The world's foremost expert on the backsides of fashionable sportswomen is a stocky 52-year-old German named Willy Bogner. Combining his rare powers of observation with an acute business sense and the inspired designs of his attractive wife Maria, Willy Bogner has grown rich and famous, revolutionized the ski-wear industry and earned the gratitude of every male skier between the ages of 14 and 102. Willy Bogner is the man who invented stretch pants.
When Bogner first introduced stretch pants in 1952, skiers laughed. For years they had been wearing costumes which appeared to have been stored in old sea bags. The colors were those found on the topsides of a tramp steamer—black, gray and brown—and the cut made everyone look as if he were auditioning to replace Emmett Kelly. Even the best ski pants made the wearer look a little less like a clown and a little more like Gene Sarazen on the eve of the 1922 U.S. Open. American skiers, in particular, seemed to be fond of baggy britches; there was a cult that considered it a mark of honor to dress sleazier than anyone else. So when Bogner put his beautiful new stretch pants on the market, everyone grabbed the nearest rope tow and headed uphill.
"Good Lord," skiers said, "you mean those things cost 40 bucks? They look like underwear." The ladies, blushing prettily, said "too tight," which shows how nearsighted some girls are, and they complained about the bright colors. The men thought the material was too thin and doubted that it would wear. At first hardly anyone bought Bogners.
But a few did—with immediate results. The new pants hugged the waist and hips and tapered in razor-sharp lines to the ankle, making legs look longer, somehow, as legs should look. Whether the wearer was swiveling through a ski lodge or stuck head down in a snowbank on the hill, the new shades of mauve and fuchsia and chartreuse proved superior attention-getters to the old gray and black and brown. Suddenly male skiers everywhere were observed observing babes in Bogners, to the exclusion of all else. So other girls, of course, went out and bought Bogners.
February 6, 1961
The men liked the pants, too, for wearing as well as viewing. The material, made from Swiss-patented kinknylon Helanca and wool yarn, turned out to be tightly woven and warm and dry. A few ski racers tried Bogners and found them perfectly designed for high-speed runs; there was no wind resistance, no flopping at the knee and the stretch material felt better and was more comfortable than the old gabardines and worsteds.
Soon everyone looked like a ski racer—as long as he was standing still—and Willy Bogner began to get rich. He sold all the stretch pants he could make, and the customers howled for more. And when the Bogners visited America in the spring of 1955, and Maria Bogner went onto the slopes at Sun Valley, women flocked around to ask where she got those adorable pants. "I made them," Maria said. Men flocked around, too, for even in her 40s Maria Bogner is a sight to delight. Particularly in Bogner pants.
Today, in a large, modern factory on the outskirts of Munich, the Bogners and their 500 employees produce 100,000 pairs of stretch pants a year, and could sell twice that many if Willy hadn't decided that working oneself to death was not a proper way to live. Skiers in Germany and Switzerland and Sweden and France, in every European country where people ski and high tariffs do not keep the Bogner line out, buy the pants that Willy and Maria Bogner make. But the Bogners consider America their No. 1 market, and annually they ship 40,000 pairs over here. Their outlets dot the country from Vermont to California and reach as far south as Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, where people live who wouldn't know a snow-flake if it landed on their nose.
"We like America," says Maria Bogner, in her charming, halting English. "Our daughter Rosemarie married an American last year."
"We like American girls," says Willy Bogner. "They are the best advertisement Bogner could have. American girls have longer legs than Europeans and they look better in stretch pants. For export to America, we cut the pants longer, a special size."
"We cut them longer in back, too," says Maria.
"Yes," says Willy. "American girls are trimmer, you know, in what you call...uh...the behind. American girls are built like pears. European girls are like apples."
Long before Willy Bogner was thinking about pears and apples, he was a skier. Born in Traunstein, a village near the Bavarian Alps, he was the Bavarian jumping and cross-country champion before he was 20, and in 1926 won the first slalom race ever held in Germany. "In the slalom in those days," he explains, "the race was different. You had to jump over barriers, like a steeplechase."
In 1928 Willy decided that his business would be ski equipment, and since the best skis in the world came from the shop of Marius Eriksen in Oslo, he went to Norway as an apprentice. At the time the Eriksens had a 4-month-old baby, Stein, who was only fat and blond and gave no indication that he would one day become the best slalom racer in the world.
"I left Norway after a year to return to Germany," says Bogner, "but I used to go back there every year, and I guess I was the one who taught Stein how to ski slalom. Even when he was little, Stein looked like a cross between a bird and a snake going through those poles."
