Hugo Ferdinand Boss was born on the 8th of July 1885 in Metzingen, a small city located about 30 kilometres south of Stuttgart in Germany. He was the youngest of Luise and Heinrich Boss’ five children. By the time of Hugo’s birth, Metzingen had become widely known for its booming textile industry due to the impact of the industrial revolution in the area. And so, like most of their peers, Hugo’s parents were also involved in the industry, owning their own linen and lingerie shop in town. Consequently, Hugo naturally become interested in garments and fashion from a very young age.
As a teenager Hugo had the opportunity to do an apprenticeship as a merchant, a choice which itself indicates that the Boss family wasn’t lacking in means. Like most young German men at the time, he had also completed to years of military service by the time he was 20. Thereafter Hugo began working at a weaving mill in the city of Konstanz located near the Swiss border, about 150 kilometres south of where he grew up, but returned to Metzingen to take over his parents’ lingerie shop in 1908, at the tender age of 23. Because only two of Heinrich and Luise’s five children survived infancy, Hugo and a sister, Hugo had been named the heir of the family business. During the course of that same year he also married Anna Katharina Freysingen, and the couple would eventually have a daughter together.
When the First World War broke out, Hugo, who had been a German nationalist from a very young age, joined the German Imperial Army and served on the front lines between 1914 and 1918. The loss of the war was both a devastating blow for Germany as a whole as well as a major disappointment to Hugo personally.
After the war, Hugo returned to Metzingen to continue managing his parents’ shop, but now also took the initiative to start his own clothing company in 1923, called Hugo Boss AG. The following year, with the financial support of two partners, he started a factory which produced shirts, jackets, work clothing, sportswear and raincoats. Boss employed around 30 factory workers at the time, who produced all clothing by hand. However, Weimar Germany, the Federal State existing at the time, was characterized by a very detrimental socio-economic climate, and Boss was on the brink of filing for bankruptcy by the late 1920s and his factory was on the verge of shutting down. Hugo was shattered once again. For, this man, who had passionately dedicated himself to building an industry he loved so dearly, who had fought in the trenches for a country he loved so dearly, everything around him seemed to be falling apart. But Hugo continued to work extremely hard, determined and dedicated to make a success of his company. At the time Germany’s national debt was rising and the its currency, the Mark, had become almost worthless. The country and its entrepreneurs were in major trouble. Getting a loan was becoming increasingly difficult, but by 1931, Hugo managed to cut a deal with creditors and was able to keep a mere six sewing machines running at the time.
The fact of the matter is that for many hard-working German entrepreneurs at the time, like Hugo, the devastating economic impact of the First World War, the consequent Treaty of Versailles and the failing economic policies of the Weimar government threatened to become their undoing. They felt that they were being disadvantaged and unfairly supressed. Something had to change. And, by 1931, it seemed to Hugo that the most likely agent effectuating such change would be the Nazi party, which he joined that year.
Hugo gradually ascended into the higher ranks of the Nazi-party, becoming a member of the German Labour Front, a national labour organization which managed to replace all of the existing trade unions at the time. But Hugo Boss’ association with the Nazi-party really proved beneficial when he put out an advertisement in 1934, claiming that his clothing company had been the sole supplier of Nazi uniforms for the preceding ten years. However, this was not entirely true, since he had only begun manufacturing these by 1928 at the earliest.
Nonetheless, by 1932 Hugo Boss AG was the first to start producing the black SS-uniform and by 1938 the company was also producing the Wehrmacht uniform. Despite the fact that the Nazis imposed some restrictions on the textile industry, Hugo directed his energies towards the one market which was booming at the time: military uniforms. While the company also continued to produce other textile, it is evident that the Hugo Boss of the 1930s and 40s was not anything even remotely close to a fashion company, but rather a manufacturing plant producing military uniforms.
As Hugo Boss AG grew, he made sure to only employ loyal supporters of the Nazi party in managing positions with the company. Hugo’s dedication to the party was evident, and he even had a photograph of himself with Adolf Hitler hanging in his apartment. As demand for military uniforms continued to grow, the company started experiencing a major shortage of laborers. Consequently, Hugo also used war prisoners, recruited by the Gestapo, as labourers in his factories during the Second World War, the majority of which were women.
Hugo benefitted greatly from his association with the Nazi party as this association effectively enabled him to keep his company going. In fact, it enabled Hugo Boss to flourish. Within a decade after he had joined the Nazi party, his sales increased tenfold. The company went from a small manufacturer with just a few sowing machines at the start of the Third Reich to being one of the biggest companies in Metzingen during the Second World War.
But, as we know all too well from history, this association would eventually end in another major disappointment when the Nazis finally lost the war in 1945. In 1946, in a post-war trial, Hugo was convicted of being an activist and beneficiary of National Socialism and was stripped of his voting rights and banned from running a business in Germany. He was also slapped with a fine of £54 000. Boss appealed the verdict, however, arguing in court that he was only a follower of as opposed to being an activist for National Socialism and that saving his company and doing something about the rampant economic decline in Germany at the time was the great motivating factors in his decision to align with the Nazis. His appeal was successful and his sentence was somewhat mitigated.
In 2011, the company issued a statement of “profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Boss under National Socialist rule”, referring specifically to the prisoners of war he used as laborers. Nonetheless, as Boss’ biographer Roman Koestner points out, historical evidence also suggests that Boss exhibited genuine concern for the welfare of the forced laborers and earnestly sought to provide them with good living and working conditions. They were also comparatively well compensated. Statements afterwards made by forced labourers concerning Hugo Boss himself were, in fact, generally positive.
However, since Boss was now banned from continuing to manage his company, his son-in-law, Eugen Holy took over the reins. Hugo Boss would eventually pass away shortly after the war, however, when he died, at the age of 63, on the 9th of August 1948, after an untreatable infection caused a tooth abscess.
Despite the blow the company took following Hugo’s trial, it continued to grow from strength to strength under the leadership of Holy and, after his retirement in 1969, also under his two sons Jochen and Uwe. The company had initially continued to produce military uniforms in the years following Boss’ death, but now for the French occupation forces and the Red Cross. From the 1970s onwards, however, Jochen and Uwe Holy began focusing on the production of men’s suits and eventually transformed the company into the international luxury fashion house it is known as today.
Hugo Boss’ legacy is, albeit largely due to the tremendous work of his grandsons in taking his company to new hights, not completely tarnished by his associations with Nazism. Today his name is synonymous with one of the most recognizable and respected luxury fashion brands in the world, known for its production of luxury clothing, accessories, footwear and fragrances and also one now owning over 1000 retail stores worldwide.
The issue surrounding Hugo Boss’ political associations nonetheless continue to be controversial and probably will continue being controversial in future. However, it cannot be denied that the man was a truly remarkable opportunist, who managed, within a decade, to, take an insignificant little company on the verge of bankruptcy to such heights that he successfully laid the foundations of one of the most successful luxury fashion brands the world has ever seen — one which for that very reason continues to bear his name to this day.