165 years of innovation: Bally and Switzerland

Rob Ryan describes the incredible development of Bally since its inception in 1851, and how its history is deeply intertwined with that of its home country, Switzerland

It is remarkable to think that, 165 years ago, when Carl Franz Bally founded the company that still bears his name, the Switzerland he lived and worked in wasn't really what we think of as Switzerland today. In fact, like siblings, company and country have grown up together, cheek by jowl, maturing into the internationally respected institutions they are today.

165 years of innovation: Bally and Switzerland

The cliché about Switzerland is one of neatness and efficiency, of beautiful timepieces, creamy chocolate, prosperous banks, beautiful mountain scenery (and fearless mountaineers), where trains run like clockwork and the Swiss Franc underpins a rock-solid economy. Yet consider this: when Bally set up his business in 1851, the Swiss Franc was barely a year old and most of the famous banks had yet to be founded (Credit Suisse, for example, dates from 1856). The construction of a national rail system did not begin until 1853; milk chocolate didn't arrive until 1875 (and Toblerone until 1908!).

And what about those famous luxury timepieces? The venerable Patek Philippe formed in 1851, the same year Carl Franz Bally created his footwear company (inspired by a trip to Paris to buy shoes for his wife) in the cellar of the family home at Schönenwerd.

The aim of Bally was to produce the finest-quality leather shoes, combining wearability with fashionability. The products of the basement workshop were so successful that there were funds enough to open a factory in the town just three years later, in 1854. Incidentally, this was the year Alfred Wills conquered the Wetterhorn, beginning Switzerland's 'golden age' of alpinism, which ended with the conquest of the fearsome Matterhorn in 1865.

Bally, too, was entering something of a golden age. By 1860 it had some 500 employees, who enjoyed enviable social and health benefits from a company with a typically Swiss progressive, inclusive and egalitarian ethos. (Remember, this is a nation that managed to accommodate four spoken languages.)

In 1868, it began to mechanise, introducing American sewing machines powered by water-driven turbines, and by the 1870s, it was the pre-eminent European shoemaker. Its output was highly coveted by the fashionistas of the day and stores were opened in Buenos Aires (1873) and Paris (1879). In 1882 (just as another Swiss export, Heidi, was setting out to conquer the world), it established a permanent foothold in one of London's most renowned shopping destinations, Bond Street.

In 1890, it introduced a bona-fide timeless classic, the chic Zürich pump, and by 1896 was using pioneering Goodyear welting techniques for increased durability. Bally's reputation was further bolstered by its fleet-footed response to changing customs of the day - such as the fin de siècle trend among women to reveal more ankle - without courting mere novelty. By then, the Bally crest had become - as it remains - an international hallmark of quality, style and craftsmanship, an example of the Swiss love of precision, practicality and innovation (the latter another key characteristic of the country - it has the largest number of patents per year per capita, ahead of the USA).

At the turn of the century, Switzerland had emerged a fiercely democratic, neutral country, the perfect home for the famously non-aligned humanitarian organisation The Red Cross (founded in 1863). By 1916, while the rest of Europe was consumed by conflict, Bally had 7,000 employees and was producing four million pairs of shoes a year, for both men and women. The 1920s were good for Bally, its pumps (now often flamboyantly embroidered) perfect for the softer, liberated lines of Jazz Age fashion favoured by the flappers.

However, Bally did not neglect its core values, nor its heritage - in 1927 it opened the 'Bally Lab', an R&D facility in its hometown of Schönenwerd, concentrating on new techniques for leather craftsmanship and new production processes. The fruits of this facility can be seen in classics such as the men's Scribe shoe (1951), which celebrated Bally's centenary, and which was handmade in 200 steps and took six hours to complete. The current Scribe range is a cornerstone of the modern men's collection.

There have been plenty of other high-water marks in Bally's story over the past 165 years - such as supplying footwear for the Swiss Olympic team in 1948, and its boots helping conquer Everest in 1953 - and Bally's quest for the best quality continues with groundbreaking creative collaborations with some of the finest architects and designers in the world.

This is actually an ongoing tradition - historically, Bally has teamed with the likes of Robert Mallet-Stevens, who founded the French Union of Modern Artists and who designed four stores for the brand, including the flagship in Paris in 1929. Karl Moser, widely regarded as the 'father of Modernism', designed the Bally Kosthaus - built to serve the needs of the workers - in Schönenwerd in 1919. In 1995, the Zurich store - along with several others - was renovated by star French designer Andrée Putman, known for her minimalist, avant-garde furnishings and interior design.

165 years of innovation: Bally and Switzerland

Today, the sense of an ongoing tradition continues with the rolling out of striking new Bally stores across the world (including flagships in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo's Ginza district) created by David Chipperfield Architects. The concept cleverly builds on the company's heritage by taking its inspiration from an image of a 1921 Bally store designed by famed modernist and furniture designer Marcel Breuer.

As with all things Bally, the past deftly (but never slavishly) informs the future, an ethos that, since 2014, creative director Pablo Coppola has been applying to the collections. Often studying the archives and reinterpreting the designs with a modern edge, he always manages to keep a sense of the finest craftsmanship and the tactile nature of beautiful materials to the fore.

Together with Bally CEO Frédéric de Narp, Coppola is paving the road ahead for a great global company that remains, at its heart and in its traditions, a proud part of Swiss history.

Rob Ryan is an author and journalist for The Times and The Sunday Times