Paul Farago is a second generation luxury footwear professional with expertise in international branding, sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and logistics. In 2016, he founded Ace Marks, a direct to consumer luxury men’s footwear brand with a mission to make luxury footwear accessible. Ace Marks was the most funded footwear project in crowdfunding history until 2019 having raised over $2.5M on Kickstarter. Prior to this he spent over 15 years at Kinderland, Inc. in multiple roles, including COO, where he oversaw sourcing, licensing & distribution operations for their portfolio of brands which have included D&G Jrs., Donald Pliner Jrs, Robert Cavalli, Giorgio Armani, and Venettini among various other luxury labels.
Ace Marks wasn't created on a whim, it is the product of a lifetime of experience in the luxury footwear business and realising that it’s broken - men shouldn't have to spend obscene amounts for a handcrafted world-class shoe. In late 2012 Paul realised that men had three choices when it came to dress shoes. Buy cheap, poorly made shoes, spend a little more to get a pair with a slight cosmetic upgrade, or spend an uncomfortable amount on a pair from the luxury super powers. If you like to look good, these aren’t good choices. Harnessing modern technology, the brand knew that they could get rid of middlemen and their markups to directly deliver a world-class, handcrafted shoe rivaling those of the top luxury brands, all at an attainable price.
In this episode of the MenswearStyle Podcast we interview Paul Farago, Founder of Ace Marks about how this DTC luxury shoe brand was founded after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. With a family history of luxury Italian shoemaking the brand aims to offer high quality shoes at attainable prices. Our host Peter Brooker and Paul talk about the brand's recently created leather shoe and sneaker that folds flat in your luggage, how to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign, working with influencers, buffalo leather, the importance of developing relationships, how to keep your sneakers clean, and how they've been affect by Covid-19.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of The menswear style podcast. I'm your host, Peter Drucker. Today I'm talking to Paul ferragosto, who is the founder of Ace marks. Ace marks are shoes built for the modern gentlemen. And I'll just give you a little bio from the website. No middlemen, fair pricing luxury craftsmanship. The Italian Craftsman at Ace marks are the same men and women who work for some of the most renowned luxury shoe brands in the world. Ace marks craftsmanship is deeply rooted in Italian shoe making tradition and has been frightening for four generations. And there is Paul to talk about Ace marks in his own words. Absolutely. Well, my name is Paul Fraga, I'm the founder and CEO of Ace marks. And Ace marks is a direct to consumer men's luxury shoe brand that I started back in 2016 with the sole purpose of making real luxury shoes, high quality high craft highly, very well crafted shoes, accessible to just about everyone. Okay, great. And you got this start with a Kickstarter campaign, I've had many crashes and burns with Kickstarter campaigns, perhaps you can just give us an insight into what you think got it right for you. Absolutely. And that was always one of our concerns. Even when we made the decision to go to Kickstarter, so many people have been burned by Kickstarter campaigns in the past that we didn't want our brand to start off, even being associated with the negativity that some that is sometimes associated with Kickstarter. But nonetheless, we ended up going forward moving forward with it. And I think that what we got right on Kickstarter is that we didn't really sell the product, it wasn't the campaign, it wasn't so much about just you know, here's another pair of shoes, and you need to buy this pair of shoes, and you're gonna get a discount on them, it was more about selling ourselves, selling our team selling our history, selling our knowledge of the shoe, selling our knowledge of production, selling our history, our history, or my history in particular, in the footwear industry, and, and really getting our audience to buy into the fact that, hey, we're able to create something that otherwise wouldn't be attainable. And we're the right team to get this done for you. And you can trust us. And thankfully, that message resonate resonated with our audience and with the people that we you know, that we marketed to. And we delivered as we promised, and we delivered a great product. And, you know, that's why we were able to not just do create that initial campaign and be successful with it. But we created two other campaigns right after that one, which were very successful as well. And now we're on Kickstarter for the fourth time. So more more about more about the, again, the team our experience than just selling another product. Okay. Maybe we can just drill down a little bit on that history. So this is a family business or it was start with your mom and dad were in the shoe making business. So you knew the factories, the supply chain was this all part of the package that you were delivering as part of that Kickstarter campaign? Absolutely. My family's been in the shoe business for a good amount