What you never knew about Bata: It is not a Singaporean brand, and collabs with Star Wars and CDG paving its future
A new era afoot
The footwear company Bata seems to be quite a mysterious beast, though it is by no means unfamiliar. Locals born before the mid-'90s will recall their white velcro sneakers and pop-coloured Bubblegummer sandals — shoes that practically shod a nation's entire population, aged ten and under, in their prime. But what of the brand thereafter?
Bata's perceived disappearance from the scene is not the only enigma here. Its origin as well, a little fuzzy; ask a fellow Singaporean where the brand is from and they'll probably say it’s local. Its identity now too, a tad surprising; Bata in recent years has been collaborating with the likes of Comme des Garçons, 10 Corso Como and Star Wars.
So how did the brand — founded in Czechoslovakia over a century ago by Tomáš Baťa — assimilate so seamlessly in our local landscape for decades, dominate the footwear domain only to sort of fizzle out, and now, stage a "homecoming" by way of such noteworthy collaborations? Charles Pignal (pictured above), great-grandson to Tomáš and at helm of the Bata Heritage project turning out said collabs, chats misconceptions, heritage, and winning over a new generation.
"Many customers were only familiar with Bata being just school shoes, and I think in Singapore, they're also surprised to hear that we made basketball shoes for teams in the US and shoes worn by Kurt Cobain."
What does it mean to be the group heritage director for the Bata Group?
I'm the great-grandson of Thomas Bata, the founder, so I am obviously very passionate about the heritage, the history and values of the brand — everything it stands for. Three years ago I thought we could develop the Bata Heritage project and my job, very specifically, is to identify iconic products in Bata's archives, tweak them, develop them, and present them in a new light that makes it appealing to a generation that may not be familiar with all that history. It's a big archive with 124 years of shoemaking, so it's like a library. Many customers were only familiar with Bata being just school shoes, and I think in Singapore, they're also surprised to hear that we made basketball shoes for teams in the US and shoes worn by Kurt Cobain. There are a lot of different stories from Bata's archives and things that we can present.
I too remember Bata as a brand for school shoes. How is perception evolving today?
I think the consumer is starting to see a brand-wide effort to change that with a new product offering in terms of more stylish shoes. They have a focus on great trend and style, but also great comfort and price — in line with Bata's traditional values. We have a more modern image and presentation in stores combined with this — the Bata heritage project — intended to showcase Bata's history and values to a new generation that values authenticity. What's great about these sort of projects is you can combine them with cool brands like Star Wars for example, and constantly present new stories and products to younger crowds. Today, they have an expectation of a faster changing calendar so before Star Wars we've done a lot of collaborations with Peanuts, Comme des Garçons, Colette in Paris... we are trying to be versatile and hopefully, that gives the customer a new image of Bata compared to what you knew in the '90s or earlier.
When did Bata begin this change in trajectory?
It's quite recent. The Bata Heritage project has been around for the past three and a half years, and at a wider group level, it's been for the past couple of years that we see some new store concepts here in Singapore and around the world. We do these big global fashion events; we've just done a one in Milan where we invited people from all over the world to showcase our new collections and store concepts — to hear about our brand manifesto and such. The timeline is relatively recent, but we are already starting to see customers understanding that there is a change, and that we want to present something more modern to the new generation.
And it is still affordable.
Yes, that is very important to us. Affordability is one of our core values, though it doesn't mean that we want to be in the race to be the cheapest. It means that we want to deliver great value.
I remember the Bubblegumers range that were huge with children. Is that still a core segment for Bata?
Absolutely. The children's market and the Bubblegummers brand is very central to our plans. Though obviously in a group like Bata which is global, various brands such as the Bubblegummers work better in different places. In some countries in Latin America, we have full flagship Bubblegummers stores and in other countries that don't, we have Bubblegummers corners.
Who is the man and woman shopping at Bata today?
We're quite clear on who our customer is. Our core customer is a girl, probably in her early 30s, and we call her Angela. In everything we do, we keep her in mind so it allows us to be very focused on what we present. The idea is that Angela is a family person, she most likely has a partner and maybe some children, so Bata remains a one-stop shop for Angela and her family. Angela needs something quite stylish but comfortable with amazing pricing, so we want to integrate all these elements into the offering.
Are sneakers a large part of the regular product offering, asides from the Heritage releases?
Like the Bubblegummers, I think it is a fluctuating segment depending on the market because we are present in so many different countries — it's quite difficult to describe a single product strategy for the whole world. In Singapore, we're definitely seeing a rise in athleisure, so things are definitely getting more casual. Angela enjoys the more comfortable, sneaker-like shoes and so I think there is a rise in that. But, the customer still enjoys high heels sometimes and a variety of types so we want to be sure to offer that too. For sure there is a rise in sneakers, though. We've just opened our [multi-label] sneaker retail AW Lab — that is Bata's concept where the store is purely cool sneakers given the demand in Singapore.
The brand is over a century old — it started in Czechoslovakia, and is now headquartered in Switzerland. Are there traces of this heritage?
We tend to see ourselves as a transnational brand. We're aware that we're global, but it is also very important to us that we serve the customer locally. I think what's amazing is that in every country, the customer thinks that Bata is a local brand. That's both a strength and weakness. But, I don't think we try and promote that we're from anywhere necessarily. We really consider ourselves a global shoemaker and retailer that serves customers locally and that's the approach.
How was that achieved?
Way back in the '20s and '30s, the business model of Bata was that we built factories all around the world. Unlike other multi-nationals who build factories and then export back to another market, Bata's business model was always that those factories served their local market. Our factory in Africa or India only served the African or Indian market. They don't export. I think that's quite unique in multi-national companies, and also why the feeling of Bata being local is so present. The shoes are thought up, made and sold in a local environment. That's obviously changing now given that we live in a more global world.
How is local perception both a strength and a weakness?
We want to educate the customers a little bit more. There is this whole other activity that our customers don't actually see. This Heritage project is one of the things that we are trying to get customers realise that there's this whole other face of Bata — the history, the geography, the values — that is really interesting and an added dimension. We're very proud that we are a brand that people consider local, and that we were able to organise ourselves in a way such that the customer really feels that we are part of the national family. It's amazing.
Let's talk about retail points. With 40 over stores in Singapore at the moment, is e-commerce on the cards Bata?
Absolutely. We see it as an omni-channel because we don't perceive it as just online sale transactions. It is important that we leverage our stores and network to offer additional convenience to customers; if they want to try anything in store and have it delivered to their homes, for instance. We want to be able to offer the customer different touch points on how to shop. Now, that's quite challenging to execute. We have over 70 markets and we're developing that in a really steady way worldwide. I'm not sure on the exact timing but soon enough, every market will have that omni-channel capability. For this Heritage project, we do have a purely transactional e-commerce website that is more of a small experiment because we have a lot of customers abroad. It's just to help us understand a little more on where they're from and how they shop. It ships worldwide.
What are your plans for Bata Heritage in the next five years?
In terms of Bata Heritage, I see it as presenting a larger product offering. Lifting the cover on more items as the years go by as we have a lot of products in our archive. We're also developing plans to integrate the Heritage collection more tightly with our stores — both in Singapore and abroad. We want to grow the project and make it very visible and a large aspect of the Bata group, to excite a new generation of customers who don't know all this amazing stuff about us. We want to showcase these stories step by step through product collaborations.
Would you consider a standalone Bata Heritage store?
Yeah we'd love to, but where, when and how are all questions that we would need to figure out. It's been evoked; the idea is there. Who and how we're going to do it is more complicated question. We'll get there.
Shop Bata Heritage.