Nick V. talks with shoe care magnate Sergio Barange

Today, the discussion is between Nick V. and Sergio Barange, CEO of Tarrago Brands International, associated with Avel (led by Sergio’s brother-in-law, Marc Moura). Avel is the parent company of Saphir, whose shoe care products are among Styleforum’s most recommended.

Nick V. of B. Nelson Shoes, New York, talks with has been sharing his conversations with some of the biggest names in the footwear business. Check out his interviews with Nick Horween of Horween Leather, Paul Grangaard of Allen Edmonds, Peter Agati of Paul Stuart,  or William Church of Cheaney Shoes.


Nick V.: Sergio, please tell us about your background.

Sergio Barange: I was born and studied in Barcelona, Spain. I got my degree in economics and business management at 23, after a year in the army. The university gave me my fundamental life/work basis, and the army gave me strength and order, and (as a reserve lieutenant) taught me how to manage 200 people.

I later studied for a 1-year Master in Financials, and then a2-year Master in Business and Administration. I worked for a bank in Barcelona, and for a European hotel group.

In my 20s and 30s I founded several businesses: laser printer recycling, Natura Organics™ cosmetics and body care, Doctor Clic computer assistance, and other smaller endeavors.  With Natura Organics I learned how to create and develop quality products, and Doctor Clic taught me to give good service to people (today this company has more than 150 employees).

I speak six languages, which is very useful when traveling.

Since my 30s, I spend my spare time (not much!) mainly with my three girls; I love skiing and golf, and when I can, I fly a Cessna, as I earned my license recently.

NV: What interested you in the shoe care business?

SB: I have always been a fan of nice shoes. Also my hobby has been the do-it-yourself home and decor activities. (The French company Avel does both lines: Saphir shoe care and Louis XIII DIY products).

Beginning in the 1990s the shoe care and DIY businesses were growing substantially and the opportunity for developing a subsidiary of Avel in Spain was a good challenge. Once I started working with Alexandre Moura, my father-in-law, who was a great business man—our family axis and a unique leader—I realized with no doubt that this was my professional life project.

NV: How did you get involved in the business?

SB: In 1992, my father in law proposed that I come into the Avel family business, by building and managing a subsidiary of the company in Spain. I began to grow the Avel business in several countries.

In 2008, the Tarrago Shoe Care Group, which belonged to the Tarrago family, appeared to be in a very poor financial situation and in general distress. After some conversations with the former family owners, Alexandre, his son Marc, and I, bought the whole group.

Tarrago was not only in financial distress, but had poor management. I have been, since then, improving the management, expanding export sales, reducing cost, improving formulations, modernizing machinery, and updating the whole production processes in our plants.

Today Tarrago Brands is a very healthy corporation with presence in more than 50 countries.

NV: What was the business like when you first started in it?

SB: In the late 80s and beginning 90s, the shoe care business was beginning to open to the Internet. I think this has been the most important fact in the last 25 years. Shoe repair shops and small distributors knew very little about the diversity of brands around the world, and the many opportunities to use different products. Local brands were leaders in their own countries and had little competition from abroad.

Also, the Asian products were coming into European and American markets, with the loss of margins and subsequently a decrease of quality for the domestically made products, because of the need to do price adjustments to be competitive.

Great corporations like Sara Lee or Reckitt & Colman were leading the world sales, and small regional business like Tarrago could not afford to globalize without spending great sums.

Despite this, the high-value-added products that Avel proposed at that time, gave Saphir a presence by the early 90s in more than 25 countries, always considering quality as the main factor to differentiate. The company obtained several prizes and Alexandre was honored with the French Legion d’Honneur Medal, the highest French honor, which the French President gave him.

Other brands, controlled by larger corporations, could not follow these “luxury” criteria, and came down to reduce colors, quality, and items, redirecting sales to big retailers. Progressively, these brands disappeared, or changed production to Asian countries for high volume / low quality, closing local plants. For example, Meltonian does not exist in Europe anymore, since the late 90s, and Kiwi is losing force substantially.

Very few brands have today the critical size to develop world sales. Those who are not large enough, will progressively be bought by bigger industries or simply disappear.

NV: What do you consider the most influential impact you have had in the industry?

SB: In my personal experience, buying Tarrago in 2008 has been the engine that accelerated our family business. Our family business could actually be the second or third in world presence in the shoe care.

NV:How would you describe, differentiate the Tarrago, Avel, and Saphir products?

