1 6 0 YEARS E T E R N A
Passion for quality. Ideas for tomorrow. Stylish forever.
When Bernhard Hönigsberg founded his company in 1863, he had only lived in Vienna for a few years. His roots lay in the small Jewish community of Cernik, which belonged to the region of Slavonia in the south of the Kingdom of Hungary, present-day Croatia. When Bernhard‘s father, the textile entrepreneur Hermann Hönigsberg, passed away, his widow Sophie Hönigsberg and their sons Bernhard (born 1840), Isidor (born 1845), and Ladislaus (born 1846) decided to move to Vienna. Attracted by the opportunities in a liberal metropolis, many Jewish families from Hungary, Croatia, and Galicia moved to Vienna in the mid-19th century. The Hönigsbergs also hoped to find a secure livelihood in the Austrian capital. Moreover, they were glad to leave behind the narrow streets of the provincial town of Cernik. Upon arriving in Vienna—where the eldest son Paul (born 1834) had already studied medicine and opened a medical practice in 1857—Bernhard Hönigsberg contributed to the family income by initially working as a haberdasher. A short time later, he founded his own trading company with Salomon Singer.
In the mid-1860s, anyone in Vienna wanting to sew a piece of clothing would buy buttons, needles, threads, and yarns from ”Hönigsberg & Singer.“ In the shop that opened in 1863 at Fleischmarkt 15, you could find everything needed for the tailoring craft in addition to fabrics. The haberdashery items were imported from the Hungarian city of Pest by Danube ships. There, the young business owners—23-year-old Bernhard Hönigsberg and his friend Salomon Singer—had acquired them at a low cost to sell them in the bustling city of Vienna. Their trade across borders quickly grew the business. When Salomon Singer unexpectedly passed away in 1868, Bernhard Hönigsberg‘s younger brothers Isidor and Ladislaus joined the business, and the company was renamed ”Brüder Hönigsberg.“ Another innovation was the inclusion of Pfaidler goods in their assortment. This was a wise decision at the right time, as the demand for shirts and other linen garments was increasing.
In the 19th century, Vienna is filled with optimism. The liberal atmosphere of the imperial and residence city acts as a magnet for those hungry for life. Many families, especially from Eastern Europe, come to Vienna. Within a few decades, the city‘s population grows fivefold. By the end of the 19th century, with two million inhabitants, Vienna becomes the fifth-largest city in the world and is seen as the intellectual center of Europe. New companies are founded. Painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, architects, and scientists continuously develop new ideas and forms of expression. They gather in private salons for intellectual and political exchanges, and coffeehouses also become popular meeting places. Theaters and palaces are built, and soon, the inner city bursts at its seams.
To create space, Emperor Franz Joseph I orders the demolition of the city walls in 1857 and the construction of the Ringstraße in their place. Stretching 5.2 kilometers in length and 57 meters in width, the Ringstraße, with its numerous monumental buildings, becomes a grand boulevard of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
In the early age of only 40 years, Bernhard Hönigsberg, the second of the two founders, also dies after a short but severe illness. His brothers Isidor and Ladislaus continue what he and Salomon Singer had started 14 years earlier. Bernhard Hönigsberg does not get to know his nephew Robert, who is born three years after his death and will lead and significantly shape the company for many decades.
With the collars and shirts sewn by home workers, the Hönigsberg brothers strike a chord with the times. By 1880, their Pfaidler goods are so well-known that they trademark the brand ”Bienenkorb“ (Beehive), likely in reference to the ”Hönig“ (honey) component of their name. For the first time, they print a logo on their labels or directly on the shirts. The logo consists of the inscription ”Bienenkorb,“ the addition ”Original Wiener Hemden“ (Original Viennese Shirts), a diamond with the abbreviation B.H., and a miniature beehive inside. Later, this evolves into the brand name ”Maison Ruche,“ meaning ”Bienenkorb“ in German. With this reference to the fashion nation of France, the brothers aim to emphasize the exclusivity of their collection. However, as anything French begins to evoke negative associations after World War I, they revert to the name ”Bienenkorb.“
With their decisions, the founders are always in touch with the times. From the beginning, the company is characterized by inventiveness and a willingness to innovate. These qualities have consistently driven the company forward and continue to make it successful.
The Bienenkorb shirts are a hit, but the Hönigsberg brothers are far from resting on their laurels. They want to offer their customers real added value while also distinguishing themselves from the competition. Their vision: a ready-made shirt that fits perfectly and is comfortable to wear, rivaling tailored shirts. Eventually, they come up with an idea.
The key role is played by the collar. In 1882, the Hönigsberg brothers file their first patent for it. They have invented a technique that allows the wearer to adjust their collar size using special seams at the shoulders and collar. To produce the innovative collars, the Hönigsberg brothers change their production process. In 1885, they move to an office with attached factory rooms in the Leopoldstadt district of the city. There, they now have the space to engage in cutting, strengthening, and washing in-house for shirt production. This marks a gradual and significant transformation: they transition from Pfaidler, who produced through home work, to manufacturers of men‘s underwear.
A self-owned factory with an area of 600 square meters, electrically powered steam engines with 80 horsepower in production – what the Hönigsberg brothers establish near the Vienna Westbahnhof in 1896 is ahead of its time. Other textile companies, if at all, still work with coal-fired steam engines, but mostly rely on home work. However, despite all their foresight, Ladislaus and Isidor repeatedly lack technical know-how. It‘s no wonder that Robert Hönigsberg (born 1880), Ladislaus‘s son, undergoes engineering training. Shortly after his graduation, around 1900, he joins the company. He immediately starts tinkering with innovative products and improvements to the production process. His father and uncle prepare him in terms of business for succession. No one suspects how soon he will have to follow in their footsteps.
