“I’m going to have to find a new spot,” jokes Bally creative director Rhuigi Villaseñor, from what had seemed like a low-key corner of the lobby of New York’s Mercer hotel. During the course of the hour I spend with the newly appointed designer, six eagle-eyed fans and acquaintances (many of them donning Villaseñor’s own label, Rhude) politely cut in simply to shake his hand. Since founding Rhude in 2015, Villaseñor has won an impressive following that runs the gamut from rapper Future to actress Diane Keaton—who was once bold enough to ask for a jacket off his back. This season, with his debut collection for the 172-year-old Swiss fashion house, that fan base is about to get even bigger.
In a celeb-packed Milan venue in September, Villaseñor presented his own idea of luxury, informed by his unique life experience. It had been 20 years since Bally had last staged a runway show—and also 20 years, nearly to the day, since an 11-year-old Villaseñor had arrived in Southern California with his family, seeking refuge from a brewing civil war in the Philippines. In the audience, alongside Laura Harrier and Luka Sabbat, was Villaseñor’s mother, herself a tailor who once made all the family’s clothes.
“I was exposed to patternmaking through her,” Villaseñor says. “I remember her staying up late at night to sew our school uniforms or our costumes for plays.” Other early influences were drawn from pop culture, from the McDonald’s logo to the cinematic world of Ralph Lauren, the latter glimpsed via the fashion magazine tear sheets (most of them from ELLE, he says) that papered Villaseñor’s childhood bedroom. Thus the notion of the great American brand came to define Villaseñor’s concept of the American dream, which captivated him even as a kid, flexing his beloved Power Rangers watch. “It made me feel that I was a part of the American ecosystem,” he says.
Amid an oversaturated market where luxury has become synonymous with nearly anything at a certain price point, Villaseñor believes an item is nothing without sentiment and longevity. “It needs to be tied to experience, and not a fleeting one but a memory, something sweet, something dear to you,” he says. “There’s function, of course. But it needs to stand the test of time.”
A few years ago, Villaseñor drew up a short list of brands that he would consider working for; Bally was one of them. He’d seen Bally loafers on his father and grandfather, whose shoes he used to borrow. Later, when he got into thrifting, he found himself partial to the brand’s designs from the ’50s and ’70s. Now, with more than a century and a half of Bally history to sift through at the archives in Caslano, Villaseñor is charting his course.
“The golden nugget that I got from the archive is that Carl Franz Bally founded the company to make shoes for working women, so we had to start with womenswear,” he says. For spring, that meant a new logo, silk evening pajamas (“a modern, chic way of doing a baggy suit”), luxe leather, and the introduction of swimwear and jewelry. This winter also saw a curling capsule, offering not only new iterations of the iconic Bally curling boot but the elevation of a lesser-known sport.
For Bally CEO Nicolas Girotto, Villaseñor’s hiring was a no-brainer. “I admired his multidisciplinary approach, with his background in art; his love for craftsmanship, music, travel, and design; and his ability to engage and build community with his genuine positivity,” says Girotto, who has granted Villaseñor oversight of the complete customer experience. “I want the brand identity to be so strong that when you look at a flower arrangement, you think Bally,” says Villaseñor, who is currently at work on a redesign of Bally boutiques. He’s also developing his wine palate (he favors Burgundy and created a wine tote for spring 2023) and, appropriately enough for his new Swiss setting, improving his skiing.
“I always wanted to go where I felt like I was most needed,” he says. “Bally, to me, was a sleeping Ferrari. So I’m like, let’s turn it up.”
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of ELLE.
Naomi Rougeau is ELLE’s senior fashion features editor.