SB: Avel has two main branches: Do-it-yourself products (care of woods, tiles, metals, paints…) under the Avel and Louis XIII brands; and shoe care products, under the Saphir and Saphir Medaille d’Or brands.

Saphir Medaille d’Or is a high-end luxury brand, with the highest consideration in any market where we sell. The general comment is that this brand has no equal. The best shoe, bags and leather brands in the world use these products.

Saphir is Avel’s French large shoe care line. It is considered as the most quality range ever done for quality shoe shops and shoe repair. Saphir has always put quality before price. This is very important for many clients, as the margins obtained when selling this brand are very good, and customers appreciate so much the security of using such good products. They become confident in the brand and in the shop that sold it.

Tarrago is a high quality European-made shoe care brand. Based in the experience of our family, we have been able to put this brand in a much higher level in image and quality than it was before. Today Tarrago, thanks to the confidence of our distributors, is present on 5 continents, and in more than 50 countries.

NV: In my opinion, the polish and shoe care industry has gotten very stale over the past few decades. The only thing that seems to happen is big companies buy out smaller companies. Then the bean counters reduce available colors and products. It all gets pared down to basics. Your comments?

SB: The last 3 years have been very difficult for the European and American economies. The lack of money to finance business projects is putting Europe in a very delicate situation, where the Asian companies are coming with strength, ideas and money.

This is reducing the traditional stores market, which has always sustained the business. We are seeing many businesses close and we do not see many efforts from governments to protect these entrepreneurs; much more education and support is needed if this economic change has to lead to a successful new economic period. I still believe that the Keynesian theory will result and so governments will help more to get out of this situation; in fact, I do not consider we are in a crisis but in a big change. We must realize this to adapt our business to the new rules coming.

What we must not do is decrease our quality, reducing cost and keeping very little margins. We need to maintain our levels, and reinvest in research and development, new machinery, be stronger and propose valid and high-quality alternatives. Fighting against low prices is no future for a family business or even any developed countries’ brand that wants to survive against low salary countries’ brands. We have recently seen what happened to Tacco Footcare in Germany, where they went into a financial distress last November, because of low prices, offering some Asian production, insufficient margins, and no machinery renewal.

Expansion for the leaders in the shoe care market must come by choosing the best merge or buy-out opportunities that we will surely see in the next months or even years.

NV: Many of the shoe makers see this as an opportunity to introduce their own labeled care products for their leathers. Can you tell us what makers you produce products for?

SB: Shoe makers should make their own brand when they accomplish two goals: they have the size to procure branded products to the MOQ [minimum order quantity] requested by producers, which are high; and they have the management of the shops’ where their products are sold.   Many people think than when doing a private label, they should have lower prices, as they ask for “reasonable” quantities. It is not true. For example, when I buy 1 million caps or labels for my shoe cream I get prices that when doing a private label (for smaller quantities), prices are very expensive compared to mine. When I produce my shoe cream, I can do up to 20,000 units in one production turn, in only one color; can you imagine how expensive it is to have to do only 600 or 1,200 units for each color, for a private label? So MOQs the factor that permits gain margins and operating full performance; with private labels, it is difficult to meet those margins, so that is the reason why it has to be sold at a higher price if we want to keep the same quality. Of course, Chinese productions (which have high MOQ by the way), can give nice prices for these private labels, but quality is very low. In Spain we say: “there are no $5 notes that value $4.”

Making shoe-branded products must also be done to the quality that is at the level of the shoes. Cheap shoe care cannot be used for nice shoes. This is something many shoe producers do not look at: when a customer buys a $200 pair of shoes, and the brand proposes a $1 shoe polish, do you see something wrong? I do.

In Saphir, our branded clients are mainly from the leather European luxury items and luxury shoes (English, Italian, French…). Products are done in the art of the highest possible quality.

In Tarrago, we offer a very good quality product for a very tight price, so bigger quantities are demanded. We are not in the battle of reducing quality for cheaper pricing, so normally we only work when client has the necessary MOQ level for doing its own brand, and is interested about quality, not only price. When looking for low prices, we always suggest Asian producers, what is a better choice for that, even though we are very competitive and the price difference is very small.

NV: How many plants do you manage?

SB: Our family business has two factories, one in France and one in Spain. My brother in law Marc lives in France, and I live in Spain.

NV: Their sizes?

SB: The French factory has 30,000 square feet, and the Spanish plant (factory plant and logistics plant) around 15,000 feet.