The ”Brüder Hönigsberg“ are unstoppable. With 300 employees, they are among the largest underwear manufacturers in Austria and supply customers all over the world, as evidenced by an extensive export list from 1907. The shirts with the Bienenkorb logo are worn throughout Western and Northern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, in Russia, India, East Asia, Mexico, Cuba, and Canada.
In 1909, personal tragedies shake the entrepreneurial family: In April, Isidor Hönigsberg dies of a stroke at the age of 64 in a Merano pension, and his 63-year-old brother Ladislaus dies in Vienna four months later. Suddenly, his son Robert Hönigsberg becomes the sole managing director, after he had already received power of attorney in 1904.
However, the signs are favorable in the years before World War I: the ”white-collar class“ of businessmen, officials, and office employees in industrial companies grows – and with it, the demand for the impeccably fitting brand shirts, crisp white cuffs, and comfortable collars of ”Bienenkorb.“ The brand continues to establish itself.
A corner house at Kärntner Straße 8, located between St. Stephen‘s Cathedral and the State Opera House – Robert Hönigsberg couldn‘t have chosen a better address to open a ”men‘s fashion retail store“ in the heart of Vienna. Shortly before World War I, he offers shirts with the Bienenkorb logo there, as well as casual clothing and sports goods.
The store in the center of Vienna and the factory in Leopoldstadt, which also produces for foreign markets, flourish. Until Hönigsberg is drafted into military service. Moreover, raw materials are unavailable, so the operation has to temporarily close.
After the end of the war and the political upheavals, it takes some time for the economic situation to stabilize. But during the ”Roaring Twenties,“ things pick up again. The general upswing is also felt in the men‘s fashion retail store at Kärntner Straße 8: Men from the upper class and the upper middle class gladly shop at Hönigsberg‘s.
In direct proximity to the ”Sporting House Robert Hönigsberg,“ as the store is called from the 1920s onwards, there are splendid department stores like the women‘s fashion retailer ”Zwieback“ and the men‘s and boys‘ outfitter ”Neumann.“ Shiny black limousines line the streets around Hönigsberg‘s corner store. Chauffeurs wait in the cars for the ladies who strengthen themselves with Melange coffee and cake at Café Gerstner after their shopping spree.
Without starch. No wrinkles. Indefinitely durable. Always elegant.“ This is how Robert Hönigsberg advertises his product innovation of 1923: the semi-stiff collar. Elaborately crafted from a special double fabric, this collar is considered exceptionally easy to care for and nearly indestructible. The product name ”Eterna“ – Latin for ”eternal“ – is meant to express its longevity. As was customary at the time, gentlemen can button the detachable collar onto a suitable shirt with a standing collar and replace it with a fresh one when needed.
The name ”Eterna“ appears in the product range, along with all the other brand names that Robert Hönigsberg comes up with during this time. Most of them disappear shortly afterwards, but ”Eterna“ will remain. Thanks to the success of the semi-stiff collar, which causes a sensation especially in the German Reich. In 1925, Robert Hönigsberg has the brand Eterna legally protected in Germany.
It seems that the world has been waiting only for the semi-stiff collar. Especially in German men‘s fashion stores, it becomes a bestseller. A German branch is needed. And it should be in Berlin, the fourth-largest city in the world with four million inhabitants. But the Berlin branch also has its disadvantages. The distance to the headquarters in Vienna is too great, and the journey too long to effectively control the young production facility. Its capacities are quickly pushed to their limits anyway. So, Robert Hönigsberg starts looking for a location further south.
In 1927, Hönigsberg opens a second German branch in Passau, Lower Bavaria, near the Austrian border. He rents a small production facility in the former ”Brebeck Holzstadl“ in the Innstadt district.
Every two weeks, the owner comes from Vienna to check on things. And he praises the serene Passau residents: Here, the semi-stiff collars hang on clotheslines in the garden, which is neither fenced nor guarded. ”If we did this in Vienna, soon there would be no fabric left,“ Robert Hönigsberg remarks with amusement, ”but the people of Passau are well-behaved, they don‘t steal.“
Already in January 1928, the collar and shirt sewing factory moves to larger premises in the ”Kettensteg Building.“ It is located in the old town on the banks of the Danube River.
The workforce triples. Four men and 61 women work at the Passau branch. While the Berlin branch closes, Passau becomes the headquarters in Germany. However, even in the Kettensteg Building, there is not enough space for the growing production.
Therefore, in 1929, Robert Hönigsberg buys a property with a building on the then Apfelkochstraße on the banks of the Inn River (since 1947 Innstraße 70). Here, he builds a modern laundry factory that starts operating even during the construction period.
The semi-stiff collar is a hit. By the late 1920s, it already constitutes 60 to 70 percent of Hönigsberg‘s total production in Passau. ”Always as elegantly fitting as a stiff one, and as comfortable as a soft one!“ reads the large posters in the fashion stores. Robert Hönigsberg has the Eterna fabric woven with 138 threads per square centimeter from high-quality Egyptian Makoba cotton. The State Materials Testing Office in Berlin certifies the Eterna collar with ”a lifespan of 50 washes.“
Customers can buy it in two qualities and more than 20 different cuts. The fashionable gentleman chooses the ”Gigant“ model with pointed collar ends, while businesspeople often go for the classic ”Mercurius.“ Despite the elaborately woven cotton double fabric, the Eterna collar is not a luxury item, but an article of clothing for many men. Priced at 90 Reichspfennigs to 1.25 marks, it is considered the ”best friend of your neck and your wallet.“ This corresponds to 46 to 64 euro cents today.
They are looking for new investment opportunities, and they have their eyes on the Eterna men‘s underwear factory: The Passauer Industriegesellschaft (PIAG), a joint-stock company, enters the stage, and Robert Hönigsberg cannot resist. For political reasons, he has to sell his men‘s underwear factory along with the fleet, machinery, fabrics, and the Berlin branch to PIAG. This takeover can be seen as an early example of ”Aryanization.“ This is what the Nazis call the transfer of a Jewish company into ”Aryan“ ownership.
