The Australian - Wish Magazine
This Italian company’s sneakers have gathered a cult following among young consumers craving authenticity
IT’S not every day that the CEO of a billiondollar luxury apparel and footwear company is wearing a cap, taking off his shoes and holding them up on Zoom. But then again we’re living in extraordinary times – and Silvio Campara is not your ordinary executive.
COVID19 or otherwise, you get the sense he’d be doing this sort of thing anyway. The shoes in question? Sequinned pink sneakers so electric they just about shine a light bright enough to reach all the way from his home in Milan to Melbourne. There’s a second of hesitation, but soon my sneakers (white upper, leopardprint calfhair tongue) fill the screen. Thrilled, the gregarious 41yearold Italian says they were an excellent choice. A new normal indeed.
The sneakers under discussion are by Golden Goose, the cult Venetian brand that has become a worldwide phenomenon for its signature livedin star sneakers in a slew of wild variations. Intentionally scuffed, they retail for upwards of $650 and have a devoted cult following among fans who are as likely to wear them with jeans as they are with a cocktail dress.
Golden Goose opened its first Australian standalone store in Sydney last year and this past June launched in Melbourne’s Chadstone. Each of its 100plus international stores are a blast of futuristic, industrialinspired interiors: aluminium foil (Sydney), gold walls (Tokyo), toptotoe fuchsia (Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany), exposed beams (Spain) and glowing, highlighter orange changerooms (Melbourne).
It’s a far cry from the brand’s humble beginnings in Venice 20 years ago, when fashion novices and founders Francesca Rinaldo and Alessandro Gallo started experimenting with leather clothing and cowboy boots. Adding sneakers to the range proved difficult as regional shoemakers were only trained in traditional footwear. When Rinaldo and Gallo eventually found an agreeable manufacturer, the result was a streetwear shoe designed to look wornin but handcrafted to the high standards of a formal leather shoe. Their first model, the SuperStar, launched in 2007 and is still a bestseller.
Campara, who has also held positions at Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani, where he was based in Hong Kong and Tokyo, traces the now pervasive premium sneaker category back to Rinaldo and Gallo. “Golden Goose introduced sneakers into the fashion season … It was a revolution to the supply chain. Before us, no one was making sneakers in Italy. It was all in Asia, sometimes in Romania or Albania. Now Kering and Louis Vuitton produce all their sneakers here,” he says, referring to Venice’s Riviera del Brenta area, the 13th century birthplace of Italy’s footwear industry.
It’s been quite the journey, with 2010 a landmark year as Golden Goose recorded revenues of €30 million ($49.4 million). In 2013, private equity acquired 75 per cent of the company from Gallo and Rinaldo, who at the time still held 100 per cent. The same year, Campara left his LAbased role at American surfwear brand Sundek, taking up a position as chief commercial officer at Golden Goose alongside a team of fewer than than 20. He has been crucial to the company’s growth, and in 2015 a pool of investors led by Ergon Capital acquired a majority stake in the business. One of its biggest moves came in 2017, when investment firm the Carlyle Group (NASDAQ: CG) bought the company for an estimated €400 million. Campara was promoted to CEO in 2018 and together with the Carlyle Group he implemented a retail expansion strategy that saw revenues of €187.6 million in 2018 (70 per cent outside of Italy) and, at the close of 2019, a 40 per cent increase in group revenue to €262.3 million. Not even COVID19 could steer Golden Goose off course, with investment firm Permira acquiring Carlyle’s majority stake for a staggering €1.3 billion this past June.
But by then the pandemic had hit Italy hard, and fast. The priority, says Campara earnestly, were his employees. “I really perceived how scared all my people were. And when you’re in a collective, you cannot believe in anything if your people are not with you. And in that moment my people were lost. I had to make them feel secure and that we had the situation under control, that we had a vision. First, it was simple: stay home and be safe.” In the spirit of unification, they produced #togetherwearestronger Tshirts (the proceeds went to health facilities on the front line), modelled by staff online where ecommerce was exploding.
Nonetheless, March proved to be the most difficult period of his career. “In the financial and economical world it was bad news every single day,” recalls the CEO. “Bankruptcies of department stores, closing orders… I started to hear from my colleagues in fashion that they were putting people on hold. It was complicated and very hard.”
To his credit, Campara kicked into gear swiftly. However, in between signing the new Permira deal in February and the acquisition in June he was caught between two owners, which meant pitching a strategy to Carlyle and Permira – and getting them both to agree. His proposition? To skip production of the main collection season (sneakers are the company’s mainstay but it also produces readytowear and accessories). It would cut back sales by about €30 million, but would avoid delayed payments, cancelled orders and, ultimately, chasing stockists who probably wouldn’t have the money to pay. There would be a financial impact, but Campara was confident the strategy would hold the brand in good stead for coming out the other side in time for Spring 2021.
“I told them, ‘I know you’re probably not going to understand me but I don’t think you’re going to want to pay €1.3 billion just for revenues. I think you’re going to want to pay €1.3 billion for the whole world of Golden Goose. Like it or not, everyone has lost three months of business,
and nobody can give it back. So why do we have to push unnaturally to our retailers? It makes no sense. For a brand that bases everything on wordofmouth, it’s a risk to encourage bad sentiment.’ And this is the beauty of Carlyle and Permira,” he concludes. “They took three minutes to say ‘we are with you’.” In fact, management had such faith in the idea that they reinvested their proceeds back into the company. Granted, this included Campara himself, who is the brand’s largest private investor, and former Golden Goose chairman (and exGucci CEO) Patrizio di Marco.
