The Italian Job
Q&A with Frank van Wezel
Ashun Wu wasn't the only man with a grin on his face at the end of a fascinating week's golf at The Dutch, in Spijk, that saw China's hottest current star pocket the winner's cheque at the KLM Open. As a co-sponsor of one of the European Tour's most popular and long-standing events – and with huge crowds making the most of the balmy September weather – the Italian fashion brand Duca del Cosma seized the opportunity to make a statement of its own as the official shoe and apparel supplier to the historic event; for Frank van Wezel, the man at the helm of the company he rescued from bankruptcy in 2016, the visibility represented the ultimate validation of the passion, the energy – and the vision – that he has invested in transforming the fortunes of this niche brand.
“What a huge week,” says van Wezel, speaking from his home in Holland. “As we left Spijk on Sunday night we were all just so thrilled with the reception and feedback we enjoyed over what was a momentous event for Duca. This was the first in a three-year deal as footwear and apparel sponsor to one of the European Tour's oldest and most popular fixtures – what an honour for Duca del Cosma. The whole experience was made possible by the incredible work that our team has put in over the last couple of years. In the tented village we had huge interest at our stand, while out on the course there were 1200 volunteers modelling our shoes and clothing. It looked like we owned the tournament!”
Should he be so inclined, of course, Frank van Wezel could own the tournament. Several times over. The irrepressible Dutch native was the pioneering businessman who built the Hi-Tec empire, selling his sports and hiking-shoe brand in 2016 in a licensing deal with US giant Cherokee Global Brands that left the entrepreneur with both the time and the resources to indulge in a fresh challenge. Hey, at 75 what else do you do?
“Timing is everything in this life and the way events unfolded couldn't have worked out any better,” he says. “Just as we were tying up the loose ends of the deal with Cherokee I read in an industry magazine that Duca was in trouble – and I immediately put in a call to the liquidators. This was in mid 2016, so we've been working on the re-birth of Duca del Cosma for a couple of years now and while it's been hard work it's been a lot of fun, too. There was a lot of cleaning up to be done. We had to organise new product ranges, both in shoes and apparel, hire new staff [while respecting a non-compete clause with Cherokee] so we were starting from scratch basically.”
Frank van Wezel's experience in the industry has proved invaluable, as too has his eye for quality and a reputation for sourcing high quality materials and the technology that ultimately defines his products. “Don't forget that Hi-Tec invested heavily in golf shoes, especially in GB&I, and the fact that Padraig Harrington wore Hi-Tec shoes in all three of his major championship victories is personally satisfying to me. Ian Woosnam wore our product and he is a good friend. So I do have some golfing background. But the thing was, whenever I went into a pro shop and saw these gorgeous Duca del Cosma shoes, I always bought a pair! I asked the product guys at Hi-Tec, ‘Why can't we make such beautiful shoes in beautiful materials?' The manager of the golf shoe division told me that he could, but that they would cost the consumer £140-160, and as loyal as Hi-Tec consumers were, they wouldn't stretch to that! These are shoes that I really like and would buy for myself – shoes you fall in love with. So when I read that Duca was in trouble, I thought, ‘Hey, this is fate…this is what I want to do'.”
In conversation van Wezel oozes the confidence of a businessman who founded and built one of sport's great iconic brands – a story that shares parallels with the legend surrounding Adi Dassler, whose preference for adding support to running and long-jump shoes with three laces led to the creation of adidas. A passionate all-round sportsman, it was van Wezel's love of squash that presented an immediate and pressing problem.
“The story behind the squash shoe is one I don't get tired of telling,” he laughs. “When I moved to London it struck me that all the players at my squash club were forever moaning about their shoes – they were too heavy, not durable, expensive. I was a pretty serious squash player and here was an opportunity right in front of my eyes. In 1974 I had this idea of starting a shoe company and to specialise in squash shoes – squash was so big in the UK then, growing so fast – and eventually we made the right squash shoe. During the next 8 years we developed the INTER squash brand in the UK and by 1982 we had the funds to expand aggressively on an international scale. We signed up the London marketing agency J Walter Thompson, and their first suggestion was that we had to change the INTER brand for something that reflected the company's exclusive upmarket and technologically advanced product. Rather ingeniously, by changing just two letters, INTER became Hi-Tec. The Classic Hi-Tec squash shoe sold 21 million pairs worldwide while the impact of the name change became a Harvard case study.”