In 1936, the PIAG manages to increase Passau‘s production of shirts and collars by 40 percent. But World War II is already looming. Raw materials are hard to come by. The Nazis regulate the industry and eventually introduce a war economy.
Food and consumer goods are rationed, barter and the black market thrive, clothing is a luxury, and resources are scarce: After the end of World War II, Eterna struggles to resume its previous production. The focus is now less on strengthening the brand and more on generating income somehow. The Passau laundry factory simply produces everything that is needed and finds buyers: men‘s shirts in ”economical cut,“ bras for women – and underpants for the US Army.
Passau has become a city of refugees. There is a shortage not only of housing but also of soap – the hygienic conditions are lacking. In this situation, a laundry is needed, believes the PIAG board. In the fall of 1946, they open the large laundry Lina in the unused collar laundry of Eterna.
25 employees wash, iron, and starch laundry from their own production as well as for many households in Passau and the surrounding area. The laundry is collected from households and collection points with the well-known blue transporter, and the prices are affordable. Together, Eterna and Lina regain their footing.
Germans work hard for reconstruction, and the ”Marshall Plan“ provides 1.3 billion US dollars in economic aid to the three Western zones. The textile industry benefits as well. It receives a large portion of the American money to import cotton and can finally increase production.
Soon, people yearn for fashionable clothing that expresses a new self-confidence.
In the summer of 1948, specialty stores offer new fashion, and thanks to the currency reform, many people can afford high-quality fabrics and elegant cuts. Eterna creates the conditions to meet the high demand.
Wherever you look at Eterna, there is no unused corner in the entire factory. Soon, space is no longer sufficient. Neighboring properties are purchased, and additional offices and production facilities are built there. The expansion of the main building is particularly symbolic. Two more floors are added to the existing three in 1951. Everyone can see: Eterna is on a growth trajectory. Especially ”Poplin shirts“ are in demand. They are made from tightly woven cotton fabric and get a silky shine through treatment with caustic soda.
For Eterna, the economic miracle becomes a Christmas miracle: By the end of 1951, record figures are reported, overshadowing even the best pre-war results. Production has increased by a staggering 42 percent compared to 1938. For the Christmas season, Eterna employs 700 employees. In the large sewing hall, around 250 women sit bent over the electric sewing machines. They process 2,800 kilometers of shirt fabric annually, which, if unrolled, would stretch from Passau to Cairo. With the 100,000 kilometers of thread needed for that, you could wrap the entire globe twice. However, the growing competition in the textile market increasingly complicates the situation for manufacturers.
Their names are Susi and Bessi, Eva, Jenny, and Irene. They‘re new to the stage. Some appear reserved and strict, while others exhibit a subtle openness. Eterna‘s first blouses are as diverse as the names of their 25 models. The new collection only accounts for three percent of production, but the board is satisfied with its performance: they claim to have gained 1000 new customers across the country. A remarkable achievement in a competitive market. However, the blouses will soon step back due to low demand. It will take more than 20 years for blouses to come into their own at Eterna.
Eterna releases new collections twice a year. Not only does collar fashion change, but trends in patterns and cuts also evolve quickly. However, the classic business shirt remains the most important product. Newspapers advertise with a simple yet memorable slogan: ”Eterna. The good men‘s shirt.“ A ”casual shirt“ is now added to the lineup. Colorful and relaxed, it‘s designed to appeal to younger men. Additionally, Eterna introduces pyjamas for men and nightgowns for women. This allows people to wear Eterna around the clock and for all occasions.
The location of the shirt factory on the banks of the Inn River is advantageous because the laundry requires and discharges many thousands of liters of water every day. However, it also poses dangers. In early July 1954, the Alpine river swells significantly due to incessant rainfall. Eventually, the Inn River breaches the 10-meter mark and floods the lower floors of Eterna. The Lina laundry, the packaging department, the locksmith shop, and the carpentry shop are underwater. Some employees manage to move clothing from the laundry to dry ground in time, while others dismantle conveyor belts and other equipment.
The flood of 1954, a once-in-a-century event, affects large parts of Passau. ”Land under“ is the situation throughout the entire city center. Six hundred houses are submerged, and people are evacuated by boats. When the water recedes on July 11th, it leaves behind significant damage. Two thousand people are left homeless.
At Eterna, the floors are covered with a stubborn, 50-centimeter layer of mud. In the laundry, a washed-up tree must be sawed and removed. It takes weeks to dry out all the rooms, and the company has to take out a loan of 40,000 marks for repairs to the undermined foundation. Production comes to a halt for weeks, but then the operation gradually resumes.
In the 1950s, working conditions in handicraft and industrial companies were often arduous, and Eterna was no exception. Helmut Dengler shares his experience. Trained as a laundry cutter, he started working in the production of semi-stiff collars in 1955. ”Three strong men had to hand-cut the semi-stiff collars. A dozen fabric pieces lay on a cutting table. In the evenings, I had calluses on my fingers. There was only one knife and a sharpening stone. The semi-stiff collars were made from a double fabric that was about two millimeters thick,“ recounted Helmut Dengler in a 2012 interview. ”The semi-stiff collar was so hard – you could slam it over the edge of the table. At that time, 40 people worked in the cutting department. The women had to lift fabric bundles weighing 120 kilograms until a lifting device was finally introduced. The tables were 25 to 30 meters long. We walked kilometers all day, walked, walked, walked. The processes were automated later on.“
The economic miracle is visible not only in bank accounts but also in appearance. Many men have gained a ”prosperity belly,“ prompting the Passau shirt factory to consider this in its designs, alongside the changing fashion trends. Eterna embarks on a quest to find the ideal measurements for dress shirts but doesn‘t rely on expensive market research institutes. In 1957, the in-house advertising department launches the campaign ”Looking for 100,000 Men.“ Customers are asked to write down their body measurements and ideas for improving shirts on a small questionnaire. Submitters have the chance to win a trip to Vienna and merchandise vouchers. The campaign proves doubly successful: customers confirm satisfaction with Eterna shirts, particularly praising the semi-stiff ”Formfest Collar,“ which sits wrinkle-free thanks to two inserted plastic rods. They also laud the fabric quality. Additionally, the measurements provide new data for optimizing standard sizes.