of time, over 30 years at this point. And we've always been in the higher end of the shoe business, the luxury, more of the luxury side. But it was always more particular to children shoes and a little bit of women. So it wasn't exactly men shoes. But for sure, because my family I was able to build or I was able to go to the relationships that they built over a few decades, especially in Italy, in Italy, which is where they started where they started their business and where we ended up working with a lot of the famous brands that come out of Italy and distributing them here in the US. So for sure, that had a lot to do with it. And I think that's one of the reasons that our that our backers trusted us early on. Right. Okay. But you still needed to get awareness to the campaign. So how did you go about that you got the package you got, you know, you've got a great product on your hands. I'm assuming you know, how bend you take that forward? Yes, absolutely. And, you know, it's funny, because when when I started a sparks, they spent a good amount of time just creating the product and designing the product. And then when I had the samples in my hand, I kind of thought to myself, Well, great. So now I'm going to build a website, put the shoes on there. And then what how am I going to create awareness for that website? And that's kind of where Kickstarter came in. But then you write great now I have a Kickstarter campaign, how do I create awareness for that Kickstarter campaign? So I'd say that we first went to friends and family so we wanted to make sure that within the first 24 to 48 hours, which are really pivotal in any Kickstarter campaign, you want to make sure that you're fully funded in that timeframe. So we made sure that we had the friends and family to back us to get us past that initial you know think it was back then $10,000 that we were seeking in funding 10 or $15,000 I remember exactly the first campaign so once we had that first $115,000 in the bank essentially it the difference becomes that once you're funded other people want to join the campaign you know your marketing dollars start converting much better because it's no longer so much of a risk as to whether or not you'll ever get the product right people come on to the campaign page they see hey, they're already funded so if I back them I'm gonna get this product because everything is kosher and open up right in the campaign so so you know once we had the friends and family which which really spent a lot of time going out for everyone you know, a couple months before the campaign every business associate that ever was involved in anyone I've ever emailed for from one of my previous businesses any vendor everyone knew that we were launching this campaign so I wanted to make sure that we had as as much support as possible but after that, honestly we kind of were scrambling because we kind of we weren't even 100% sure we're going to get to that point and once we did get to the to that point we're like okay, so what's what's kind of the next step here and so the the lowest hanging fruit at least start in our minds at that time was influencers This was 2016 so influencer marketing was not what it is today. And it wasn't as big of a big of an industry was there but a lot of the guys that have 345 6 million followers today are subscribers then YouTube back then had maybe one to 400,000 at most so we kind of went that route right so we figured we need to add credibility to our campaign people don't know the brand Kickstarter helps a little bit because at least run that platform but we want guys that will tell their audiences Hey like I've seen the product I've touched it I felt it and you can you can trust that these guys are the real deal that this product is the real deal. So I wanted to add more credibility and so we got very fortunate I'd say because we reached out to a tonne of influencers and we ended up building some great relationships completely on a on a fluke with with a group of influencers which are pretty big on on YouTube today. Guys like Real Men Real Style alhfam Antonio and you got a Gentleman's Gazette I forget the the yeah rough rough not rough yeah felt sorry sorry wrap up I just Yeah, I just caught one of his videos he's like well I want to talk today about Ace marks and as everyone's knows I've got 10 pairs of these shoes and counting so you know that's a great advocate and friend a friend of my other show john Shanahan from that account as well he's absolutely all great guys and all guys have had a chance to meet and speak with personally and and a guy like Gentleman's Gazette like Raphael actually it's pretty interesting about him is you may have noticed that he doesn't really take on sponsors at all anymore so he's he's huge when it comes to his credibility and any product that he did offer back in the day when when he was accepting sponsors he fully vetted so he kind of he grilled us he he required you know X amount of pairs of shoes you want to see them test and try them and wonder he really wanted to make sure that before he recommended it to his audience that he really believed in the product and you know, he's he's told me Actually, I probably shouldn't say I was gonna say he told me in private but there's a reason he told me Let me tell you something about these gentlemen