For 10 years, beginning in 1929, Willy Bogner was a member of the German national ski teams, concentrating on the Nordic events. In 1935 he finished third to a Finn and a Norwegian in the world championships, and in 1936 he was selected to give the Olympic oath at Garmisch.
While he was building his reputation as a racer, Willy Bogner also built up an excellent business in Munich, selling Marius Eriksen's skis and his own line of parkas. It was during these same years that he met and married Maria.
"I was jumping in a meet," says Willy. "On top of the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, I looked down and saw this very pretty girl, but the thing that attracted my attention was that she had on the ugliest pair of skis I'd ever seen. They looked like moose horns. And I thought, 'I've got to sell that girl some skis.' " He did, and himself, too, and they were married in 1937.
By then Willy was in service, a lieutenant in the SS. "They took sports champions and made them officers in the SS," he says now. "Himmler said no SS officer could be married in a church, but Maria was a Catholic and she wanted to be married in a church. So we were married in a church. 'You'll never be more than a lieutenant now,' they told me, and I never was."
Bogner was sent to Norway and then to Finland to fight against the Russians. When Marius Eriksen, Stein's older brother who was flying British bombers, was shot down and imprisoned in Germany, he got a letter to Willy, who was home on leave. Willy and Maria sent Marius food. "Once he asked me to send him a saw," says Willy, "but I decided I had better not do that."
While Willy was fighting, Maria moved the three children, Rosemarie, Michael and Willy Jr., all born during the early years of the war, out of heavily bombed Munich into a village in a small mountain valley. And when Willy was tossed into prison by American occupation forces at the end of the war, along with all other SS officers, Maria reopened the ski business herself.
"I had to work," she says, "or we would have starved." There was almost no material available, but then there were few customers, either, so Maria managed to fill the orders, doing all the work herself, making deliveries on a bicycle. And from the first this handsome, prematurely white-haired young woman, who before the war had never so much as touched a needle and thread, displayed the meticulous workmanship and uncanny creative skill that was later to make the name Bogner synonymous with quality and style.
For two years, while Maria held the tiny business together, Willy was in prison camp at infamous Dachau, most of the time as a driver for the American commandant. "The only thing that saved me," says Willy, "were letters from people we had helped during the war—the Eriksens, others. So, eventually I got out."
(Stein Eriksen confirms what Willy says: "He got more Norwegians out of prison than anyone, and was more help to us than any other person could have been. I don't know how he did it. But he was known and respected for it, and he was never accused of being a real Nazi. In the war he was just doing his duty like a Chinese or you or anybody. And when Marius came home, the first thing he did was go right back to Germany and shake hands with Willy and say, 'Our friendship still stands.' ")
Willy found a Germany that had lost virtually all of its operating capital. "There was no money," he says, so Willy Bogner turned to the woods for survival. "I shot hares and caught trout and traded them to those who had material." By 1949 the Bogners managed to borrow and beg enough cash to buy an old sauerkraut factory in Munich; then Willy talked customers into paying 80% in advance so that orders might be filled. Somehow everything worked out, although the early garments retained a faint aroma of sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut or not, Bogner products began to sell. Their best item was ski pants of expensive gabardine, built, so Willy says, "to wear forever." These Bogner Spezials sold in the United States for the staggering price of $32.50 (the most expensive American pants were $17.50). But still the Spezials sold, and they first brought the Bogner name to the attention of American skiers. Then, one day in 1952, a French weaver of high-fashion silk for evening dresses dropped by the sauerkraut plant. From a new stretch fabric that pulled up and down and sideways and always returned to shape he had made up a pair of ski pants.
"They weren't cut very well," says Maria, "but I liked the idea immediately. I saw the possibilities. So we decided to take a chance."
That first year the Bogners put only 5% of their production into stretch pants, but by 1955 they were making ski pants of almost no other material. Today only a few dozen pairs of the famous old Spezials come out of the large, new plant, and most of them go to a group of Norwegian miners, who insist that they are still the warmest, driest, toughest pants ever worn by man.
Since the Bogners pioneered the stretch pants business, other manufacturers have followed, and today there are many good stretch pants on the market. Yet somehow the Bogners manage to stay out ahead. They had a jump of three or four years, for one thing, since the industry was reluctant to gamble until the new product was accepted. But, most of all, the Bogners stayed on top because of Maria's genius.
A demon skier herself, she wears each new product for a season before putting it on the market; the men's clothing is tested by Willy. Maria will remake a garment a dozen times, changing a seam here, installing an apparently meaningless slit there, moving a zipper half an inch forward or back or up or down, changing a pocket, and always the Bogner pants look better and feel better and fit better than anything else.