They can now offer an ideal dress shirt that ”fits like a tailored shirt“ and ”emphasizes correctness more than before,“ states an advertisement. There‘s a suitable shirt for everyone:
”Eterna Twen“ has a slim waist and broad shoulders, ”Eterna Variabel“ allows for adjustable collars, and ”Eterna 2“ has adjustable sleeve lengths. The advertising slogan is also adjusted: From ”The good men‘s shirt“ to ”Eterna shapes the man.“
With a 20% increase in sales, 1959 is a peak year for Eterna. The soaring success also boosts the advertising department. In 1960, they engage a popular Austrian actor as the model for their campaigns.
When Karlheinz Böhm becomes the face of Eterna, it garners significant attention. Between 1955 and 1957, 25 million moviegoers watched the film actor play the role of Emperor Franz Joseph in the Austrian Sissi trilogy. The endearing ruler alongside Empress Elisabeth, portrayed by Romy Schneider, became the role of his lifetime. Charming, good-looking, and morally upright – everything that characterized him as Franz Joseph made Karlheinz Böhm a favorite among many women. He poses in Eterna casual shirts and classic business shirts in front of fashion photographers. His engagement with Eterna ends in 1962. Karlheinz Böhm transitions into a character actor and organizes aid projects in Africa from the 1980s onward. He passed away on May 29, 2014, at the age of 86.
While Karlheinz Böhm might have embodied conservative values, the strategy of the otherwise traditional Eterna company to sign him as a model was considered ”rather innovative,“ as described by Erhard Prochaska during the early 1960s. A trained graphic designer, Prochaska was responsible for the company‘s outward image from 1959 to 1988, launching advertising campaigns and designing ads for magazines like ”Der Herr“ and ”Textilwirtschaft.“ ”In the 1970s, it was mostly shock colors that were used in advertising. I did cheeky things back then,“ the advertising expert recounted in a 2013 interview. ”Eterna was my life.“
It‘s June 24, 1961: Twelve buses depart from Passau, two from the branch office that the then Eterna managing director Erich Mühler had opened in the duty-free zone in Linz in 1959. In Gmunden, Upper Austria, at the Traunsee, the passengers come together. They are several hundred Eterna employees, predominantly female, who are on a company outing, singing and joking along the way. While the twelve buses were stopping, there were indeed some ”traffic jams,“ as reported by the local press. The cheerful group is welcomed in Gmunden with applause, sausages, and cold drinks, and in the taverns later, they are reluctant to let the ”Eterna girls“ leave. Even in 1962, Eterna‘s traditional company outing to Austria attracted attention. Eterna rented a special train for this purpose.
List facts, and people will forget them. Tell a story, and it stays in memory. What is now referred to as ”storytelling“ in PR jargon was already practiced by Eterna in 1963, as seen in correspondence between advertising expert Erhard Prochaska and the PR agency Lyma Press in Mainz. Eterna aimed to expand its press work, and Lyma Press ”invented“ easily readable stories about the advantages of Eterna products, such as the Eterna-San shirt. After several rounds of corrections, the ”story“ was then approved.
After cutting, the collars were incredibly stiffened with potato starch, later Hoffmannstärke, in the Lina laundry under high heat. Subsequently, the collars were sewn down and equipped with stiffening rods. Only trained seamstresses on special machines made the collars. A millimeter-precise job,“ reports Marianne Öller, who began her apprenticeship as a seamstress at Eterna in 1965 at the age of almost 14. She continued to educate herself technically and commercially, and from 1980 until her retirement in 2018, this powerhouse woman was part of the management and also became a shareholder in 2006. One of her focuses was improving ergonomics at workstations for employees. With her team, she introduced height-adjustable sewing tables, among other things. In 1999, Eterna was recognized by the Professional Association for Textile Clothing for extensive and extraordinary improvements in working conditions. During the award ceremony in Berlin, Marianne Öller and her team received a certificate and a check for 10,000 German marks.
Childcare, cooking, and housekeeping were tasks that were traditionally the sole responsibility of wives. In advertising, women were usually portrayed as loyal and supportive partners of successful men, specifically focused on clean, wrinkle-free shirts with smooth collars at Eterna. By the late 1960s, women were gaining more prominence in society, and this shift was reflected in Eterna‘s advertising as well. Here, women appear to rebel and demand equality. If necessary, they‘ll even resort to using a weapon. And who‘s still in their sights? The wrinkled collar. With the new Formfest collar, the washing and ironing housewife may have one less problem now. However, the traditional roles remain.
The invention that gave the company its name and was an absolute long-time seller until the post-war era has run its course: In 1969, Eterna delivers its last semi-stiff collar. In its final year, it only generated 700 marks in revenue for the company. The times when men would attach the detachable collar made of extra durable double fabric to their shirts are definitively over.
Fashion now becomes more colorful and fresh. Eterna‘s advertising department contributes fitting ideas. The traditional round logo is redesigned, and the crowned ”e“ is established as the new brand signet. Until 2015, it appears in the company logo as well as a discreet embroidery on the cuffs and breast pockets of shirts and many blouses.
Vibrant colors, geometric patterns, and ultra-thin high-gloss synthetic fabrics are all the rage. This fashion requires courage, and many men are embracing it. With their bell-bottom pants, they wear tight shirts with open collars, proudly display chest hair, and let sideburns grow down to their cheeks. At the 1971 fashion shows, Eterna promotes ”floral designs“ in yellow and red, as well as ”ornamental motifs“ in violet. Shirts with checks, dots, and stripes are part of the standard offerings.