especially I don't know Rafi I do know john these these guys who do have an audience start to get accountable for recommendation so they would say look, you know, they don't go to the brand if the products no good they'd go to them as in john would get emails and saying, you know, why did you recommend this x y Zed? So they have to really make sure that you say the vetting process has to be pretty tight because otherwise they'll get the emails and not you right? Absolutely. And that group of guys in particular, the influential guys I guess you can call them because they're all managed by the same by this a lot of them are managed by the same company, same management company. They really they don't just take money from anyone right? So kind of like what you're saying they generally vet vet their products very well. And what I was gonna say was Rotfeld was kind of like that gateway right? So fell approved their product, a lot of those other guys knew that it was it was all right, right, that it was a good, he is the gatekeeper, right, and they can feel comfortable, they can feel comfortable promoting the brand. So you know, we kind of fell into that and we built some great relationships with those guys through the years and that was that they really were a huge part of our success, especially in the first two or three Kickstarter campaigns that we ran. And and then our end You know, I think they kept on working with us because we always delivered what we promised and, and like you said about, john, there have been instances We're consumers reach out to them and say, Hey, like I had a problem with ace marks, you know, why do you recommend them and actually, we had one particular situation where, where, you know, we worked very, very closely with them and the customers to resolve those issues. And thankfully, you know, it wasn't a big deal but uh, but we always strive to give the best customer service possible. And those guys appreciate that great. And so how big the team is, if there is ever is a problem and you kind of front of house with this, I mean, does it come from a team? Like how personable is your service? very personable. So we're a team of seven right now. And we have actually a lot of look at a lot of our reviews on our website, you'll see that they mentioned in particular filly was her head of customer service. And she knows our our motto really, is to make it and we really mean this to make the customer happy, no matter what. So we really bend over backwards when you call her office, you know, she picks up the phone or someone picks up the phone, and we get an answering machine you don't get one of those services, let's say dial one for x dial two for whatever, you got a person immediately I think for me, the idea was always that I wanted a smart to be have that feel of of that local store they walk into and everybody knows your name. Yeah, so we kind of that's our approach to customer service, you know, and actually just before I got on here, Phil, he was texting me about what she felt was one of her VIP clients, who sent her a video of himself wearing our shoes and playing the cello. Really nice video. So she she she really builds those types of bonds and those relationships with those customers and VIP client doesn't necessarily mean the guy spends a lot of money with us. It's just someone that she just talks to regularly, whether or not he's buying a pair of shoes. So well, that's for us. And you have just on the website over 2000 positive reviews on trustpilot. So yeah, knocking that out of the park. So thank you, Paul, talk to me a little bit about the sustainable element please of the brand and, and moments of your supply chain and how do you kind of keep an eye on all that? Absolutely. So so there's a few different you know, our initial approach to sustainability. To be frank when we launched these marks sustainability wasn't wasn't the biggest purpose of the brand. But what we always had in mind was that we wanted to keep the shoes out of landfills right so when you're done with a pair of shoes, most people just kind of toss them so that's partly where buyback programme came in. So any pair of shoes that you buy from us will actually buy it back whenever you're done wearing them or don't want them anymore and we'll give you $50 towards a new pair of shoes and what we do with those shoes as we don't we partnered up with a with a group called career gear and they try to help men in need get back on their feet so I've had two jobs guys yeah, yeah huge obstacle to simoes men that have been down and out and trying to get back into the workforce is having proper clothing and footwear to show up to interviews in and so we work very closely with them and donate the shoes that we buy back sometimes we will refurbish them and then donate them and make to make sure that these guys have shoes so for us sustainability that's kind of one part of it we try to keep the shoes out of landfills for as long as possible. Right and two I think you may have seen in our new campaign that we just launched on Kickstarter we're we're we're using sustainable buffalo leathers and and that's that really comes that's very different. We usually we tend to use calfskin leather in most of our shoes in this case we're using buffalo leather which comes from Italy's very