NV: How many people do you employ worldwide?

SB: Our total human resources are 100 people.

NV: What changes do you see in the near future?

SB: I think we could see how big corporations “discover” that the shoe care is not a great deal for them, and they will abandon this market, which will be led by the big retailers with self-labeled products, done by Asian producers.

By the way, the Asian price gap will not last forever. Prices from Far East will increase every year, so we could see a new economic period where domestic industry could recover, but always with a bigger size, so I come back to my idea of seeing many mergers in our sector.

Concerning the traditional market where we are, as I said before, we will see many mergers and buy-outs, so only a few brands will stay; those selling very cheap will be mismanaged and disappear, as some cheap brands will take the place. But this “cheap” concept will be reduced in the shoe shops and shoe repair, as those wholesalers and shops that do not pay for quality and distinction, could also be in very bad shape in the future, as “cheap” is a natural market for big marts and not for traditional shops.

Quality brands will continue to get bigger; I would say almost one or two in U.S. that will stay for sure, and maybe two or three from Europe.

NV: Where do you see your company 10 years from now?

SB: As is happening already, I imagine our company growing because of our bigger international presence, and also because of the companies we are buying. We have already bought some in the past, and we are negotiating for some others.

We present a great opportunity for intelligent managers. When a company is in distress, the best solution is to merge into a bigger corporation. Unfortunately, to be able to survive in market circumstances, this is the only way to proceed. Or to close. So when the owner or manager of a company in distress, accepts a company like Tarrago or Avel (our group), to take the shares and rebuild the organization, it is a good decision. This permits the manager to keep his work, to keep employees (in many cases), and of course to make its brand to continue to exist!

NV: Favorite reading material?

SB: Fiction books, spy novels and science, but my reading is mainly management and marketing.

NV: Three dinner guests (past and present)?


  1. My father in law, Alexandre; friend and mentor.
  2. Any of my distributors in the world, as it is not only a matter of business and already many are very good friends.
  3. Obama, Sarkozy, and Merkel at the same table, to ask them the truth of what it is all about.

A selection of Saphir Medaille d’or shoe care products.


A 1967 Saphir print ad.


Tarrago’s plant in Manresa.


SF10: Learn your numbers in Italian with Peter Watkins of Sette.

Sharp! Peter Watkins and Robert Jensen of Sette.

Styleforum regulars won’t need a primer on terms like seven fold and bartack, places like Como, Italy, or names like Robert Talbott. Them’s tie terms. Sette specializes in limited runs of handmade ties—not everyday ties, maybe, but neckwear you can reach for when you need your “closer.”  Fok talked with Peter Watkins about Watkins’ luxury neckwear line. Sette will be a vendor at Styleforum’s 10th anniversary showcase and party in May.

Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell me a little about your background and the genesis of Sette?

Peter Watkins: I lived for a time in Italy while I was in college and have always wanted to find a way to do business there. I worked in politics and spent 5 years at the White House in various press aide type of roles. One time, during an official White House trip in Rome, we had a free afternoon, so I wandered along some streets and stumbled on a very small shop which sold only neckties. On the walls were photos of the proprietor and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, among other dignitaries. At the time, I was intrigued by anything custom made for a head of state for obvious reasons. It sort of opened my eyes to an entirely new echelon of neckwear that I’d never really thought about. I’ve always wanted to have some type of business which would give me a reason to be in Italy, and neckwear seemed like a logical product.

FYL: When you went to Como, Italy, what did you say? “I want to make ties for titans of industry…and the president?”

PW: Ha. It shouldn’t be lost that titans of industry and presidents are expected by us to hold to a higher standard in their wardrobes. I would argue heads of state and industry drive neckwear trends because a necktie by its nature is a “power” accessory. You’ll be hard pressed to find a shop in Italy, especially the reputable ones, who don’t boast of having someone like President Clinton, Tony Blair, the King of Spain, or whomever else with power as a customer. If I were selling t-shirts or jeans, I’d want Justin Bieber or Timberlake to be my brand ambassadors. But for ties, give me people with real or perceived power. I heard a story once from a major neckwear manufacturer who said they sold out of light blue neckties when President Bush started wearing the color with more frequency. There was even a hypothesis that his advisors suggested the color was a political calculation in order to try and have a “calming” effect on the country in the aftermath of 9-11. (I doubt it was that calculated, but a fun story.) So our goal in creating a product was to aim for a standard in fit for a president.