The oil price shock hits the clothing industry hard. Prices for raw materials like cotton soar, while the market for clothing remains limited due to increasing imports. Many businesses give up, but Eterna refuses to be discouraged; on the contrary, they respond with investments. New sewing machines in the Passau factory increase productivity and offset rising labor and material costs. As a result, Eterna‘s revenue increases by 8.5 percent in the crisis year of 1973. The partial outsourcing of production to Eastern Europe and Austria pays off.
Since 1959, Eterna had operated a production facility in the Linz duty-free zone. When bureaucratic hurdles there became increasingly challenging, Eterna relocated its Austrian subsidiary to St. Florian in 1967/68. The small town near Schärding am Inn was just a half-hour drive from Passau by car. Production initially took place above a pigsty, primarily for the Austrian market. When capacity was no longer sufficient, Eterna built its own modern facility in Schärding. The first phase was completed in 1971, with two more following in 1980 and 1986. Production ceased there in 2002, and in early 2023, the complex was demolished. Housing now stands where shirts were once sewn.
Women are increasingly entering the public stage. Eterna takes their demand for equality seriously and responds to the spirit of change in society with a forward-looking decision: 22 years after the first attempt to establish blouses in the market, Eterna launches a new collection for women. The ”Collection Elle“ is inspired by men‘s shirts, as sporty blouses in shirt style are trending. Whether made from pink jersey or playfully dotted – the new models sell well and immediately account for up to 20 percent of the total production. Blouses have become an integral part of the product range to this day.
The women‘s movement, which began in the late 1960s, gains momentum. Feminist journalist and activist Alice Schwarzer – founder of the magazine ”Emma“ in 1977 – strikes a chord with many people, although not everyone, and gathers more and more followers. Together, they rally against the oppression of women, against misogynistic conventions and laws. They vigorously fight against paragraph 218 of the German Penal Code, which criminalizes abortion – in politics, in the media, and on the streets. The movement and its goals are viewed critically by parts of the previously patriarchal society. Nevertheless, this development brings about far-reaching and long-overdue changes. By 1976, wives are no longer legally obligated to manage the household; reforms in marriage law allow them to work without their husband‘s consent, among other advancements. A newfound self-confidence empowers women in Germany.
In the early 1980s, Eterna faces challenges similar to the rest of the German textile industry: Asian synthetic goods and cheap productions in Eastern Bloc countries threaten the industry‘s reputation. Quantity and size alone can‘t guarantee the survival of the sector, warns a study. Flexibility and new ideas are needed. Even at Eterna, things initially look bleak. However, in 1981, they introduce an innovation that defies all skepticism and catapults the company out of the crisis: Article 1100, the Excellent shirt.
The Excellent shirt is made from pure cotton and yet is wrinkle-free – a feat previously achievable only with polyester. This unique manufacturing process was developed in collaboration with Swiss weavers Jenny and Weba, as well as with the company Raduner (later Cilander from 1985). The secret behind the wrinkle-free
fabric lies in the so-called long-staple cotton. Until then, wrinkle-free finishes were achieved through chemical treatments on the surface, which also made the fabric impermeable to air. Shirts made from such fabrics were indeed wrinkle-free, but uncomfortable to wear. With the ”Excellent“ fabric, the inner part of the fibers, called the lumen, is treated with ammonia. The subsequent ”moist cross-linking“ of the fabric requires significant expertise and special machinery.
It was just a piece of fabric,“ recalls Marianne Öller, who was a member of the Eterna management board from 1980 until her retirement in 2018. Wolfgang Höfler from the Baden-Württemberg-based company Etacol, where Eterna purchased collar linings, presented the Eterna management under Volker Götz with a highly promising fabric sample from Switzerland: wrinkle-free and made of cotton, a world-first. ”We were excited, but there were still some hurdles to overcome to make the fabric wearable,“ Marianne Öller says. ”For example, the shrinkage values were initially too high. The Swiss weavers had to adjust their machines, we at Eterna had to reconfigure our sewing machines, and in collaboration with the company Metz, we developed new, extremely thin sewing threads. When we finally held the first Excellent shirt in our hands, it was incredible, a little miracle. We were absolutely thrilled by it. This matched the new slogan that our CEO, Volker Götz, had come up with:
We don‘t do anything extraordinary, but what we do is extraordinarily good.
Clean lines and geometric shapes, earthy tones, flowing colors, and a hint of floral scent: When Eterna CEO Volker Götz brings Swiss fashion designer Aura Gibolli to Passau in the 1980s, he propels the still-young blouse collection out of its infancy. A particularly creative and successful period begins. Aura Gibolli draws inspiration for her fabric designs from renowned artists from Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. She visits them in their studios, engages in intense discussions, and brings back colorful and vibrant photos – perfect images for marketing in several exceptional glossy brochures that Eterna releases in large format from 1983 to 1988. Alongside artist-inspired designs, these brochures also showcase the results of blouse design, making for a unique kind of lookbook.
At a time when the apparel industry is already processing almost two-thirds synthetic fabrics, Eterna opts for pure cotton. Customers appreciate this bold step against the trend, resulting in significant sales increases for the company. After a short time, the Excellent shirt becomes a long-standing product in Eterna‘s range and propels the success curve to steeper heights year by year. In collaboration with Swiss suppliers, the fabric is continuously improved, making it even smoother and more comfortable. In 1987, a customer from Hanover buys the millionth Excellent shirt and receives a gift of one million Pfennigs (German pennies) from Eterna.
By the late 1980s, Eterna‘s facility in Schärding, Austria, is annually producing at least 1,000,000 Excellent shirts. The company leadership decides that the special fabric should no longer be exclusive to men. With ”Lady Eterna Excellent,“ the Passau-based company creates an easy-care blouse range.