So do Bogner parkas, which have become almost as famous as the pants. Maria's personal favorite, however, among all the beautiful things she has created, is neither a pair of pants nor a parka but a simple one-piece stretch suit—which somehow, on the right girl, becomes the sleekest, most glamorous thing ever seen on a ski slope.
Last January, on their pre-Olympic European racing tour, all six members of the U.S. women's Alpine team bought Bogner one-piece suits, and even if Penny Pitou and Betsy Snite hadn't won three silver medals the U.S. girls would have been the hit of Squaw Valley.
Maria's only fear now is that someone is going to stretch things too far.
"At first our pants fit tighter in the leg than anyone else's. So others began to make them tighter. Now stretch pants are getting so tight as to be indecent. There is a point beyond which you should not go. When the legs get too tight, it is not good to ski. It is not even good to sit."
Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman manage to sit in Bogners—and sometimes ski. So do the Shah of Iran and the Swedish princesses and Toni Sailer and the Aga Khan. Mrs. Henry Ford II once bought 15 pairs. And almost every national ski team in Europe wears Bogner pants. On one of those teams—the German team—there is a racer named Willy Bogner Jr. Someday he may become the finest Alpine racer in the world.
A tall, slender boy with the light blue eyes of all the Bogners and a great shock of dark hair ("I have an awful time getting him to the barbershop," says Maria), young Willy has inherited his father's drive and sense of humor, his mother's charm and the talent to do almost everything well. He is a superb photographer, a dedicated jazz fan ("I learned listening to the Armed Forces Radio"), a wildly enthusiastic jitterbug dancer and an unusual student, who last year missed weeks at school because of the racing season, yet still managed to finish at the top of his class. He speaks beautiful English and French, as well as German, and someday, with his older brother Mike, he will inherit the business. But now he skis.
In 1959, the day after his 17th birthday, he won the White Ribbon downhill at St. Moritz, beating the eventual Olympic giant slalom champion, Switzerland's Roger Staub. In January of 1960 he won the famous Lauberhorn downhill, beating almost everyone who mattered in ski racing. And at the end of the first run of the Olympic slalom, the leader, by one full second, was young Willy Bogner of Munich. The pressure was too great, of course, for in leading off in the No. 1 position, Willy had all the great racers of the world breathing down his neck on that second slippery run. He tried to ski too fast and fell, just a few meters from a gold medal—and he took it like a gentleman. He smiled and answered questions politely and admitted that he was disappointed. "But I have many years ahead," he said.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to him," says his father. "He was too young to win such a big thing. He has wonderful technique and quickness and a very fast brain. But he lacks experience, and when he gets that, then is time enough to win."
"I wish," says his mother, "that he would quit racing right now."
This season young Willy Bogner has been injured, first with a twisted right ankle, then with a hairline fracture of the left. He missed the Lauberhorn, and although he skied in the Hahnenkamm with a foot full of novocaine, the lack of practice handicapped him severely and he didn't do well. Yet, as his father says, Willy is still young and there are a lot more racing seasons ahead.
The Bogners are proud of their son's skill, but then they are proud of all their children: Mike, who skis beautifully but prefers to jump horses, and Rosemarie, who married an American skier named Jim Tobin and now lives in San Francisco. "Last week," says Maria, "she called home, collect, to get a recipe for noodles."
Willy and Maria are happy with their life, and they make the most of their money—a quarter of a million dollars gross each year from the stretch pants alone. Long ago Willy graduated from shooting hares outside Munich to safaris into Africa and Alaska for big game. While Willy is in the bush, Maria suns herself on the Riviera. Together, they ski in Austria or Switzerland or California or Chile, wherever there is snow. Two years ago Willy severed an Achilles tendon during a steep downhill run, and while in the hospital caught pneumonia. Yet four months later he was on his way to the Karakorum, part of a Himalayan scientific expedition that had been planned for years.
"It was the chance of a lifetime," he says, "and they weren't going to leave me behind, even if I had to walk on crutches."
But the Bogners are aware that the pleasant life they lead would be impossible without those stretch pants—and they are determined that Bogner pants will adorn everyone who ventures into the snow. Several weeks ago Willy Bogner was visited by a group of very round young men, weighing many kilograms, who wanted to buy Bogner pants. They were the members of the German bobsled team which will compete in the world championships at Lake Placid later this month.
"I didn't know what to do," said Willy that evening. "I knew they wouldn't be very good advertising for Bogner pants. For circus tents, maybe, but not my pants. But I hated to refuse them. We made the pants. I hope they don't fall down."
Since the pants are Bogners, they probably won't—particularly since Willy had them made with suspenders. The Bogners always come up with something.