Italy’s Tod’s shoes turns abroad to defy crisis

Custom-made shoe moulds hanging in a sun-filled workshop are the secret behind the success of luxury Italian shoemaker Tod's, which is flourishing despite a recession-hit economy.

Italy's Tod's shoes turns abroad to defy crisis
A worker packs pairs of shoes in boxes at the factory of the Italian shoes and luxury leather goods Tod's headquarters in Casette d'Ete in the Italian Marche region. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Harrison Ford, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Brad Pitt – as well as countless of the newly rich in places like Brazil and China – are among the wealthy foreign clients that are boosting sales.

The craftsmanship and management may still be homegrown but the company – like many in the Italian luxury sector – has been forced to give up on its domestic market, at least for now.

Sales in Italy last year fell by 26.7 percent last year and went up by 55 percent in China.

"Forget" about sales in Italy "for this year and a good few years after that," the shoe maker's dapper billionaire owner, Diego Della Valle, told shareholders at the latest annual meeting.

Tod's managed to ring in a net profit of €145.5 million ($188.6 million) last year – a 7.4-percent increase on 2011 – despite the context of austerity and recession at home, where the economy has now been shrinking for two years.

Sales were €963.1 million in 2012.

Tod's is headquartered in a minimalist complex surrounded by olive trees in the Marche region in central Italy.

A father-and-son team, 51-year-old Daniele and 21-year-old Matteo, are among the 900 workers at the plant.

"It's important to be able to pass on these skills," Daniele said in one of the workshops, filled with the smell of glue and leather.

The company, which employs a total of 3,000 people worldwide, was founded in 1978 and has become famous for its mocassins with rubber pebble soles.

It produces around 2.5 million pairs a year — retailing from around €300 ($397) each.

"It's like a bank here," said Toni Ripani, 66, who manages the rich stock of leathers and skins, as he handled two rare blue crocodile skins.

Tod's shoes are usually made with between 25 and 30 components, but that can range up to 70 for a particularly sophisticated model.

Each new model is tried out by two employees.

One of them, 39-year-old Roberto, said that his working motto is: "Work with passion while paying attention to the details."

Detail is something of an obsession at Tod's — which has exactly 133 rubber pebbles on each sole, a signature touch for the group.

The company had an underwhelming start.

Its first collection was a flop but it gained fame after the flamboyant late boss of auto giant Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, wore a pair in a television interview.

Its collections are now shown on Milan's catwalks.

The headquarters looks more like an art gallery than a factory – 40,000 square metres (430,600 square feet) filled with paintings and designer furniture like a staircase by Israeli Ron Arad.

On a more practical level, it has a gym and a creche.

While its business model may be all about exports, the company is also looking for homegrown talent.

It has a programme offering 30 six-month apprenticeships for unemployed young Italians – a way of ensuring the future of the brand.

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Inside the world of Italy’s designer to ‘the 0.001 percent’

Florence-based luxury designer tells of super-rich customers who shop by private jet, and his experience of dressing the Pope.

Inside the world of Italy's designer to 'the 0.001 percent'
Italian luxury designer Stefano Ricci (C) poses with his sons Niccolo (R) and Filippo, during a preview of his Spring/Summer 2020 collection. Photo: AFP

Italian luxury clothing designer Stefano Ricci and his sons are touring the sumptuous Reggia di Caserta near Naples by horse-drawn carriage as they unveil their latest clothing collection.

The tour the vast gardens at sunset, stopping to sip champagne as models in impeccably-tailored suits in grain yellow, flaming red and galactic blue pose near an ancient fountain.

The grounds of the Reggia di Caserta palace  near Naples. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

The decision to host an intimate preview of their Spring/Summer Collection 2020 at the UNESCO world heritage site, rather than during Milan's frenetic fashion week, is emblematic of a brand the New York Times dubs “Clothier to the 0.001 Percent”.

The Florence-based menswear and accessories brand, founded in 1972, has outfitted celebrities from Andrea Bocelli to Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise, as well as world leaders like Nelson Mandela, and even Pope Francis.

The latest collection, which features pinstripe suits, colourful knitwear, field jackets and a tux, is named “King for a Day”.

Models wearing Ricci's creations. Photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

In an era where designer goods can be bought online or snapped up in outlets, Ricci says he offers the world's wealthiest men a personalised experience in buying Made in Italy items created using traditional Florentine sartorial techniques.

“Our customer still needs to experience the emotion, to touch the product. Have it explained to them in person, see the tailor, have his measurements taken, be told a story,” Niccolo Ricci, the company's CEO, told AFP at the preview this week.

“He wants to be pampered for an hour,” he said.

Collected by private plane

“Sometimes we have superstitious customers who want trousers, a suit, shirts for example for important appointments, and given the extremely tight deadlines they give us to deliver the clothes, they send their private plane to get them on time”.

Whether hankering after a 5,050 euro suede jacket or a 1,600 euro silk-and-crocodile baseball cap, the typical client is an “alpha-male”, preferably an outdoorsy type with “a love of antique art”, according to Stefano Ricci.

Stafano Ricci. Photo: AFP

“The Ricci man loves the mountains, the woods, dogs and – I'm not afraid to say it – hunting,” he said.

The bearded designer, 67, a keen hunter himself, says his passion for high-end tailoring is “a virus”.

“When it gets hold of you, you produce more, more, more, until you say 'what the heck can I invent now to better this?'”

His latest challenge? “Creating a material which has a compact structure but is at the same time extremely soft… and luminous, not like polished glass but like the skin of a beautiful young girl”.

“No price limit”

Focusing on the richest segment of society in emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East – the brand is about to open a shop in Turkmenistan – has shielded it from factors weighing on sales at other luxury houses.

“We've found there is no price limit if the customer finds himself with a quality product,” Niccolo Ricci said.

READ ALSO: The richest Florence families in 1427 are still rich today

“So even for a suit that costs 25,000 euros, if the customer understands the work that has been done on it, the quality of the fabric, our commitment to sourcing quality raw materials for our exclusive collections, then the customer is on board”.

The 2018 financial year closed with a turnover of 150 million, and the company registered a five percent growth in the first quarter of this year “despite difficulties such as the tariff war between the US and China, (and) Brexit or no Brexit”.

Photo: AFP

“I have been lucky enough to do something I love, to work with my wife, my family, and I've now passed the baton to my sons,” Stefano Ricci says as he stands at the top of a vast marble staircase leading to the royal apartments.

“I design the collections a bit, I give guidelines, I participate in the process, but I'm much more relaxed now”

Among the highlights of his career is a white silk vestment made for Pope Francis in 2015.

“I dressed the pope! I can't do better than that, it's the truth,” he laughs. “I couldn't hope for more”.

READ ALSO: The little-known tax rule that's got the super-rich flocking to Italy