Don’t throw away those old sneakers

MILAN — Our era’s kings of casual wear, sneakers have long been the fodder of cheap manufacturing. Golden Goose, a nonconformist shoe company, wants to offer an alternative: craftsmanship and repair.

With its flagship in Milan’s upmarket Brera neighborhood recently expanded and redesigned to house workshops for cobblers and embroiderers, the brand best known for introducing $500 artisanal sneakers is now offering bespoke in-store repairs that can cost over $100. But despite the high-end prices, the model can serve as a model for fashion companies looking to extend the life of their products.

“Artisans are capable of producing uniqueness with their hands,” Golden Goose CEO Silvio Campara recently offered to explain the mind-boggling costs of sneakers as he leaned on a workshop counter at the back of his brand’s renovated boutique. “And craftsmanship creates affection.”

It also explains the commercial incentive to give artisans in their twenties and thirties a prominent role in the flagship. In a well-equipped workshop, a team of shoemakers cleans, sews and resoles shoes – especially trainers – 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 onto jeans and other garments and sew hearts, flowers and other whimsical designs onto sneakers – Golden Goose’s first personalization adventure.

“Our goal is to renew the dignity of artisans,” 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 finally convinced that as part of Golden Goose’s repair program, “they are shaping the future of fashion”.

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

Dynamic and confident, Campara sported ripped white jeans studded with pearls and rhinestones while showing off Golden Goose’s refurbished flagship last month. He has a habit of winking when he brags, such as when he proclaims, “We’re one step ahead.” (Winks.) “Everyone’s outdated.”

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

“Five years ago, sneaker repair didn’t exist,” said Alessandro Pastore, a shoemaker who previously ran production at factories making shoes for brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin. “No luxury boutique offers this type of repair service.” He began hammering rubber into place on a stake-mounted shoe. “We’re the first, and we’re unique, and that makes us feel really important.” (At that, Campara clapped her hands across the counter.)

The brand, founded in 2000 by Francesca Rinaldo and Alessandro Gallo, took an old-school approach to sneaker manufacturing: instead of vulcanizing a rubber sole to cover the upper part of the shoe – the usual quick fix for sneaker production in Asia – Golden Goose has sought out shoemakers in its home territory of Veneto, a region renowned for traditionally handcrafted dress shoes, where several luxury fashion houses have established factories to take advantage of the local shoe industry. Golden Goose designed sneakers with the same individually stitched uppers and hand-hammered soles found in dress shoes, and today it makes more than one million pairs of sneakers a year using techniques traditional in eight factories in Veneto and throughout Italy. “We’re the best,” Campara said with another wink, “because we’re Italian. We have the know-how in this country which produces the world’s luxury products.

In the Milanese store, windows display pairs of half-restored sneakers. The before and after can be hard to discern without studying the soles, however, as the sneakers themselves – in keeping with Golden Goose’s “perfect imperfection” ethos – proudly bear deliberate scuffs, tears, fraying and inked graffiti. At the cobblers’ workshop wash station, dozens of jars indicate the range of shades needed for white paint alone, from snow to smoggy, to match the effects of wear. A handcrafted sneaker service price board advertises the seemingly popular “lived treatment.” The cost: 70 euros, about the same in dollars.

The boutique is an elegy to that time-worn aesthetic: varsity sports and Americana-inspired apparel collections feature patches, holes, and mended rips; Blondie, Duran Duran, INXS and other 1980s heroes perform on the sound system; the shelves are artfully arranged with roller skates, analog cameras, vinyl records and cassettes presented in cases like pinned butterflies.

As brick-and-mortar stores struggle to gain prominence in the era of online shopping, the new Golden Goose model is attracting visitors with its handcrafted services, and the sneaker maker plans to open similar concept stores in New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates later this year. Although repairs are generally seen as a loss for brands, Campara insists the approach is good for business.

“Someone who feels cared for will always come back, and repairs help keep my products in your life and in your memory,” he said. Customers hang out in the store, tell people about their experience and, he candidly says, often buy more sneakers when they come to spruce up their previous pair.

As for the merits of the sustainability strategy, customers showed up with 38 pairs of sneakers to refurbish on opening day in June – a grain of sand compared to the number of new shoes produced on any given day. Yet if a broader repair culture replaced the planned throwaway nature of modern fashion, the way we buy and maintain goods would change dramatically.

Golden Goose was acquired by investment group Permira in 2020 for €1.3 billion. Although venture capitalists often demand the fastest maximum returns, ruling out the sacrifices required by sustainability efforts, Campara insisted he had investor confidence after boosting earnings in his tenure. CEO while introducing a host of sustainability initiatives. “We’re here to create more long-term value, not just revenue,” he said. “You can’t sell if you don’t have customers.”

The shop, beyond the workstations of shoemakers and embroiderers, welcomes recycling bins of clothing and shoes of all brands, in partnership with ReCircled, and resells second-hand leather sneakers and jackets on behalf of customers. Additionally, Golden Goose recently announced a series of ambitious sustainability and inclusiveness goals, as well as plans to establish a shoemaking academy next year that will train a new generation of artisans.

This spring, the brand introduced its most innovative sneaker model to date, the Yatay Model 1B, which uses a water-efficient alternative to leather made from non-edible vegetable sources, created in collaboration with the producer of Italian Coronet materials. “Italy has a sustainability advantage,” he said. “The supply chain is there, so it’s easier to innovate together.”

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

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