small but very well known dairy industry we have ever had buffalo mozzarella you've and you know that's a big export from Italy that's that's kind of where leather comes from from that industry. So it's a byproduct of the of the meat exactly, actually more of the dairy industry I mean, unfortunately water buffalo eventually die, they're not necessarily slaughtered for their meat, they're more capital for their for their milk production. But once they pass away then all parts of the animal are used and you know, the leathers are used in our case to make shoes. So what's very nice about the Italian water buffalo industry in particular is that it's generally they're generally raised in small farms where the the livelihood, the way that the buffalo live is extremely important to them so that the quality of the milk and therefore the quality of their cheese is as high as possible. So so that that's kind of the sustainability part when it comes to our current offerings which are made out of Buffalo leather. Nice. Have you thought about doing like a little ancillary product, you buy a pair of the buffalo shoes but you also get some of the cheese from the farm. I mean, I'm just throwing spaghetti at the wall but I think you could kill a couple of birds with one stone here. I think one of the more difficult industries other than the shoe industry has to be the perishable foods industry. So I'm gonna stay away from that one, but it's not a bad idea. All right, okay, well, maybe we'll have a word with the farmhouse after the show. But talk about the Kickstarter campaign please. Paul says that there's a new one that's on the website as it launched it. Yeah, the new campaign launched at the end of September, it's a 30 day campaign which ends now on October 27. Okay, it's this really actually this is really a product that we wanted to launch back in 2019 or I should say back in early 2020. It was developed in 2019. But the pandemic kind of threw a little wrench on this project. Because it's a travel shoe as you may have seen, so the idea behind this product and this is a little bit of a deviation from what we usually launch usually our products you know, our new collections are you know, different styles of shoes, different colours, colours of shoes, possibly different construction. This is completely different than what we usually do because it involves a little bit of materials technology, and a completely innovative way to pack your shoes. You probably know Peter that if you have a pair of shoes and they're leather shoes you end up with create leather shoes, take them in the box and then you have I mean from your mouth to my girlfriend's ears we did a bit of shopping on our last trip away maybe got a bit carried away and getting the boxes back you know, we had to buy extra carry on luggage and stuff like that it was a it was a real headache for me so I'm very interested in this facet. Exactly and so I have to kind of say the same about myself I leave my luggage shopping too when I'm in Italy because I go there with a carry on and I come back with a bigger suitcase. Yes, for that. So So this actually came this idea came about because I was on my way to actually I went to destination wedding back in 2019 and just because of the two it was at a beach in Cabo and I was going to spend maybe two to three hours in a pair of dress shoes you know, during the actual ceremony but the rest of the time was either going to be barefoot or with flip flops or whatever wasn't casual shoe. And I had to check in my luggage just because I had to bring this pair of dress shoes and I didn't want them to get creased and I had you know, shoe trees inside of them. The whole the whole thing I was just annoyed that I just spent all that money on on my check baggage fee just because of that pair of shoes. So when I was in Italy, I was working with our factory and two things kind of came about one which was that there's this kind of new innovation in toe and heel counters that it's made of a polymer that you can completely and actually I wish I had a whether this is something new anyways but it's made out of polymer that you can just completely crumble and comes right back to life right so it doesn't lose its shape just because it's flattened or or you know crumbled Okay in this case and then you know, so that was kind of cool so we kind of had that down which was we now were able to flatten the shoe with these new toe and heel counters. But then if you flat in regular cask and shoe you're still gonna end up with creases and that's not going to be very pretty so we had to solve a we internally called the creasing problem and that's where you know again working with our factory the the idea of using buffalo leather came in and buffalo leather is naturally much more elastic than calf skin. So if you do flex it or if you do bend it it comes back to life It doesn't doesn't necessarily lose shape or crumble or crease the way that cap skin does. So when you combine those two those two materials the toe and heel counters and the buffalo leather we were able to come up with this product of a leather shoe that completely can collapse you can pack it super tight in a suitcase we have some chips and some videos obviously on that campaign page you can see exactly what I'm talking about. And it comes back to life when