Campara says the current climate forced Golden Goose to make changes that were probably long overdue. “We are using this special moment of change to revitalise and rethink, throwing out some ideas that were too old fashioned anyway and speed[ing] up some other processes. I think my staff perceived this positive energy,” he says of the company’s 660 employees, most of whom are less than 30 years old.
Although its consumer base are digital natives, Golden Goose eschews the influencer economy and traditional social media in favour of more authentic communication. Customer engagement is strong, and for its Dear Golden initiative, where consumers were asked to describe what the brand means to them, they received more than 20,000 responses. Other successful campaigns include the Dream Maker, whereby followers were invited to create their own unique shoe design with the winner given their own ‘1OF1’.
As for its own content, the Golden Goose website and PASSPORT app is filmcentric, with a highly stylised yet tongueincheek retro Americana sensibility and Italian edge. For SS20, the episodic Texas Tour collection was showcased in a series of video shorts with a 1970s vibe. Think boogieing cowboys, dusty highways, classic convertibles, rodeos and fringing. Other recent launches have taken place in New York, featuring 1980s iconography: cassettes, tiedye bags, skateboards, boom boxes and camcorders set to a funky soundtrack featuring Chaka Khan.
Perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, Campara insists that expanding to other mediums – and not solely relying on product – is crucial for the success of what Permira describes as a “nextgen luxury brand”. This year will mark the launch of Golden TV, a series of online and offline channels geared towards likeminded creatives and the spirit of youth culture. “Our stores will become a place to meet and make content in a new environment,” he reveals exclusively to WISH. “At night, there will be bands we record live through our whole social network. So if you’re in Australia and want to watch a band in Las Vegas, you can simply go onto our Instagram TV or Youtube TV.
“I was part of the MTV generation. In my day, Instagram was MTV. We wanted to name this Golden TV because the brand has a sort of vintage attitude. And now, TV is considered vintage. Nike is Just Do it. For Golden Goose, it’s Everyone Can be a Star.”
While it may seem as if Golden Goose has burst onto the scene out of nowhere, it has been experiencing consistent growth over 13 years, with early adopters tracking down the distressed sneakers at independent retailers and boutique department stores. But even now, with greater exposure, the fullyfledged global brand still holds a powerful allure. The company runs everything inhouse and is headquartered in the small Venetian town of Marghera as opposed to one of the world’s fashion capitals. Leveraging its origins, Golden Goose promotes itself as a Venetian brand – a clever point of difference that retains the Made in Italy prestige without presenting as overly mainstream.
Campara questions the longevity of the “topdown” approach, in which design heads operate at arm’s length from customers. It’s a status quo he says is no longer resonating with Gen Z, who want to be involved in bespoke concepts and usergenerated content. “It gives customers an opportunity to express their voices. We’ve gone from an era of the VIP [ Very Important Person] to the VRP [ Very Relevant Person]. It’s key to understanding what’s next in fashion.”
Although warm and personable, Campara rarely speaks publicly. “I’m an extrovert and an open person, but I like my actions and the actions of the brand to speak on our behalf, which is why I don’t do many interviews,” says the mediashy CEO. The design team, too, is lowkey. They design a new model, every year, four years in advance, and artisans spend anywhere from four to six hours to achieve each shoe’s “perfectly imperfect” aesthetic. Campara keep’s mum about the process, but all we need to know, apparently, is that the sneakers are “handmade with love”. Shoes dangling from the stores’ ceilings hint at the yellow foxing appearance achieved by hanging sneakers in the sun, and instore barrelling machines replicate the distressed look created back in production. A new offering called the LAB is now a feature at flagship stores (including Melbourne), allowing customers to get their sneakers personalised by a Sneaker Maker, embellished with everything from studs to glitter, handwritten messages, interchangeable laces and buffing treatments. Staff are trained in Venice and come from an artistic background, often referred by friendsoffriends.
Annually, more than 1000 sneaker variations plus special editions are distributed across various channels and geographies. It’s the antithesis to the popular omnichannel approach, but one that has proved incredibly successful. “This way you’re going to buy a sneaker from all of them, and that’s why Golden Goose has been so successful,” says Campara. “You’re not just buying another Superstar, you’re buying that Superstar.”
Still, intellectual property is an ongoing challenge, with an entire department dedicated to counterfeit concerns. Last year alone they destroyed more than 200,000 pairs of fake sneakers.
Campara is positive about the future, going so far as to say that he thinks Golden Goose will be “even better than before [ COVID19]”. The next phase of growth is the rollout of 25 stores per year, with the aim to list the company in New York. They are also on track to open a sneaker school and experiential museum boasting the world’s largest library of sneakers. In the spirit of innovation and refreshing optimism, it’s something to look forward to. “The future,” Campara says, “is now.”
Campara questions the longevity of the ‘top-down’ approach, in which design heads operate at arm’s length from customers. Gen Z want to be involved in bespoke concepts and user-generated content