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Is Bally More Interesting Than Gucci? Depends Who’s Tweeting

In its new space on Madison Avenue, Bally is free of attitude but not confidence.

Bally’s new flagship opened this summer on Madison Avenue. Stefania Curto for The New York Times

A couple of months ago, I was idly flitting a night away on the internet when it occurred to me that I should open up Twitter and tweet something that — in my heart, in that moment — was unassailably true:

Bally >>> Gucci

No good story begins with a tweet — or, good lord, an abandoned one — but bear with me. By that point, Gucci fetishism had become parodic and comical. Alessandro Michele’s rebrand had infused the company with flamboyance, joie de vivre, whimsy and sass, but looking at some outfits suggested Ed Hardy’s sophisticated older cousin, Édouard.

Bally, by contrast, is buttoned-up, quiet, peacockish only in its deep inner core. It has been that way for years. Thanks to hip-hop, Bally was one of the first brands I coveted in the 1980s. There’s a guy I follow on Instagram who sells vintage sneakers and last year posted several gorgeous dead-stock pairs but, agonizingly, none in my size.

The 2000s have not been kind to the company, but I’ve sensed a quiet resuscitation in the last two years. Emphasis on quiet: I had to Google the name of its designer. (Beginning in 2014, it was Pablo Coppola, but he left in January; now there are three.) And it is still something of a global luxury footnote: Bally has 146,000 Instagram followers, less than 1 percent of Gucci’s 17.4 million.

At Bally, which began life as a shoe manufacturer in the 1850s, the focus is still on accessories. Stefania Curto for The New York Times

Whether Bally is indeed >>> Gucci, of course, is up for debate. It’s also the sort of proclamation that makes a certain stripe of the social media ecosystem furrow its brow. Twitter encourages petty rumbles and deadens genuine dissent. Principled disagreement is so easily mistaken for provocation that it becomes easier, if you’re not inclined to howl, to not even bother whispering.

A new Bally flagship store opened at the beginning of the summer, however, providing an opportunity to assess the company anew by applying the rigorous science of shopping.

From the start, it should be acknowledged that the matchup is imprecise: Gucci is a full-service house, and Bally, which began life as a shoe manufacturer in the 1850s, still focuses on accessories. “At Bally it’s like the clothes are the accessories to the accessories,” Mr. Coppola said in an interview in 2014, the year he got the job.

As for the clothing on display, restraint is Bally’s métier. Stefania Curto for The New York Times

Indeed, at the store, approximately 30 items of men’s clothing were on display — that’s it. Some erotic outerwear, like the red velvet trucker jacket with a belt at the waist (a mere $2,795), or the black leather coach jacket with travel-theme green lining (*cough* $2,495).

Both were lovely to the touch and on the body. Neither was practical. More reasonable was a purple polo shirt with black and white trim ($310), with the B logo slanted at an angle so that if you squinted, you might see the tilted P of Palace Skateboards. (It was regal. I bought it.)

The women’s side wasn’t much different. The emphasis on scarves and purses and shoes was overwhelming, but also logical. I saw a sharp pair of soft-backed striped patent leather loafers ($675) that I recognized because Eva Chen had worn them on Instagram a few days earlier. (I’m not ashamed.)

It’s important to remember that Bally is Swiss, not Italian, or French, or British: Restraint is its métier, and any place in the store where it veered from that is where it suffered. I’ve long admired the company’s sneakers. One of my rare shopping regrets is not buying a pair of 1980s too-snug-but-what-the-hell navy low-top sneakers from the old Flight Club on Greene Street — and its basic high-top, with a crimson and beige stripe pattern, was smartly elegant ($495).

But when it strayed too far from purpose — I saw second- or thirdhand ideas from Valentino, Prada, Nike and, grotesquely, Giuseppe Zanotti — the charm faded.

In general, less is more here. Even when embellishment is the raison d’être of a certain piece, it’s done minimally. A few wallets were printed with illustrations from old company posters of a dapper half-man, half-shoe hybrid ($395 to $725). A set of leather goods was embroidered with a low-key space desert theme. By the women’s wallets were a set of luxe stickers ($50) designed to be applied to purses and wallets. I liked the pink heart shot through with a lightning bolt.

Overall, though, the energy of the store was in its refusal. Unlike other Madison Avenue flagships, it is modest, quietly certain of itself. The nods to flash in the clothing are slight, like the perma-popped collar on the windbreakers ($750). In places, Bally is still determining how far to let the pendulum swing: The in-store journal had an article about the intersection of casinos and style (sure) and one on the Guardian Angels (ummmmm).

Certainly, a tasteful and strategic alliance with a celebrity — say, ASAP Rocky, who would understand the brand’s secret cool history — might amplify the work the brand is doing in what is, for the luxury world, relative anonymity. But I admire its stoic reserve, holding firm as the surrounding conversation escalates into a meaningless din.

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