René Caovilla Wants to Be the Moncler of Luxury Footwear


MILAN, Italy — If the Hadid sisters are the current gold standard for celebrity influencer placements, high-end jewellery brand Bulgari could be considered quite fortunate to call Bella its accessories ambassador.

At Milan Fashion Week this past September, the younger Hadid co-hosted a high-wattage party in celebration of the house’s handbag collaboration with accessories designer Nicholas Kirkwood. However, Bulgari was not the only brand to benefit from Hadid’s appearance that evening. While she arrived at the event’s step and repeat clad in Bulgari emeralds and diamonds, her shoes, revealed by the thigh-high slit on her floor-length black-velvet Ester Abner gown, were not Kirkwood, but instead a pair of pearl-strap pumps borrowed from the Italian footwear house René Caovilla.

It may not be a name so well known outside of Italian fashion circles, but René Caovilla’s sparkling statement sandals are currently popping up on the red carpet with a frequency atypical of a shoe label. (Heels, after all, are often hidden by floor-length gowns.) And yet, as of late, a multitude of celebrities, from Rihanna to Bella and Gigi to Robin Wright and Jane Fonda, are choosing Caovilla to complement their mullet hems.
Edoardo Caovilla, creative director and chief operating officer of his family’s nearly 100-year-old company, insists he doesn’t “pay to play.” Regardless, René Caovilla's growing celebrity fanbase underscores the brand’s recent momentum, largely fuelled by the strategy the third-generation heir implemented after joining the family business in November 2009 following a stint in private equity. (The Caovilla family’s financial interests extend far beyond shoes into finance, media, real estate and energy.)

“I have the oldest shoe company in the world,” says Caovilla, sitting in the rooftop garden of the company’s Milan offices, which in January 2015 moved from Via Sant’Andrea to a more prestigious address on Corso Matteotti Giacomo, an upgrade meant to signal the label’s new global status. “The challenge is to respect that DNA, but evolve it to reflect the contemporary market.”

At the time of the now-41-year-old heir’s arrival, René Caovilla — named after Edoardo’s father, the company’s current president and longtime creative leader, but founded by his grandfather in the 1920s — was generating under $10 million a year in revenue. In 2017, sales are projected to reach between $50 million and $60 million.
So how did Caovilla get here? And how will the family, venerable players in the cultural and social fabric of Venice, Italy — just 20 minutes’ drive away from company headquarters — capitalise on its newfound success?

For the uninitiated, the first thing to know about René Caovilla is that the shoes are expensive. Very expensive. For instance, a pair of d’Orsay kitten-heel pumps embellished with dozens of rows of teeny, rainbow-coloured Swarovski crystals will set a client back $1,650. A lace-covered mule flat, decorated with chunky tear-drop crystals, is $1,095. Caovilla says it's Swarovski’s oldest account in Europe, and the label is heavily associated with bling. (Instead of lacquering its soles with a signature colour — it experimented with red decades before Christian Louboutin— many are now sprinkled with glitter dust.)
The house is also associated with an older consumer: the “mother of the bride,” as American department stores like to reference a certain set of ladies who might be inclined to invest two or three times a lifetime in ornately decorated, special-occasion footwear.

When the younger Caovilla entered the fray seven years ago, his goal was to make like Chanel and continue to serve the loyal client while introducing the Caovilla name to younger generations. Price point was non-negotiable. In fact, he actually increased the price of several styles by 30 to 35 percent. “A [high] margin allows you to set up the right strategy,” Caovilla says. “It allows you to be clear. When customers understand how much quality there is on the back, they realise that the price is still low. This is why we’re growing and why some of our bestsellers are our most expensive shoes.”
René Caovilla products are made in Fiesso d'Artico, an industry town in Veneto, one of three regions in Italy regarded for its handcrafted women’s luxury shoes (the others being Tuscany and Marche). While it now only manufactures its own label, the René Caovilla archives are peppered with others. At one point or another, the maison has built shoes for designers including Valentino GaravaniJohn Galliano at Christian Dior and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
Employees at the Fiesso d'Artico headquarters hail from more than 12 different countries spanning multiple generations, with one team member employed for more than 60 years. Each of the 38-or-so steps it takes to make a shoe is completed with precision, down to the final examination by someone whose job is to explicitly dust off each pair.

“You need to learn a new way to make the same thing,” Caovilla explains during a trip to the impeccably clean Fiesso d'Artico facilities, showing off the million-euro machinery that allows him to laser cut leather. Today, the average age of a factory employee is 40, down from 60 seven years ago. (The number of employees during that period has nearly tripled to 50 from almost 150.) “We needed to learn how to teach. The quality has always been what distinguishes René Caovilla from other brands.”
One way to conjure the value of the brand is to dramatise the historical significance of its headquarters, which is currently undergoing a major renovation, complete with the addition of a top-floor design studio lit by the sun and designed in the lavish Venetian style, all gold curly cues and pastel. (The company’s founder was born on the property, while its namesake was raised just a few hundred metres away.) The Caovilla family’s relationship to Venice, where it is heavily enmeshed in local society and cultural institutions like the Biennale, is another branding opportunity. “They could own Venice,” says Mario Ortelli, a ‎luxury goods analyst at ‎Sanford C. Bernstein. “There are not many brands that have made inroads there.”
However, before the youngest Caovilla even thought about sketching out a marketing plan, he tackled both distribution and merchandising. In 2010, 85 percent of René Caovilla product was distributed via wholesale partners. Today, 55 percent of the business is wholesale, while 45 percent is done through its 14 directly operated stores. By region, the business is split fairly evenly across the globe — a third in the Americas, a third in Europe and the Middle East, and a third in the Far East. He wants to open up more directly owned stores (and will do so in São Paulo, Brazil this November and Dubai this December), hitting 18 by February 2018 and reaching 60 within the next three years, working with Milan-based architecture and design firm m2atelier to bring modernity to the Venetian aesthetic.

However, key markets — including the US — are taking longer than first anticipated to tap. In New York City, for instance, the cost of a lease in a “prime” retail location — such as the Upper East Side, the brand’s most natural home — does not guarantee productivity. (The goal, right now, is to open New York by June 2018.) Caovilla’s willingness to wait and see signals a wider desire to achieve results first and glory later. “The new generation is not interested anymore in the moment of purchase,” Caovilla says, laying out store renderings on a coffee table. “A store used to be a place where you were producing turnover. Now it’s a place where you build relationships.”

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