Too small, too cramped, and no space left to expand: Eterna‘s previous headquarters on the banks of the Inn River in Passau has outgrown its usefulness. In 1990, Eterna purchases 42,000 square meters of land outside the city gates for a new building. After a year of construction, the shirt factory occupies 12,000 square meters of built-up space in the Sperrwies industrial estate. There, the central warehouse holds up to 100,000 items in stock, with around 10,000 pieces leaving the logistics center daily. The building also houses rooms for the creative department, blouse production – which produced up to 1,700 pieces daily from 1993 to 2002 – and offices for administration. The bright and spacious new building at the edge of the forest costs 20 million German Marks. The complex has been expanded multiple times since then and remains Eterna‘s headquarters to this day.
The modern building in Passau-Sperrwies offers Eterna all the opportunities for expansion. However, at the same time, the company fears for its Excellent program: Critics claim that wrinkle-free finishes can only be achieved through heavy chemical use. The company‘s reputation is at stake. Unjustly so. Eterna aims to educate and establish transparency. Thus, the company goes on the offensive and turns to the Hohenstein research institute, which is part of the international community for research and testing in the field of textile ecology, known as Oeko-Tex.
After numerous laboratory tests, it is established that Eterna‘s Excellent collection, as the first manufacturer of wrinkle-free cotton shirts and blouses, meets the high requirements of ”Oeko-Tex Standard 100,“ an independent certification system for textile raw materials, intermediate, and end products. Eterna‘s wrinkle-free blouses and shirts significantly fall below the limits for carcinogenic substances and are free from allergenic dyes. The Excellent fabric, yarns, and buttons have a skin-friendly pH value. In short, the shirts and blouses are ”ecologically sound for humans.“ With this quality seal, Eterna achieves a significant success in 1994 after years of growth in a competitive market. Sales increase by nine percent, and industry experts are astonished.
As part of the international Ahlers AG, Eterna seeks a new production site abroad. The goal is to handle the growing quantities and control rising costs. In Bánovce, Slovakia, around 500 kilometers from Passau, Eterna establishes its own production facility, Eterna s.r.o., on August 4, 1997. Initially, it produces 3,500 Excellent shirts daily at the Zornica manufacturer‘s factory. Initially, 300 seamstresses work exclusively for Eterna. Starting in 2000, the Slovak branch produces 9,000 to 9,500 pieces per day. The facility operates in two shifts with 850 employees.
It would be good to have our own hall for quality production in Bánovce,“ says Eterna manager Marianne Öller to CEO Wulf Nerbe in May 1997. ”What do you need in terms of time, material, and money?“ he asks. Marianne Öller took four years and two million German Marks to transform a dilapidated old building into a modern production facility. ”I dared to do it because I saw how well the people there could work,“ she explains today. ”The know-how that Eterna brought to Bánovce and the high willingness to learn of the people on-site have created many secure jobs at fair wages.“ Eterna established its first contacts in the former ”Eastern Bloc“ after the opening of the ”Iron Curtain“ in 1989/90. One after another and alternately, Eterna had shirts produced by the Czech partner company Šumava, with factories in Klatovy, Vimperk, Domažlice, and Strašnice, until 1995. The distances were easy to cover at about 100 kilometers. However, initially, the work environment was chaotic and influenced by the communist system, and the economic performance was poor, Marianne Öller recalls. With her guidelines for more efficient processes, she quickly gained the support of the workforce. But not everyone in the East embraced Western efforts right away. Marianne Öller remembers many resistances: ”You need courage and humor for that. But my motto in my professional life was always: There is no ”We Can‘t“.“
The new millennium begins with an outstanding success. Eterna becomes the world‘s first clothing company to receive the Oeko-Tex Standard 100plus certificate. This certification covers the entire production chain of the Excellent program, from Swiss weavers and finishers to assembly in Germany, Austria, and Slovakia, all the way to the logistics department in Passau. The quality seal guarantees clothing with low levels of harmful substances, produced in an environmentally friendly manner and under exemplary working conditions.
The Oeko-Tex Standard 100plus quality seal is a combination of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 seal acquired in 1993 and the Oeko-Tex Standard 1000 certificate. To obtain it, shirts and blouses are tested for their pollutant content, and the garment must be both human- and process-ecologically sound. Therefore, Eterna and all its suppliers produce in an environmentally friendly way and adhere to strict rules regarding wastewater, exhaust air, noise, and energy consumption. There is no child or forced labor, and exemplary conditions prevail throughout the production network: The workplaces are modern, and occupational safety is high.
The transition to the requirements of the new seal was costly and took several years: To earn the highest quality seal in the apparel industry, 32 individual certificates had to be acquired. Eterna is the only shirt and blouse manufacturer allowed to carry the ”Oeko-Tex Standard 100plus“ certificate for a complete production program.
Eterna seeks a new distribution channel alongside specialty retailers and invests in a second pillar: its own stores. The requirements for the ideal store are clearly defined: With 60 square meters of retail space, well-trained staff offer customers 2,000 shirts, 500 blouses, and 500 ties from the Eterna brand. Initially, the stores are intended to be established exclusively in well-performing shopping centers – and even there, only in prime locations. In the fall of 2004, franchisees open the first pilot stores in the Koblenz Löhr-Center and the Olympia shopping center in Munich. After just three months, they turn a profit, prompting plans for additional stores nationwide. However, these stores are not meant to compete with specialty retailers; on the contrary, they enhance Eterna‘s brand presence and clearly convey the company‘s philosophy. The advertising effect also benefits the specialty retailers.
In 2008, ETERNA opens its online shop at www.eterna24.com. This allows Eterna to directly supply end consumers, not only with shirts and blouses from the collection, but also thanks to a product configurator based on a modular principle, each customer can create a custom-made shirt with a few clicks. This is Eterna‘s second attempt to distribute goods over the internet. Until 2008, online orders had still been processed through specialty retailers, which proved to be complicated and unprofitable. The new virtual counter was recognized in 2008 and 2009 as one of the 6,000 most important internet addresses.
