following the war, according to Profil, Boss was ostracized as an "opportunist of the Third Reich," stripped of his voting rights and fined 80,000 marks.

Over time, the family business was passed from sons to grandsons. In 1953 it produced its first men's suits. By the early 1970s it was beginning its transformation into a manufacturer of pricey and fashion-conscious men's power suits and sportswear. In 1985 the company went public in Germany. Now, the majority of stock is held by the Italian fashion conglomerate Marzotto Group. No family members are currently involved in the company, Steilen says.

Hugo Boss AG, with turnover of approximately $535 million a year, regularly unveils its menswear collection in New York under the auspices of 7th on Sixth, a business division of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Last fall, a Boss Hugo Boss store opened on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown and there has been some discussion within the company of a second location in the Washington area.

"We don't close our eyes and say we don't want to know anything about it," Steilen says. "What can we do? We try to get a lot of information. We cannot do anything more."

The company may employ a historian to uncover more details about its founder, who died in 1948, and his Nazi involvement.

News of Hugo Boss AG's tainted past caught Seventh Avenue off guard. In a business where news spreads like wildfire and rumors fly even faster, the Boss story had been kept under wraps. The industry is slowly absorbing the news and wondering about the possible effect on the company's image and business fortunes.

How should the industry react to such a revelation? "It's a traumatizing question," says Stan Herman, the CFDA's president. "I live my life with one of the greatest conundrums in the world. . . . I love Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Strauss was in the Nazi party and Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer. As a Jew, there's constantly a conundrum there."

The many Jews in the fashion industry have dealt with the emotional issue of Nazism before, along with the appropriation of sacred costumes as style statements. Coco Chanel was reviled during her lifetime as a Nazi sympathizer due to her relationship with a German aristocrat who turned out to be a German agent in occupied Paris. The industry expressed outrage when designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons designed striped and numbered pajama suits that critics said looked like the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners. A Jean-Paul Gaultier collection that was inspired by the traditional garb of Hasidic Jews also raised hackles.

"There was a knee-jerk reaction to the Gaultier clothes," Herman says. "But this is a different story because this is in the past. . . . I hope the industry will put this in perspective.

"I'm glad people know about it," he added. "It's part of history, but I don't think the industry will close in on them."

The company's straightforward approach in dealing with the disclosure should serve it well, observes Frank Mankiewicz, vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, a powerhouse public relations firm adept at crisis management.

"It's been 50 years. The original liability is gone. Assuming the story is true, you concede it," Mankiewicz says. Then the company should explain itself and make its apologies: "We're making high fashion men's clothes. That's way in the past. . . . We would never be in such a business now. We'd go out of business before we'd do something like that now."

As a public relations disaster, "I'd say it's about a 5 or a 6 out of 10," Mankiewicz says. "They're going to have to deal with the ethical issue. They're going to lose some business, but they'll probably gain some by the notoriety."

Such bombshells about German companies that have been in operation since the war are not unusual. BMW used slave labor to repair airplane engines, says Steven Luckert, historian and a curator at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Certainly hundreds of German firms were involved in producing materiel for the war effort," he says.

And as working-class Germans went off to fight, a labor shortage developed. Businessmen could and did turn to concentration camps for workers. Says Luckert: "The laborers weren't forced on them."

Still, being a manufacturer of Nazi uniforms, as opposed to airplane parts or rivets, packs a larger emotional punch. "Even looking at some of these uniforms, because of what they were associated with, fills a lot of people with dread and terror," Luckert says. Even today, the uniform "symbolizes what the Nazis stood for -- terror, persecution, the power of the state."

Aside from adding a chapter to the history books, Luckert says there is the possibility of compensation. "Beginning in the 1950s, there have been a number of former concentration camp inmates who began filing suits against companies to be reimbursed for their labor," he notes. Some of those suits resulted in monetary settlements.

But there also is a moral imperative. Such revelations are a kind of forced catharsis. While Hugo Boss AG, with its many licensees and divisions, may be far removed from the original family-owned business, it still has an opportunity to learn lessons from the past. The willingness to dig deeper for more details about its history is likely to be seen as a positive step.

"This is a good example of a company acting not out of compulsion but out of moral need," says Kenneth Jacobson, assistant national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We shouldn't criticize them, but encourage them.

"It's hard to define their obligations," he says. It may be as straightforward as establishing a public education program on intolerance.

"The most important thing is to set an example for the future," Jacobson says. "You can't redeem the past otherwise."