June 19, 2024


Singularly dandy shopping

Golden Goose’s Sustainability Pitch: Don’t Toss Those Old Sneakers

This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashion, and innovative efforts to address issues facing the fashion industry.

MILAN — The kings of our casual-attire era, sneakers have long been landfill fodder of cheap fabrication. Golden Goose, a maverick footwear enterprise, would like to propose an alternative: handicraft and repair.

With its flagship in Milan’s upmarket Brera neighborhood newly expanded and redesigned to accommodate workshops for cobblers and embroiderers, the brand best known for introducing $500 artisan-made sneakers is now offering in-store bespoke repairs that can run over $100. But despite the high-end pricing, the model may serve as a blueprint for fashion companies looking to extend the lifetime of their products.

“Artisans are able to produce uniqueness with their hands,” Silvio Campara, Golden Goose’s chief executive, recently offered as an explanation of the sneakers’ eye-popping costs as he leaned on a workshop counter at the rear of his brand’s revamped boutique. “And artisanship creates affection.”

It also explains the business incentive to give artisans in their 20s and 30s a starring role at the flagship. In a well-outfitted atelier, a team of cobblers cleans, restitches and resoles shoes — especially sneakers — amid polishing wheels, leather-sewing machines and an ozone sanitizing closet, surrounded by the heady turpentine scent of glue on rubber. In another corner of the store, lined with drawers of rhinestones and rows of ribbon rolls, embroiderers sew patches on jeans and other clothing and stitch hearts, flowers and other whimsical designs onto sneakers — Golden Goose’s first venture into customization.

“Our goal is to renew the dignity of artisans,” Mr. Campara said, holding up a half-repaired sneaker with the nailheads of its hand-hammered insole exposed. “It was a difficult task to find 20 young people who wanted to work as cobblers today,” he added, but they were ultimately convinced that as part of Golden Goose’s repair program, “they’re shaping the future of fashion.”

“I’ll be thrilled if other brands try to copy us,” he said.

Buoyant and self-assured, Mr. Campara sported ripped white jeans spangled all over with pearls and rhinestones while showing off Golden Goose’s renovated flagship last month. He has a habit of winking when he’s bragging, as when he proclaimed, “We’re way ahead.” (Wink.) “Everyone else is outdated.”

The cobblers behind him, in denim jumpsuits with their official title — “Dream Maker” — patched in capitals across their back, removed sneakers from a specialized oven that heats the rubber so the foxing, the strip that wraps some sneaker styles, can be peeled away and replaced along with the outsole.

“Five years ago, sneaker repair didn’t exist,” said Alessandro Pastore, a cobbler who formerly led production for factories making shoes for brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin. “There isn’t a single luxury boutique that offers this kind of repair service.” He began hammering rubber into place on a stake-mounted sneaker. “We are the first, and we are unique, and it makes us feel truly important.” (At that, Mr. Campara high-fived him from across the counter.)

The brand, founded in 2000 by Francesca Rinaldo and Alessandro Gallo, applied an old-fashioned approach to manufacturing sneakers: Instead of vulcanizing a rubber sole to encase the shoe’s top portion — the customary quick fix for sneaker production in Asia — Golden Goose looked to the cordwainers of its home territory of Veneto, a region renowned for formal shoes handcrafted according to tradition, where several luxury fashion houses have established factories to take advantage of local footwear artisanship. Golden Goose devised sneakers with the same individually sewn uppers and hand-hammered soles found in formal shoes, and today it fabricates more than a million pairs of sneakers a year using traditional techniques in eight factories in Veneto and around Italy. “We’re the best,” Mr. Campara said with another wink, “because we’re Italian. We have the craftsmanship in this country that produces the world’s luxury goods.”

In the Milan boutique, window shelves display pairs of half-rehabbed sneakers. The befores and afters can be difficult to discern without studying the soles, however, as the sneakers themselves — in keeping with Golden Goose’s philosophy of “perfect imperfection” — proudly bear deliberate scuffs, tears, frays and inked-on graffiti. At the laundering station in the cobblers’ workshop, dozens of jars indicate the range of shades needed in white paint alone, from snow to smoggy, to match the effects of wear. A price board of artisan sneaker services advertises the apparently popular “Lived-In Treatment.” The cost: 70 euros, about the same in dollars.

The shop is an elegy to this timeworn aesthetic: Clothing collections inspired by varsity sports and Americana feature patches, holes and mended rips; Blondie, Duran Duran, INXS and other heroes of the 1980s play on the sound system; shelves are artfully arranged with roller skates, analog cameras, vinyl records and cassette tapes displayed in cases like pinned butterflies.

As physical boutiques struggle for significance in the age of online shopping, the new Golden Goose model is drawing visitors with its craft services, and the sneaker maker plans to open similar concept shops in New York and Dubai later this year. Though repairs are typically considered a loss for brands, Mr. Campara insists that the approach is good for business.

“Someone who feels taken care of will always return, and repairs help keep my products in your life and in your memory,” he explained. Customers spend time in the store, tell people about their experience and, he said candidly, often buy more sneakers when they come in to spruce up their previous pair.

As for the strategy’s sustainability merits, clients showed up with 38 pairs of sneakers to refurbish on opening day in June — a grain of sand compared with the number of new shoes being produced on a given day. Yet if a wider culture of repair replaces the planned disposability of modern fashion, the way we buy and maintain goods would radically change.

Golden Goose was acquired by the Permira investment group in 2020 for €1.3 billion. Though venture capitalists often demand the quickest maximum revenue, precluding the sacrifices required by sustainability efforts, Mr. Campara insisted that he had the faith of investors after ramping up profits in his tenure as chief executive while introducing a host of sustainability-minded initiatives. “We’re here to create more long-term value, not just revenues,” he said. “You can’t sell if you don’t have any clients.”

The shop, beyond the workstations for cobblers and embroiderers, hosts bins for recycling of any brand of clothes and shoes, in partnership with ReCircled, and resells secondhand sneakers and leather jackets on behalf of clients. Additionally, Golden Goose recently announced a series of ambitious goals for sustainability and inclusivity as well as plans to start a shoemaking academy next year that will train a new generation of artisans.

This spring, the label introduced its most innovative sneaker model yet, the Yatay Model 1B, which uses a low-water-use leather alternative made from inedible vegetable sources, created in collaboration with the Italian material producer Coronet. “Italy has an advantage when it comes to sustainability,” he said. “The supply chain is here, so it’s easier to innovate together.”

Mr. Campara said that while “Made in Italy” has long indicated quality to the world, future shoppers will be looking for something more: “Made with responsibility,” he said, with another gratified wink.