Golden Goose has built a love affair with its customers, one that has proven to be more effective than traditional social media and helped the brand build a 300 million euro business over the past 19 years.
But rather than talk about numbers, Silvio Campara, chief executive officer of the Italian luxury brand best known for its handcrafted sneakers, preferred to relay the brand’s story.
“In the end, you can simply say that Golden Goose is a story of love,” he said. “And we are part of this amazing journey that started almost 20 years ago. People think Golden Goose is just a recent phenomenon, but it’s not.”
The brand was founded and continues to be headquartered in Marghera, “a very, very little town next to Venice.” Although most other luxury brands are based in Paris, Milan or New York, and “99 percent of people don’t even know where [Maghera] is on the earth,” it is at the core of the company’s ethos. “Our origin is important because Marghera is a place where people still have space to dream. And the dream is 99 percent of the reason we have success,” he said.
Although Carlyle Group acquired the brand in early 2017 for a reported 400 million euros, it continues to be run like a niche brand.
“How can you build a niche brand into a multimillion-dollar company and still be niche,” he asked. “That was the challenge, and the only answer was merchandise. Still today, we are the only luxury sneaker player able to differentiate the merchandise to every geography, to every channel. If you go to our Seoul or our Madison store, 50 percent of the merchandise will be different. If you go to Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom or Net-a-porter, the merchandise will be different. For a brand that wants to preserve scarcity, it’s super important to make sure that the same customer is able to buy different things from all the channels. We’re not looking for efficiency in stock, we are looking for emotions.”
When Campara joined the brand in 2013, there were only 17 employees and he quickly saw that, in their minds, “they were not working on making sneakers or leather jackets or boots, they were trying to change the world. This really shocked us because it required us to try and understand them and be in tune with their emotions.”
In researching the brand’s heritage, he found that rather than sneakers, the brand had actually started as a leather jacket manufacturer and didn’t start producing sneakers until 2006. Its ability to apply the same artisanal craftsmanship to the sneakers as it did to the jackets resulted in the company creating an entirely new pathway to profits: sneakers, many with a broken-in look, a category that now accounts for 50 percent of the brand’s sales.
But for Campara, who was wearing a baseball cap that read “Sneakers Maker,” said the brand’s success is more than just its ability to capture the sneaker or streetwear culture. “That’s not our story,” he said. “To us, product is just an enabler of emotions and that is what we call ‘perfect imperfection.’
“For most of you, the touchpoint of the brand has been sneakers, and you’re probably thinking, what’s the sense of paying $500 for a broken sneaker? But you need to know the story, and that becomes the real journey of Golden Goose. It’s not something physical, it’s something mental, something emotional. It’s a journey and you know where you start but you never know the destination.”
While its competitors in the luxury sneaker market were obsessing over their next collaboration partners, Golden Goose was instead homing in on “establishing a unique relationship with every customer. Because the perfect collaboration for us is to have one of our customers become a lover. It’s not that they wear our item, it’s that they become their item. We are not talking about something physical, but something that becomes a part of them.”
He said Golden Goose’s customers don’t resell their sneakers. “Our customer keeps them secret and with all their love in their closet. They don’t even want to give them to their daughter or son. That’s why we call Golden Goose a perfect imperfection.”
But being owned by an investment fund also means that there’s pressure to continue to grow. “It wasn’t easy because on one side you have a very strong customer base — they’re addicted, crazy about the brand. Golden is very silent, very humble, but it’s also very strong, very organic. So how was it possible to grow without betraying the trust of the initial customers,” Campara pondered.
He said the company took the “high path” by simply providing customers what they sought from the brand, which is to be part of an almost secret group.
“Today, Golden Goose represents to all of them their chance to be unique,” he said. “Any time one of our women or men or kids open their closet to grab one of their leather jackets, boots or sneakers, they feel part of something more, something bigger, and this gives Golden Goose the chance to make them become our celebrities.”
He said the brand doesn’t associate with actors or singers or influencers, because its employees and customers are the ones who communicate the Golden Goose message.
He told a story about being in Boston and he spied a woman wearing Golden Goose sneakers. “I always look at the feet of everyone around me,” he said with a laugh. They didn’t exchange a word, but smiled at each other, knowing that they belonged to the same club.
“That was very interesting,” he said. “For a brand that is technically investing nothing in communication, that was the clear evidence that the whole process was delivering the mission of the company. Every one of our customers feels like a star.”
So while his bosses ask if Golden Goose would be better served by communicating in “a more standard way,” Campara declined, saying that once that happens, the brand will “lose all of our people.”
To prove his point, Campara spearheaded a campaign asking the brand’s customers to submit videos describing what Golden Goose meant to them. “We received more than 20,000 videos in five months,” he said. “It was the biggest answer to any of our doubts that the brand was communicating and the product is the enabler.”
It was also then that he realized Golden Goose had created a “tribe.”
“We don’t have customers — they are supporting us, they are communicating for us. This is real word of mouth. So, we hear about social media and everything the phone can handle, but somehow — and this is the magical part of the brand — we have been able in 2019 to communicate out of social and super strongly and organically and worldwide.”
He said that from Tokyo to San Francisco, the customers are the same and this message connects with them all no matter where they live.
As the popularity of sneakers continued to increase and competitors mounted, Campara wanted to get the message out without using social media or spending millions on advertising that Golden Goose is “still the only one making handmade sneakers.”
“We are a tiny, tiny Italian company where every single piece is made in the surrounding area of Venice. And how is it possible to make this relevant to the person in Tokyo or China?” And with 45 percent of its customers being young, digitally savvy people, how best to illustrate the brand’s message?
“What is craftsmanship?” he asked. “It’s an act of love and passion of an artisan to a material. It can be leather, marble, a piece of silk. In our case it’s a sneaker and that’s the point we need to make.”
So the company came up with the idea of Lab, a concept where customers can purchase limited-edition and customizable sneakers, all weathered and ornamented by sneaker-makers trained by the brand’s artisans in Marghera. The product is modified on the spot after shoppers select custom color laces, add charms, tape, and more.
Campara then related another story about how he was in a coffee shop in New York and he was immediately drawn to the server, a woman named Destiny. She told him she was an artist who created paintings, graffiti and other works. Although she didn’t even know what Golden Goose was, he hired her on the spot “after knowing her two minutes and 40 seconds,” he said.
“Now, this lady literally became a star, people write letters to her and together with 15 other people who joined us in the last year, became one of our sneaker-makers,” he said. “They are the most incredible communication tool we could ever imagine.”
Instead of using traditional social media outlets, which he said is “not real and not organic, we wanted to invest in real emotion. We have these people who are not the usual artisans, but they are emotional translators and we send them all over the world to do something you cannot do with social — to speak to our customers.”
He said they listen to people’s stories about how their sneakers or leather jackets have become part of their lives and the emotions they evoke. “And these guys have the empathy to translate all the emotions of the customers to the sneakers and then the sneakers become an extension of their soul, not of their body. This is what we call perfect imperfection.”
Responding to an audience question about how long the sneakermania craze can last, Campara said he doesn’t see an end, at least not for Golden Goose.
“It’s not something I decide or anyone can decide, it’s a matter of changing of society’s habits,” he said. “Forty percent of the population is moving to cities and the way to commute is changing, so sneakers became strong. Before it was a challenge, now it’s a reality.”
But now that sneakers are so pervasive, it represents a challenge to Golden Goose and the trick is to never forget its roots and the handcraftmanship that built its business in the first place. “As long as we don’t compromise on that, our business is going to last forever,” he said.