you get to your destination you can just you know unwrap them or on unfold them or uncollapse them as we say and you would have never known they just had them thrown in your in a dark corner of your carry on luggage or in your backpack or whatever it is so it's a pretty cool innovation and do you then get to pattern this polymer or is it something that no no okay, I I wish I was a scientist in that way but no this is a this is something that you could probably get I'm not actually I shouldn't say that. It may be just our supplier that that created this I'm not 100% sure. But um but it's innovation that is very makes this particular campaign I'm very interested in it I've got to say because exactly it's it's for sure innovation and you know what most of you I guess in theory doesn't have that many uses, or at least for sure most other brands would never use it like this because the whole idea of a Tonio Cantor's issue to completely keep it shape and to prevent it from collapsing or from folding. So yeah, but I mean this is something a little bit different. For people that had the wanderlust Firebird you know, at least travel a lot before. We And travel, we would maybe get on the planes in our dress shoes or we would just like you say get on the extra carry on luggage just to accommodate this fix. But you know, now having something like this could be a real game changer for especially like the, you know, the corporate or the executive that's doing a lot of travelling. Right. And there's another way to look at a lot of guys go for a couple of days on a business trip, and you know, you're travelling your dress shoes and your suit. And then you may want to have like, an extra pair of sneakers to go out or night or just, you know, to walk around the city when you have some free time. So yeah, make it a lapse, collapsible version of our sneakers as well, just for that purpose. Or if you go to the gym in the morning, you know, you don't want to take up too much space in your in your gym bag or your backpack when whatever it is. There's a lot of a lot of uses. I'm loving this. I'm loving it. So it's on the website. Now. We've got by the time this podcast goes out the end of October there will there abouts. Absolutely. And where are we with the figure that we need to hit? We already passed that figure within the first like 30 minutes. Oh. So we're way beyond that. We're at about $205,000 if I'm not mistaken now so we'll probably in this campaign somewhere in the 250 to $300,000 range, which is, which is pretty nice. Pretty exciting for us. I see you do a TED talk on how to do Kickstarter campaigns. And you got the formula down. Thank you. Yeah, I'd like this. I'd like to think we're pretty decent at this. You know, we've also been running we've been off a Kickstarter since 118. But we've been running crowdfunding campaigns aren't on our own crowdfunding platform that we built. We did that in 2019 and 2020 as well. So right, okay, so this is different. We've been doing this for a little bit. Nice. Okay, great. Well, aside from the campaign for what plans you have for the near future, have you kind of gotten over any pandemic bumps that might have hit supply chain, perhaps you can talk about any issues? Yeah. Now we've had we've had plenty of pandemic bumps. In general, you know, the idea of people sitting at home and not going out was not the best for for dresser sales in general. But thankfully, we came out and this year has been pretty good, especially compared to last year. Supply Chain wise, we got very we're very fortunate last year in 2020 that our main factory was an original part of Italy that was greatly affected by shutdowns, they shut down for a couple of months. But overall, they were still able to generally deliver there are a few delays but nothing nothing majors. I'd like what you're seeing coming out of Asia right now. Obviously the cost of freights a little bit higher and there's there's a lot of added added expenses and headaches in the supply chain and logistically but but overall I really can't complain too much are you know, we are fat, our main factory especially as they're really our real partners. And you know, we had a very nice sense of camaraderie that we're gonna help each other out as much as possible to get through through those tough times because as you can imagine, it was difficult for them not just for us. So we have we have really good partners on the supply side. I mean, this is kind of where I guess you lean on those relationships like that have been nurtured over the years, many years of like your mom and dad being in the business as well. This is kind of what I guess you have that a lot of many other brands don't have, in a way. Absolutely. And you know, I did take the time to speak to a lot of my competitors in 2020 since we all had a little bit of downtime and that was really my focus of the year to become friendly with as many people in the industry as possible especially on the direct to consumer side. And it really made me realise exactly what you're saying that that we're we're very fortunate to have the relationships that we have, because a lot of a lot of our competitors really had difficulties not just because their factories may have shut down because in a lot of cases, they may not have been the most important client for