Van Wezel's attraction to the sneaker-style shoe that features prominently in Duca del Cosma's extensive range of both men's and women's golf shoes reflects not only a personal attraction to the sporty and relaxed style but the astute recognition that the trend in the popularity of these lighter, lifestyle-oriented sports shoes is here to stay. There's an important biomechanical element to consider, too. The young superstars in the game today have proved beyond all doubt that the athletic style of shoe enhances a sense of being ‘grounded' through the feet, providing all the traction a player needs to make a powerful golf swing. Long gone are the days of the heavy welted leather shoes and spikes – the emphasis today is on lightweight comfort and versatility. Fashionably so.
“Again, the timing for Duca couldn't have been any better,” he agrees. “The trend today is towards the ‘sneaker' style, these are shoes you simply have to produce to compete in today's golf market – and believe it or not there are 70 companies making golf shoes worldwide. I'd much rather cater for the aspirational market, not only the golfer but the Japanese, the Chinese, the Asians, where people dream of being a golfer but many will never set foot on a golf course. This is the surreal life many would-be golfers live; they watch the Golf Channel and dream of beautiful people beautifully dressed walking velvet fairways in the latest lightweight fashions. Our shoes become part of that dream, an aspiration sale – we have a term for it, the Italian Golf & LifeStyle evolution.”
So what is it that makes the Duca del Cosma range so compelling? First and foremost, the shoes are intended to be worn both on and off the golf course and reflect the stylish lifestyle of the modern golfer. The lightweight shoes are available in a variety of fashionable colour combinations, including the Italian flag colourway of white, red and green on the popular KUBA men's model. Secondly, the craftsmanship is exceptional. Only leather from the best tanneries is used alongside Goodyear welt constructions, merino wool soft linings and outsoles shaped from durable rubber compound. Advanced technology includes a waterproof microfibre system acting like a breathable protective ‘sock' within the shoe. The waterproof membrane keeps the foot dry during play and is supported by a soft PU insert sole to provide extra comfort for the duration of the round.
And while van Wezel remains hands-on is just about every department of the business, there is one area in which he draws the line: “I don't get involved in the design-side of the business, either with shoes or apparel. I leave that to the people who originally inspired the Duca story – Head of Creative Design Baldovino Mattiazzo and International Brand Manager Antje Elle. When we bought the company my first job was to make sure these key people would come on board for the journey – it was vital that we kept the D.N.A. of the brand intact. Being passionate about contemporary sportswear, we want to be at the forefront of fashion and technology and I'm delighted to say the designers have simply carried on where they left off.”
In the afterglow of the company's first significant tournament sponsorship, and with van Wezel's intensified vigour to ‘take on the world!' (again), the focus currently is on international development, with an office due to come on stream in Shanghai, and there are moves afoot to attract a distributor in the US. “Of course, my hope is that with an expanded range and our commitment to pure quality and luxury, Duca del Cosma will sell more shoes to discerning golfers in the traditional golf market, such as in Britain and here on the Continent, but ultimately the long-term growth of our business is geared to premium markets in America and to the next generation of players across Asia. We are in this for the long haul – the true potential of the company is unlikely to be realised in my lifetime, but I see it as a true global brand in years to come. I shall be happy to leave the legacy…”
From a trade perspective, Duca del Cosma is also offering something special to potential partners at the cutting edge of the business. “I know from experience how important it is to look after your retailers and we want to make it a great experience to deal with us over the longer term,” adds van Wezel, who has in the space of 18 months expanded brand sales to more than 400 stockists in 13 countries. “We are dedicated to providing on-time delivery and excellent customer service. In addition, we have incorporated substantial margins into our price structures for all retail partners to benefit from sales,” he added.
Always the businessman.
* The Autumn/Winter range from Duca del Cosma (a traditional Venetian name and Italian for ‘Duke of Cosma') is now available to view on the company's website, where the latest designs from the original founders, Head of Creative Design Baldovino Mattiazzo and International Brand Manager Antje Elle, who are both passionate golfers themselves. Stylish, bold, classy, elegant and sporty – the brand philosophy is represented in a stunning collection for men and women that takes its inspiration from award-winning Italian design combined with amazing attention to detail.