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Talking Germany

Blog with Peter Craven

Willy Bogner’s Happy Ending

From bombs and hunger to life on the ranch

He was born in 1942. Right in the middle of World War Two. In Munich. He still remembers the droning noise of the allied bombers as they passed overhead, dumping their deadly cargo on the city. Eventually Germany capitulated. And then the next memory: American GIs with Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. It’s a cliché, of course. But it was also a shimmering and highly symbolic reality. “After all,” he says, “we had nothing, except our hunger!” He’s Willy Bogner. Seventy years on – hale, hearty and healthy – he’s the head of a hugely successful fashion business and a former James Bond snow stunt cameraman! He’s also my latest guest on Talking Germany.

Confronted with those GIs, their confidence, their verve, and their music, the very young Willy Bogner knew one thing for certain: “I want to be an American.” And he went a long way to making that dream come true. After a spell as an international-class skier, he eventually took over his parents’ fashion business. Along the way he lived for many years in Vermont, which he adored, and later even owned his own ranch in Colorado: “To begin with, we had no water and no electricity.”

But when this war-scarred German stepped out to peruse what ranchers call their ‘spread’ he was proud to know that he owned every bit of land “as far as my eye could see”. He’d clearly made it as an American and, fittingly, his friend the American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren owned another ranch nearby. (“Bigger, of course,” Bogner grins.) These days, he’s somewhat less sanguine about the American Way of Life, though he’s not an America-basher. “I’m still fascinated by many aspects of life in the US,” he says. But, he’s surprisingly upbeat about Germany when he compares it with the US of A.

It’s a pity, he says, that so many people, including many members of the business community, tend to moan so much about Germany: “There’s a perception problem. Germany’s standing is much higher abroad than at home!” I wonder what, in Bogner’s estimation, makes Germany so good? “Well, when you compare us with the US, we have what we call our social market economy. There’s a high level of solidarity and social commitment.” And he’s a fan of Chancellor Merkel. Says she’s the right leader to master the current financial crisis: “She’s very precise, very clear. Pragmatic. She has very little vanity.” So are we going to beat the crisis? “Yes, there’s going to be a happy ending.” It’s a very American optimism – in the face of a very European crisis.


June 25, 2012