Caovilla 3.0: How One of the Oldest Shoe Brands Is Moving Into the Future

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Rene Caovilla Spring/Summer 2018 shoes
Photo: Courtesy of René Caovilla

Following the recent opening of an uber-bright high-fashion extension that looks a little bit like something out of The Jetsons, and like the rest of the fashion industry, I found myself heading to The Dubai Mall for the umpteenth new store opening of the month. On the agenda today was the inauguration of the new René Caovilla boutique, which, to my excitement, would include a sit-down with Edoardo Caovilla, the third-generation head of one of the oldest shoe brands in the world. I was eager to pick his brain about a transition from finance to footwear and how he planned to take the Venetian label into the future.

You’re now at the helm of one of the oldest shoe brands in the world, which was started by your grandfather.
Yes, my grandfather really was a dreamer. During World War II, he maintained his ideals of beauty. It was a very hard time for Europe, but despite that, he started designing shoes. In 1950, he asked my dad if he would rather go to school or make shoes with him, and that’s when my father joined the family business. For over 60 years, he designed and led the brand, creating its positioning and a very recognizable DNA. I took over in 2009 and, over the past nine years, we have been enlarging the brand, evolving the same DNA, and, of course, expanding the categories of the shoes to match the needs of our customers. Today’s women are always on the run, and we have to give them what they want but also what they need. We needed more touchpoints with our customers because, if you’re lucky and a woman likes your product, you need to be able to deliver everything she’s looking for.

Is that what you’ve brought to the brand?
Exactly. In a way, we are all linked to the same images through social media, but every part of the world still has different traditions and behaviors. As a Creative Director nowadays, it’s very important to understand that. You need to have your idea, your vision, but also understand the needs of the customers from different parts of the world.

Rene Caovilla Spring/Summer 2018 shoes
Photo: Courtesy of René Caovilla

On the topic of social media – it’s been interesting to watch brands shift strategies to start offering collections that are more Instagrammable or even putting together Fashion Week shows that are designed to be photographed for social media. What are your thoughts on that and is it something that you take into account?
For us, Instagram is just a platform for which we have to create content, like we have in the past for radio, TV, and so on. What’s more important, however, is that, through social media, customers today are much closer to the brands. They want to know how things are done and what’s the idea behind it. In the 80s, people would ask you, “What do you do? I want to buy it.” In the 2000s, they said, “What you do is nice, but how do you do it? What are your values?” Now, there’s an added question: “Why do you do it?” And profit or success is no longer the right answer.

We are running our company not to be the best in the world but the best for the world.

And how do you answer that question?
My answer is that we have always used the success of this business to do good. For example, with my grandfather we made shoes in Africa for children who didn’t have any, and that changed their lives. My deep and more personal reason for doing what I do is the impact that we can have on the side through initiatives like this.

Before you joined the brand, you worked in waste management and energy. Would you say that sustainability is something that is close to your heart?
You cannot live in this world and not be aware of the importance of sustainability. We are running our company not to be the best in the world but the best for the world. It is very close to my heart. I have children and I think about the future of the world a lot. We are working to link our success to the impact that we have on the world and on society.                                             

Fashion is almost as polluting as Oil & Gas, which is really hard to swallow especially when you work in this industry. It’s great to hear from brands that sustainability is something that is tied into their vision of their own success.
I think that many things are changing in the fashion industry, but one thing we still need to work on is to stop making stupid people famous [laughs]. We’re trying to do our part with what we call product learning. It’s our way to help people understand the difference between buying luxury and buying rubbish from somewhere else. They need to understand the work, the materials, the craftsmanship that has gone into every piece. We want the customers to understand when they are buying something done properly and when they are not.

Which helps you justify the higher price point as well.

