Velasca transcend the ever-changing trends of fashion to deliver a timeless style that values tradition — like the time-honoured secrets passed down from a father to his son. Their shoes are made with passion and unique Italian expertise, ensuring your shoes will last a lifetime. This brand believes high quality craftsmanship should be accessible to all. And, by leveraging innovations with online shopping, they’re able to cut out the middle-man and connect artisans to customers. This is a story about a passion for Italian craftsmanship, and about dreamers who decide to jump in on a new adventure. It all started with the research stage. The co-founders quit their jobs and went looking for the very best footwear district in Italy. This search took them to the region of Marche: where the whole urban fabric is built on shoes, from generation to generation. While fashion changes every season, Velasca offer a timeless style that represents a refined, Italian elegance. They are inspired by classic lines, and pay meticulous attention to detail.
In this episode of the MenswearStyle Podcast we interview Enrico Casati, Co-Founder of Velasca about the founding story of his men's direct-to-consumer shoe brand. The initial plan was to operate exclusively online but he quickly realised physical stores were the best way to showcase the quality of their product to customers. Our host Peter Brooker and Enrico also talk about engaging with community, brand philosophy, social media advertising, Italian shoemaking, life after Covid-19, and their new London store on Chiltern Street in Marylebone.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of The menswear style podcast. I'm your host Pete Brooker. On this episode, I'm gonna talk to Enrico casati, the founder of Alaska, Alaska is a reality Born in 2013. in Milan, they produce high quality shoes in Italy, handcrafted with special care by their artisans, and they sell them with a direct to consumer business model online and offline. They are located in Italy, Paris and London, and they'll soon be in New York. And here is Enrico, in his own words, to tell me how it all began. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we started the brand Alaska in 2013. Actually, my co founder, Yakubu sagmeister, myself, we would just say, a bit tired, I would say of the corporate jobs that we had in time and wanted to venture on our own, we kind of had an episode that started the idea, which was I was I was living in Singapore at the time, and I couldn't find a pair of shoes, literally a pair of moccasins, actually. They were not, you know, break my bank. But there was still there was to be like, high quality, you know, nice design, and I couldn't find them, I could just find, you know, the luxury products, or, you know, products that it didn't like, for the quality wasn't very good. So at the time, I mean, Jacobo and my brother who are best friends, they came to visit me in, in Asia, in Singapore. And we started talking, we started talking and you know, in front, you're on the beach with a beer in our hands, and everything seemed easy. And I said, Why don't we launch, you know, a brand that essentially makes these artisanal products, artisan shoes, you know, high quality, but instead of going through the normal supply chain, the normal distribution channels have no showrooms and distributors and retailers, why don't we go direct to consumer, right? And we said, I mean, I now use the term direct to consumer, you know, because it's, it's become popular, it's become well known in the industry. But at the time, we didn't know that term existed. We just we just felt like, you know, in 2012 2013, there was no need for all that intermediation, you know, on the market. And we could just have a direct relationship with our customers. So that's, that's how we started. Interesting. And so this is just on the beach in Singapore. So then you go to sands Marina Bay, and then you get on top of the skyscraper and go, what were we talking about? cocktails ago forgotten now? What was that about shoes that we said, we must? Yes. Did someone write that down? You know, when I came back, I mean, I drafted you know, the, the first, the first project and I wrote it down, and I talked to young cupola in those in those few, first few weeks, and then I quit my job essentially came back from Milan. To start it. I mean, to be to be fair, at the time, I didn't have much to lose. I mean, yes, I had a stable job, but I didn't want to be in banking anymore. So it was quite easy for me 25 years old, you know, to come back to my home country, you know, I went to live in with my parents for a year just to not to have to pay rent, you know, just to limit my costs. And, and we just, we just started, you know, very, very slowly with little financial resources to put this project into, into into action, you know, in action. The strategy was, was the same, I mean, in, you know, since since 2013, when we set up the company, we never change the strategy, the only thing that we we didn't predict is to have as many shops or partakers as we call them, as we do have now, we thought we will be just online only then we realise like, over time we start doing temporary stores, we started engaging with consumers where the customers are more like a