A new weaving technique makes it possible: Eterna introduces cotton shirts and blouses to the market that are particularly comfortable to wear due to their stretchability. With 15 percent cross-stretchability from 100 percent cotton, permanently wrinkle-free, and produced according to the Oeko-Tex Standard 100plus, this fabric represents a unique innovation in the market. Eterna names the innovation ”Dynamic Cotton,“ which is promoted with the slogan ”Feel free to move.“ These revolutionary products are successful for several years. Although they are eventually taken off the market, the experience gained by Eterna during this product development period continues to benefit the company. With ”Dynamic Cotton,“ Eterna once again demonstrates how boldly the team strives for innovation and advancement. Not every idea becomes a long-term success, but every pursued idea leads to learning. And the desire to learn is the best prerequisite for continuously improving.
In March 2010, Peter Rentsch becomes the new CEO of Eterna, succeeding Wulf Nerbe, who retires. The ”new face“ at the helm aims to modernize the brand‘s appearance, strengthen collaboration with retailers, enhance the online presence, and accelerate the expansion of Eterna stores. The brand is gently refreshed, and the market share of blouses is increased. Designers respond promptly to trends. Eterna fully utilizes the flexibility of its regional production network: Only twelve weeks elapse from idea to finished series, allowing Eterna to outpace manufacturers producing in Asia.
Starting in 2010, the expanded product range includes knitwear and accessories for the first time. These additions make the product offering more interesting in the company‘s own stores and online shop, providing a well-rounded selection for customers. The stores now feature sweaters, cardigans, and polo shirts. In line with outerwear, cufflinks and socks are now also available. The modernization and expansion yield fruit: Sales increase by five percent. Since 2009, online shop revenue has doubled, and the export business is flourishing.
In November 2013, Eterna celebrated its 150th anniversary with a grand ceremony. Both the daily and trade press covered the
milestone and the achievements of the ambitious company. A history bureau conducted scholarly research to document the success story of the company founded in 1863 within the context of contemporary history. The authors presented their findings in the form of a document of approximately 100 pages. In 2013, it served as the foundation for a concise chronicle published by Eterna to mark the anniversary. For the 160th anniversary, the comprehensive history was revisited and studied intensively. Several anecdotes came to light, enriching the book at hand.
Peter Rentsch took on new responsibilities and handed over the management in February 2013 to Henning Gerbaulet. The experienced textile manager and sales specialist ushered in a new era at Eterna. He worked closely with the product team to further develop Eterna shirts and blouses and began a broad modernization effort to prepare the company for the future.
Eterna undergoes an extensive brand relaunch. The forward-looking repositioning of the brand and the company is the result of dedicated and creative collaboration involving many: employees from all departments and locations, as well as suppliers and service partners, wholesalers, and end customers were included in the project. At the end of the process, there are eight core values that describe Eterna. During the process, it became clear that anyone who deals with high-quality ETERNA products and the reliable and modern company takes pride in it and supports the brand. The eight core values describe what ETERNA has been about to this day. These ”power words“ are condensed into a new slogan, which can also be described as the essence of more than 150 years of history, experiences, highs, and lows: ”Meisterhaft seit 1863.“, which translates as ”Masterful since 1863.“
The brand‘s evolution and strength are reflected in its appearance: Eterna introduces clearly defined colors and stylistics. From now on, ETERNA is written in uppercase letters. Uppercase letters are associated with confidence and timelessness. The emblem introduced in 1970, the ”e with a crown,“ is no longer used, not even as embroidery on ETERNA shirts. Henning Gerbaulet implements a bold initiative that initially does not sit well with everyone. Some are attached to the small ”e“.
Gerbaulet‘s thesis: When a brand repositions itself and undergoes a comprehensive relaunch, it cannot cling to old, perhaps beloved details. The CEO is convinced that existing customers will remain loyal to the brand because they appreciate its quality and craftsmanship. Furthermore, Gerbaulet aims to attract new customers with the new look, specifically those who previously had a dated image of the Passau-based shirt and blouse specialist.
The trend is moving away from the standard shirt, and ETERNA is well-prepared for it. In 2015, the work initiated by the product developers two years prior bore fruit as the company introduced a series of innovations to the market. These ”new“ offerings possessed unique qualities and provided customers with previously unforeseen added value.
With the NON IRON Print, ETERNA achieved the feat of offering completely wrinkle-free printed fabrics that had previously only been possible with easy-care finishes. Following the successful introduction of the SLIM FIT fit in 2012, ETERNA closed another gap in its lineup in 2016 with a new, fourth fit, the SUPER SLIM. Younger shirt wearers often have specific requirements for fit – a slimmer torso with greater height and broader shoulders simultaneously. ETERNA addressed this demand.
In 2017 and 2019, the product developers presented two more innovations. The COVER SHIRT has been a bestseller in ETERNA‘s range from the start. It is a white, versatile shirt with a crucial advantage: thanks to a new yarn construction, the fabric is opaque. This ensures that what should remain private, stays private. Whether it‘s tattoos, body hair, or moles, the COVER SHIRT conceals them – and at an affordable price.
There are men who may consider wearing shirts a burdensome duty but still need to do so. For this clientele, ETERNA introduced the PERFORMANCE SHIRT – a new type of shirt that is not constricting but extremely comfortable and lightweight. The high stretch content and the new fabric give men the feeling of wearing a T-shirt while still looking well-dressed. These shirts, capable of keeping up with any activity, have become standard products and are taking on an increasingly significant role in ETERNA‘s portfolio, often referred to as Heroshirts.