those factories and they never really had those strong bonds are they working through an agent or the owners to necessarily have the direct relationships with the factories and they had an employee working with them the employer was no longer there. So there are a lot of factors that really really hurt their supply chains and we really never felt any of that. And you know, you invoke evoke my parents one more time over there and the one thing that they always taught me is that a good reputation goes far but a bad reputation goes further so working with suppliers you know, to the shoe world's very small like it's very difficult that you don't know someone who knows someone who knows your suppliers in almost any case in almost any country. So when when you do wrong by them, pretty much the whole industry knows. So we've always made it a very big point to do by do right by all of our suppliers. And this goes back again, you know, 30 plus years which is why I was able to start a smart for the relationships that we have and go back to Italy after so many years that my parents had left the doing great. Do you ever think about doing collaboration Now that you're in this kind of nice community with some of your competitors, I guess some of them might be friends. Now, do you ever have any kind of crossovers? Yes, actually Funny you should ask. We have we have it with a lot of my competitors. We've I've, I mean, we speak almost regularly at this point, we're doing a collaboration with a sock brand, not necessarily a shoe brand, should be coming out soon. And we're doing and this I'll know, I'll have more details by the end of the year. But hopefully by early next year, there will be a very big collaboration between us and one of our main competitors. You know, but that's to be determined, and hopefully everything finalises the way that I expect that it will, but well, we have we have a lot of that coming down in the pipeline, as well as collaborations with with some artists that we've also built relationships with over the last year or so. So Oh, great. I have a lot in the works in terms of collaborations. Now artists in Italy, artists in Miami, can you lend us artists in the US, US and Canada? Okay. All right, great. Well, maybe in the new year, we'll have you back on and we can perhaps talk about some of those collaborations and celebrate those. That'd be amazing. Thank you. Well, in the meantime, Ace marks.com a place to go to not only check out the campaign, but also these wonderful hand handcrafted dress shoes, and sneakers. And, Paul, I'm gonna ask you a question. I've literally just come to front of mind. I do ask this we have a couple of people that come on the show where especially if they've got ahead in the sneaker world how how best Can you keep the midsole clean on a white midsole for a shoe? Because I walk pigeon toed and it's the first thing that goes in the shoe or the mid soles Have you got any kind of advice on that? I have a few. A few pieces of advice for that one. Sphere by i'm not mistaken has come out with a product specifically to clean that part of the shoe. sneaker sphere Yeah, SAP HR. And more traditional method is using toothpaste with fluoride that works. And some people use also a mixture of baking soda with that like a very, very slight, slight, slight touch of white vinegar. But you want to make sure you don't get that on your uppers because that could damage your uppers pretty quickly. Yes, yeah, I think that's a problem that I've had with a lot of my stuff a bit too slapdash with it. I always say sorry. I was gonna say now you know, it's very funny is that you know, that's that's a very common issue that we hear. And so a lot of people asked us to make sneakers, less sneakers with white soles and more sneakers with gum soles or black soles. But Funny enough, every time we come out with those, just the white soles outsell those. They look the same. But right I do have a bunch of black sneakers with black metals for that exact reason. But they're I don't think the women like them. I mean, my girlfriend certainly hates him. She says these are these are not anything that you can go out in. They're just too casual for smartware they're too smart, casual. It's it's kind of that we're kind of in between. Yeah, right. That's exactly right. And actually someone was, I think it was my wife maybe my wife maybe one time I wore a pair of our black sneakers with a black midsole and she said I look like a waiter. Well, they said that about George George Lazenby and look at him now he's strong. He's getting all the headlines. Listen. I'm off on a tangent. Paul, thanks so much for your time. And well done. Congrats on having a wonderful product for all of us to enjoy and good luck with the Kickstarter campaign. We'll be certainly getting on the back of that. Thank you, Peter. Appreciate it. Thank you very much for having me today. Already. How about that? Thank you Paul. The website once again Ace marks.com is the place to go. And if you want to check out the show notes, more articles on fashion, travel lifestyle, etc. It's www dot menswear. style.co UK. If you're interested in coming on the show, maybe tell us about your brand and your journey. Then you can email us here at info at menswear. style.co.uk Okay, thanks for listening, and until next time,