community. Really. And we started seeing that, you know, communicating and you know, building a customer base online, but then, you know, after some traction, eventually having a temporary store or an actual physical store, a permanent one was the right way forward because it you know, for our products to be really appreciated. A lot of people still want that physical touch. Right. And did you open up in Milan first, was it a pop up shop? Yeah. 2014 at the end of that of the year, we organised the first temporary store pop up for about five weeks. I remember the time, the you know, we had to pay 3500 euros for that rent for those five weeks. And for us, it was a an astounding figure. We were so scared. We're like, Okay, this is kind of like it wasn't like a make or break. But at the time, it was like a tough, tough decision. And we're like, Okay, what, what's, what's the worst thing that can happen? I mean, yes, we're gonna lose this money, but we have to No. And, and we did, we did. And I remember the first week and we had so many people, we know we had 5000 newsletter subscribers, we sent out the email, you know, we're open, you know, we're waiting for you, we had our Instagram account in the first week, and we made that money back, you know, we had my weeks, you know, of pop up, and just in one weekend, we made the money back. So we, you know, we looked at ourselves at the time, we were in the store, actually, we didn't have any sales assistants or any store managers. So at the time, we really, you know, saw and kind of, like, internalise the consumer demands, you know, in the consumer behaviour. And we saw that, that that, you know, online offline interaction was really working for us. And is this because it's circa 2013. And like, you say, direct to consumer wasn't really the model, if that is the where people start up companies, it's more or less direct consumer, and then they do what you do, which is augment our into bricks and mortar. So was this was your success, would you put it down to mainly, that being the big component that you kind of cut out the middleman or went straight to the consumer, I would say there's, there's two components to our, you know, success on the market, one of them is definitely the business model, which, I mean, which is in a way innovative, because it's a was, wasn't done before, you know, before, before we started this velasca. But in another way, it's also a natural, I would say progression of the ecommerce industry, because I always try to use this analogy. Now, you know, the first wave of e commerce, you know, the Amazon, UK's and solando, of the industry, they started selling products of other brands, you know, other companies, they kind of like, intercepted, they kind of like took the demand that was already online, you know, mainly through Google, Google AdWords advertising. And then they offer the best service at the best price at the best, you know, you know, delivery rates, and, you know, fast delivery, and it was all about service, right? logistics and fulfilment and shipping, right? Amazon, what was and probably still is the best in the world at this, this was the first wave of e commerce. And then when Facebook came around, and it kind of kick started the, you know, the revolution in digital advertising, that was not just keyword based, but it was also very emotional. It will it had pictures, and then videos, and then stories, and then, you know, reels, whatever we have. Now, now, there's 1000 different options, right, there was kind of a revolution, because you suddenly had all these emotional components to your advertising, but you but together with the analytics, and the ability to start small start with like 500 euros, you know, and still target the consumer that you wanted, that was kind of a revolution that, you know, I think Facebook iPod in 2012. And, and back then it was just literally you could just upload one picture. That's it. One picture on one sentence that was advertising on Facebook, eight years ago, it developed so much, but but that was kind of like kick started the second wave of e commerce, which was to build an online brand. And it's funny to talk about it now. So naturally, because we at the time, we just had an integration, we didn't know it, and we just we just had the intuition that, you know, the online and digital, you know, especially the communication tools that, you know, allowed allows us to have a direct relationship with brands, you know, you want to talk to the brand, you want to go on their Instagram page and react to their content. You know, we had that intuition, because we were doing that ourselves. We've always been customers of our own brand, you know, so it was kind of easy for us to, to kind of put ourselves into into the shoes of our community. That's, that's what that's what we did. I mean, the other component, though, that I would that I wanted to talk about, is you know, on the one side, you have the business model on the other side, we've always wanted to be storytellers, and brand builders, right. It's important this is so important because sometimes they they categorise the last guys ecommerce, but it's not really it's more a brand that has a digital DNA, an e commerce right company. And, and you know, to prove that actually in 2013 the