Rene Caovilla Spring/Summer 2018 shoes
Photo: Courtesy of René Caovilla

We touched a little bit on your career before you joined René Caovilla. You were very established in finance, and then chose to join the family business. Is this something your family asked of you?
Yes, they asked me to come back. My father was 70 at the time, and it’s not easy to understand the new generation. Physically speaking, to cater to today’s generation, you need to always be traveling and on the go. There was a need to create something more contemporary but with the same DNA. The brand needed to evolve with an understanding of the habits and rules and needs of today’s woman. The team was amazing at being able to do that.

Where is your team headquartered?
We have two offices. One is in Venice, where René Caovilla was created, that represents the more romantic side of the company. The other one is in Milan and is completely different. It’s in the penthouse of the highest building in the city with an amazing view over it, which is the perfect representation of a company that overlooks the future with no barriers and in a way that is transparent.

How do you think that the woman your grandfather and father used to design for differs from the woman that you design for?
Women in the past were supposed to remain mostly at home, and the ones that were privileged enough would wait at home until the evenings to go out. Now, women manage a family, business, social life – everything really.

Maybe you have the harder job then!
Maybe! There was also much less competition back then. When my grandfather started the company, his market was the north of Italy. For my father, it was Europe and a bit of North America. For me, it’s the world.

Is the goal, from a business perspective, to keep the brand relatively niche or to grow it with a more mass appeal?
We’ve seen around us some mistakes that other shoe brands or even handbag brands have made. They might have a product with a specific, strong positioning or price point, but then they want to make more money so they expand into other product categories, looking for quantity. That destroys the positioning of your brand. The idea for us is to add different touchpoints for people to be able to own a part of the brand even if they are not buying the shoes. Have you ever watched Fight Club?

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have….

to impress people we don’t like.
Exactly! I always think of that quote. Some people just want to buy into a lifestyle – perhaps into a type of Italian lifestyle. Mr. Ralph Lauren and, in a different way, Mr. Giorgio Armani proved that and managed to offer people different touchpoints without devaluing their brand.

Rene Caovilla Spring/Summer 2018 shoes
Photo: Courtesy of René Caovilla

You’ve dressed many celebrities, but is there one that stands out as a career milestone?
You know, what interests me most are women of talent – women of substance. Jessica Chastain is one person who comes to mind. She has a story, she is an artist, she is an actress, she has a very deep knowledge of her craft, and she will remain humble even if she is one of the highest paid actresses in the world. So if I am proud to see somebody in our shoes, it’s that kind of woman.

To what do you attribute your success in the Middle East?
That’s an easy one. It’s all about knowledge; you need to know and understand the habits of women in the Gulf. For example, women here wear the abaya, so as a shoe brand you cannot use certain kinds of stones because the clothing might get caught in it. Making shoes for the Middle East is a full-time job. When women wear the abaya, it’s through their accessories that they are able to express their personal style, so it’s important to give them shoes that allow them to do that. They’re not evening shoes, but they are shoes with a strong character. I always tell my customers, “Don’t buy shoes because of trend or because of advertising. Buy shoes that represent your character.”

Think of “See Now, Buy Now”, this instant gratification. What the hell is that?

So you design for a woman who is not obsessed with following trends.
Fashion can suggest, it can propose a silhouette, but at the end of the day you have to go for what suits you. I like women who buy what they like. 

It’s an interesting struggle trying to appeal to a generation that is so obsessed with trends while at the same time trying to educate them on not following trends or on discovering who they are and what they stand for.
In a certain way, it’s like raising children – I have three of them! I think that many brands are not educating their customers. Think of “See Now, Buy Now”, this instant gratification. What the hell is that? You need to help the customer understand and appreciate that creativity and craftsmanship are things that take time. It’s like a good vino or cheese; you cannot make those things in a week. Creativity is not like a tap that you can just open.

What is your long-term goal?
The idea is to take the company to the next level, to be a publicly listed company. The majority of the ownership will remain in our family for sure, but I want to create something that will remain long after we are gone. Yes, it is our company, but it’s more than that. It belongs to the history of fashion, to the history of shoemaking.

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