In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe. People worldwide fell ill, and many lost their lives. The risk of infection was significant, and uncertainty prevailed everywhere. The economic and social life came to a halt, abruptly ending ETERNA‘s growth trajectory. The company faced challenges not only due to lockdowns but also because of new remote work regulations that reduced the demand for business shirts and blouses. At home, there was no dress code. People only dressed in professional attire, at least from the waist up, when virtual online meetings or video calls were scheduled. Events like trade shows, family gatherings, and theater visits were canceled, and there was no longer a need for elegant outfits. ETERNA‘s core business suffered greatly as a result. While the increasing trend toward casual attire had already presented challenges for ETERNA, the pandemic seemed to accelerate the shift toward more relaxed business clothing.
Those who think that the pandemic-induced drop in revenue would lead ETERNA to temporarily suspend its costly technological transformation are mistaken. The company remains undeterred and continues to invest in digitization. This bold decision quickly proves to be the right one. Virtual meetings, remote work, online commerce, digitalization of sales, new virtual tools in wholesale: The pandemic acts as a catalyst for digitization across the board. However, not only are there technological demands, but the perception of corporate culture also changes due to the pandemic. When the team no longer gathers in an office every day, when colleagues from neighboring departments are no longer encountered in the hallway or cafeteria, each individual must actively contribute. In late 2021 / early 2022, cross-departmental project groups, in which more than 100 employees voluntarily participate, further encourage this initiative. Whether it‘s improving the company headquarters or generating new ideas for even more sustainability, the message of project work is well received by the team: Everyone is allowed to contribute and take responsibility for ETERNA‘s future beyond their job description. Because ETERNA is what each and every employee makes of it.
While many fashion manufacturers diversify and outsource their expertise, ETERNA continues to focus on specialization and the highest level of competence in product development. ”All of our fabrics are developed and continuously optimized by us. Everything from yarn thickness to thread count, weaving, and finishing is carefully thought out, controlled, and tested from Passau. This also applies to design, pattern development, and color selection,“ explains Sylvia Scherrer, who has been responsible for product and purchasing at ETERNA since 2013. ETERNA‘s commitment is evident: Only when a fabric meets the highest standards in appearance, comfort, and care properties is it good enough for the specialist—and simultaneously a core competency. These qualities developed over decades shape the concept of ”Best in Class“ since 2023. It reflects what is natural for ETERNA, which is to provide customers with the best occasion-specific shirts and blouses. Furthermore, they take it a step further: Starting from the winter season of 2023, each ”Best-in-Class“ quality will have an indisputable ”Masterpiece“ designation.
The COVID-19 crisis is largely over, but its impact still lingers in the minds of many. Some have lost relatives and friends or are dealing with the consequences of illness. Concerns about health and job security, along with the challenges of working from home while managing homeschooling, have pushed many people to their limits, and the aftershocks are felt at ETERNA as well. At the same time, public life is slowly returning. People are relieved and eager for gatherings and events. Trade shows, weddings, and balls are taking place again, and celebrations, laughter, and dancing fill the air.
However, in February 2022, Russia‘s war against Ukraine shocks people around the world. Refugee movements to Europe begin, and relief efforts are launched. The war also affects the economy. Supply chains are disrupted, and essential raw materials, primarily sourced from Ukraine, become scarce. Sunflower oil disappears from supermarket shelves as Ukrainian facilities struggle to process their harvest. Germany‘s gas reserves dwindle, and energy prices rise. In the fall of 2022, some parts of the population worry about a possible blackout during the winter. Widespread power outages would have devastating consequences. Politicians call on the public to conserve energy. The German government implements relief packages and extends the operational life of the three remaining nuclear power plants until April 15, 2023, as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, there is no blackout during the winter, and by spring 2023, daily life in Germany finally starts to feel somewhat normal and carefree for many.
However, media discussions about arms deliveries to Ukraine dominate the headlines. In 2023, the ”Last Generation“ protest movement, advocating for more climate protection, gains increasing attention in many German cities. Its members stage actions like blocking busy roads and airport runways to disrupt traffic. It‘s a time of complex changes and upheavals.
In recent years, ETERNA has proven to be crisis-resistant. It‘s not always easy, though. Seamless supply chains, for instance, would remain a challenge regardless of the procurement country, as Sylvia Scherrer, responsible for product and procurement, explains. Not only innovative fabrics and finished products but also raw materials and yarns are sourced globally – 40 percent from Europe, 60 percent from Asia, where ETERNA exclusively collaborates with ”Made-in-Green“ certified companies. The Passau-based shirt and blouse specialist relies on a stable network of a few selected suppliers that meet all requirements for sustainability, quality, and value for money. In production and distribution, they plan ahead while remaining flexible, always ready to make the right decisions at short notice.
They closely monitor political, economic, and societal developments – with a cool head and a focus on customers. Regardless of the trend towards casualization, ETERNA remains true to its values and continues to strengthen its greatest asset: providing the highest quality occasion-based fashion. Loyalty to its own identity pays off because, since the end of the COVID-19 crisis, the shirt and blouse specialist has noticed a newly awakened interest among customers in dressing well. The occasion-based business is booming. ”Dressing up is in, especially among younger customers. They want a perfectly fitting shirt for their prom, a lightweight summer blouse for their vacation, and a casual business shirt for work,“ says ETERNA CEO Henning Gerbaulet, ”and very few people get married in a hoodie.“
German companies and institutions are known for their structured approach, reliability, love of order, and good organization, as well as their pursuit of security and predictability. The crises of recent years have shown everyone here in Germany that risks are not truly predictable. ”What matters is how you deal with them and that you always look for ways and solutions,“ Henning Gerbaulet is convinced.
In the 160-year history of ETERNA, often the most challenging moments have led to significant developments and innovations. Since 1863, entrepreneurial determination and inventiveness have shaped the company. Equally deeply rooted are ongoing efforts towards greater sustainability. Added to this is the joyful pursuit of the highest product quality, economic growth, and internationality.