first person we hired Ludovico was still with us is the you know, brand manager, creative director is a guy that comes from actually architecture with a big, big and huge passion for photography and video making. So you know, and that was the first hire of Alaska, so like to stress the importance that the brand and the storytelling has for us. And that's that's why I mean, if you go on our Instagram page, you know, of Alaska Milano, we have one 140,000 followers now. And why do they follow the Alaska? I think it's because we don't just talk about shoes. We talk about, you know, we we have the sentence I could be And the wall made, they turn away, right? We aspire to be a synonym or something bigger than just shoes, we actually aspire to actually offer also products, not just shoes. But first of all the communication, we want to highlight the beauty. You know, we're Italians, we make our products in Italy. So we want to be, we want to highlight what our country has to offer, in terms of beauty in terms of things that are well made, you know, and beauty can be natural beauty, you know, the places we've just been to Alba, an island in Tuscany. And, man, it was just amazing. I mean, this, just to say something that that is not very nice to other people, but this lockdown for everybody else, but not for the people who are working in shooting is amazing. You go to the beach, and there's no one no one there. Right. So the beach for yourself. I mean, jokes aside, I mean, the natural beauty of our country, or the you know, the man made beauty, you know, the architecture and all that when the when the one made products that that we have to offer. So that that's how you see, we built the brand Alaska around this concept that is much larger and much, you know, much fuller than gestures. Interesting. Yeah, I mean, going back to, well, you say you've got the beach to yourself over there in Italy. I mean, I've got the underground to myself and Bethnal Green, you can, you can walk along there. And it's, it feels like so post apocalyptic that you think well, I'm in some kind of zombie movie here. And you just expect people to come out any second and chase you down. It's a crazy time, but the haven't getting like in on Instagram and the visuals at the time when you did because there's so much that you can tell with a picture. And there's so much you can tell a video. I mean, I always wish that I kind of had an idea, like a business opportunity back when YouTube was kind of thriving. And back when Instagram was quite new, back when Facebook would actually publish your stuff, rather than you have to pay for it to be visually seen. So there was it did feel like there was a sweet spot 810 years ago, where if you were starting something, you would have a chance or your chances will be greater nowadays, you've got so much competition because everything is so saturated. Absolutely. There's always there's always that, right, there's always that moment, you know, that window of opportunity that you have in different times in history, in business history, there's always been like a window of opportunity. I'll give you another example. We mentioned Google AdWords before, you know, in back in 2000 to 2003, I think, you know paying for you know, buy Armani shirts online, right will cost you four cents. That click. That's so low funnel, high purchase intent click will cost you like four cents. And now now that same click probably cost like five or six years. Right? So you know, imagine the same company, same service, same everything, but just this, you know, KPI will tell you that a company that, you know, has that kind of offering starting today will not succeed. You know? Yeah, the same. The very same company maybe is a billion dollar business. You know, today, I think Instagram. I mean, I remember in 2014 still, I remember seeing these accounts and I, I didn't take that opportunity because I was focused on velocity. I remember like people starting different accounts, right. One about mens style one another one about travel, you know, they just wanted so many accounts, almost like a publisher, they became publisher publishers, but they were just people right? And probably they fit very well for themselves. Yeah, I mean, I've I've got to admit, I've got a few accounts as well because I have this podcast which my editor runs, and then I have my own private podcast. I have my own one for like the cat, the dog, and you feel like you have to be quite faithful to your own community on that channel. So if I start posting photos of James Bond on my cat channel, if you're looking to go Hey, I just came here for the cat. Roger Moore, I'm out of here. So anyway, again, you're right there your phone can just be like oh god like six accounts all of a sudden I have to respond to six different villages. None of them make any money. So it's a huge time sink. Enrico maybe you can just talk a little bit more about the shoes please. I'm curious to know the difference between Italian shoes and kind of the production over there and if you can touch upon maybe like the differences between that and English making shoes. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I love the you know the English shoemaking industry. It's a it's a great tradition that you know, you guys have over there. A lot of companies we mean we before starting Alaska. We We used to buy church and we survived trickers we used to buy a lot, a lot of brands harden is one of our favourites. And we love it. I mean, it's the same concept of craftsmanship, same concept of quality over quantity. I mean, we have a lot of similarities back in, I think it was 100 years ago already, you know, the Italian shoemaking industry started to take hold and to develop especially, we, we source our products from the city of Montego narrow, which is not very well known city. I will quit flat sorry, not very well known city in the centre of Italy, just opposite Tuscany, there's a region called market, that's where we make our shoes. And I think I mean, I never visited Northampton, but I think it must be quite similar to that. It's just a city, it's so amazing. They, you know, 80% of the people that live in that city, they are in the shoemaking industry, it's just so amazing. Some of them like this specialise a lot, right? So it's not, it's not a city, it's not an area where you see massive companies, you see specialised micro companies, typically family run, like I would say 99% of them are family run. So you meet the mom, the dad and the and the guy running the show. And in and they all specialise on a specific task of the shoe making industry making the entire district that's why when we talk about districts actually making it very, very flexible to the demands of you know, the brands or you know, or people in general from from the market. So, I see a lot of similarities between, you know, Italy, in the UK in the in this respect. And in some, you know, in some more technical areas of human history, like for example, you know, the Goodyear to construction versus the play construction, construction of the Blake rapid construction. I mean, I don't I don't want to get too technical. But you know, Italian shoes are more known for being a bit more lightweight, as opposed to English shoes are typically, you know, with the Korea construction and the tribal. So sometimes, you know, they're, like, heavy or even, like wider, they have a wider shape sometimes. But that is that actually depends on the preferences of the consumer, we actually, you know, we have Alaska actually offer both we have Goodyear and blade rapid and play. Now we have like a sacchetto like construction, we have a number of different constructions depending on the shoe model, because we starting from we started from moccasins what we now have 400 different shoe models slash variations of the of the materials. So we have quite a range. So I cannot say we only use one construction, because we have like eight or nine, depending on model. We also have like espadrille Yes, we have some motors, because the idea essentially is, you know, we're thinking about ourselves in our previous jobs, right, we're thinking about the working professional, typically in his 30s or, you know, we do have a demographic of people like in their 50s and 60s, we also have the demographic of people in their 20s. But typically, it's the working professional could be the first job. second job could be like the partner or McKinsey, but it's that kind of guy. And the idea strategy or value proposition is to offer, you know, any kind of shoe, you know, that that guy wears during the day, or even at weekends? You know, except for technical shoes. Like we don't we don't want to go into sports where at all? Of course not most of you know, yeah, I have an area right, going to fracking, you know, going to where of Alaska, you're going to actually it might in the mountains. But if you are, you know, on, you know, on, on your leisure time, you know, going to visit a steady, you know, on vacation or at the office or you know, having dinner with your friends, you know, in that respect, Alaska wants to be right next year, in a company, you know, if you if you feel like you are you, you know the values that we have, you know the quality and craftsmanship and honesty and also, uh, you know, self irony in a way if you see what we, what we what we do. If you feel like those those words resonate with you. We I mean, we're there and we have an ambition to be shoes and something more as actually we want to be totally local with the over the next five years. I mean, one step at a time. Yeah. And you've opened up on children's street now in marleybone. For people in London that know the streets right down the road from Chilton firehouse where the likes of Orlando Bloom are whisked away the barmaids. You don't want your girlfriend working there too. How you getting on in London and how long you been here? Yeah, we opened up in 2019. Unfortunately, the timing wasn't very good because of the pandemic. But I mean, I Love that area. I love Marylebone. It's so charming. I mean, yeah, the firehouse, but also the other shops and you know, the very local, very locally run a lot of residential people. It's just cool. It's just a cool area, I think of London. And so we when we first visited, and we sided saw, we were like, Okay, we got to get this store. It's it definitely represents Alaska. It definitely raised resonance to what we want to offer. And yeah, we started we started our works. In 2019, before the summer, we finished them around September, October, and then we opened and we had a, an event in London lunch in the store. And I mean, before the pandemic was going, Well, obviously, it's been a challenging year. Because people are like, really, I saw the difference between London probably and other cities that we we have our stores of particulars is that I'm guessing I'm assuming a lot of people from outside of London, or even from outside the UK work in London. So as soon as the you know, the pandemic had they probably went home or they every really I feel like it was a city that was really hit right by this the shops weren't even open, the shops just closed in the shops weren't even open, it was really like a zombie zombie situation like post apocalyptic. But thankfully now now that we're open again, we're seeing a flow people have loyal customers or, or even new new customers that are coming back to to the area. Grey, and for people that aren't indigenous to that part of London children's story is beautiful. It's got this kind of, it's almost furnished with this Real Red plush break, like new red brick, not the kind of really old school London break, but it's like a little homage to that and you have the likes of like sundsvall on that strip you have. I think they're called flannels. But you have Timothy everis. Now, and he's, I think he's right next week. So he's now under the name like MBA. Yeah, London, but he's right in your neck of the woods. So if you were a fan of the likes of Tom Cruise and Mission Impossible, we made the suits for or Henry Carville in The Man from UNCLE. You can you can pop by and asked him if he Everest what's going on in there and how he made the suits. I'm sure he'd love to talk about that again, because he's already done it. 10 rounds with me. But my point is, it's a it's a little hub. It's a community. It's a real kind of artisan hive. And that whole stretch really does have it all. So yeah, I agree. This is a monocle cafe right in front of others, which is very close, right? There's a shop called trunk, which I really like us, right? Yeah, like even brands. So it's a it's a cool, and you got a magazine shop as well right at the end, right? This kind of you don't often see, like you have news agents that will sell magazines, but you don't often see this kind of real beautiful laid out racks and racks of like magazine, just cover all these subjects. I mean, so yeah, it's a lovely part of the world. And Rico. Thanks for coming on, man. I hope you hope you get to thrive in London once everybody kind of floods back in. I hope you're opening up in a opening up in New York, as well. Next month actually, forgive me funny, but not so funny fact was that is that the the store in New York was ready a year ago. Oh, okay, well, I find it well, it's fine. I mean, we were laughing now about it. We're making jokes, but it was really the worst thing ever. But we can't wait we really can't wait to to open them up. Because we feel like to be honest, I can I never felt like the retail apocalypse word will come. I mean, I think shops, you know, have a place, you know, it's not, I mean, it would be a sad word, if if we will just went digital 100% you know, I don't want to be on on a screen 100% I definitely want to be on the screen more than then then it was a pre you know, in the pre digital era where you had to go, you know, you know, to the post office to do anything right now, I don't want to go back to that. But I also don't want to go like, you know, I don't want to live in a VR, you know, touch and feel thing. So a good combination, a good equilibrium, right? A balance What? Well, also with I mean, it's so pertinent with shoes. I mean, I found this also with trousers, I've lived in the same pair of trousers for almost a year, because I've got such an odd shape, nothing really quite fit. So you either order bespoke which you still need someone to be open to measure you half the time or you take a chance with stuff online that never always works out but shoes has got to fall in the in that remit as well because people could be in between sizes. They might want to order something but they more than likely want to try something gone in the shop. Absolutely. I think the combination I mean it's a combination of obviously we we offer free returns and we make it easy. So there's a there's like an increased number of people that you know She's online and send them back. And you know, they buy again. But the the combination two, I think is the best formula. Yeah. Well, Enrique, great talking to you. And thank you so much for having me on the show really been a pleasure. In the meantime, take care of me. And I hope to see you in London sometime soon. Thank you. Bye. Bye, ciao. Thank you and Rico. Once more, you can check out the collections we mentioned over of alaska.com we'll leave all the details and links over on the show notes at WWW dot mentor style.co.uk and we're on the social at menswear style. Give us a thumbs up or was your father. Let us know you're out there. In the meantime, thank you for tuning in. If you like what you hear, why not leave us a review. It does help my ego specially and if you want to be a guest on the show. Tell us about your brand. Tell us about your journey. You can email us here at info at menswear startup Koto, UK. Until next time,