FYL: Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to accomplish from  the beginning?  Did your vision change with your visits to  talk to tie makers in Como?

PW: We knew we had to be different. We wanted to combine a few things which we haven’t seen altogether in one necktie. 1. Make true seven folds. 2. Give each necktie a name and a number and stick to it. A few of our ideas caused some head scratching with the manufacturers. For instance, we wanted to have any and all labels woven into the silk. No after-market tags. It’s nicer. It’s personal. But it makes it very difficult when constructing a seven fold, because the weaving has to be exact. I’ve heard rumors of products being labeled, “Made in Italy,” only to learn just a portion of the product was made there, and the label was sewn on after the fact.

Also, we had to decide whether we would be a true seven fold, and run the silk the entire width of the blade in the back, or if we would “cheat” as you see in some seven-fold ties, where the folds just sort of touch in back. We wanted our bar tacks to take on the shape of the number “7” (as Sette means seven in Italian)—a simple touch, but it’s painstaking in the manufacturing process. It all has to be done by hand, which speaks a lot to our brand I think. So far with our first runs of designs we’ve stayed true to this vision. But it hasn’t been easy.

FYL: Tell me a little bit about how you came to partner with Robert Jensen, and describe the creative process between the two of you.

PW: Bob is a legend in the industry. He has more than 30 years of experience in neckwear alone. It so happened his daughter and son-in-law were friends of ours from school. Bob was transitioning from Robert Talbott, and the timing worked great for us. Bob created the designs and colorways, as well as oversaw the manufacturing. I’m responsible to help get the word out and tell the story.

FYL: Could you guide me through the details that make Sette neckwear “worth it”?  What is the value that you offer your clients?

PW: We are the first to admit a Sette is not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. We make a finite number of each design and will never repeat it. If you own “#4 of Brilliant Blue with Stars,” the point is, you become a part of a club. When you take a look at the construction of a Sette, you’ll see we use an awful lot of silk. The finishings and construction of silk are second to nobody. There is a rush you get when you tie a knot with a Sette, that a necktie with a cotton or wool liner won’t have. My perspective is, when you need your very best results to come from your wardrobe, when you need  your “closer” tie, you will reach for your Sette. When the occasion demands respect (a wedding, funeral, job interview, etc.) you want to show that respect with your best tie. Enter a Sette.

FYL: What is the retail climate, both online and off, for a new brand, in 2012?  Are the purchasing habits of your clients affected by the economy, even?

PW: We are too young to give a wise answer to this question. That being said, I sleep well at night knowing I have a great product. It’s well made. It’s different than anything out there. It has a story. I feel confident there will always be a market for people who “quest for the best,” as the great Stanley Marcus put it.

FYL: I know that you cater to “titans of industry” and “heads of state”,  but there are only so many of those.  What do you offer to the rest of us?

PW: I consider informed readers of Styleforum to be “titans” of good taste. 🙂 [Editor’s note: wait til you meet us.]

FYL: How do you see Sette neckwear in 5 years? 10 years? Do you plan to offer other accessories?  Shirts?  Zen gardens?

PW: We plan to stay simple. Scarves, pocket squares, and other accessories are certainly on the horizon. When we launched Sette, we wanted to stay true to a few goals. 1. Do something fun. 2. Do something in Italy. 3. Try to leverage the professional network to achieve #1 and #2.

FYL: I’m sure that there is a question you wish I’d asked.  Can you tell me what that is, and answer it?

PW: You forgot to ask how to buy a Sette. Online of course!  Also, don’t forget fathers’ day is coming up.

Expert Shoe Care With Nick V.

Nick with some very nice shoes (although I spy a stray Ugg)

Nick V., owner of esteemed shoe repair outfit B. Nelson Shoes, NYC, knows his stitch. And his welts, and his vamps from his throats. He knows shoes. He takes abused, worn-out kicks and recrafts and resoles them–rehabilitates them. In an ongoing series, Nick will be answering some of my questions to help you treat your footwear better.

Pete asks: What’s the number one most important step a guy can take to keep his shoes looking better, longer?

Nick answers:

Actually, there’s two equally important steps, waterproof/polish and use shoes trees:

WATERPROOF AND POLISH: Apply two light coats of waterproofing to your shoes. Meltonian Water and Stain Protector is an easy product to find and very effective. It’s essential to use a non-silicone waterproof treatment on dress-wear, because silicone is oil-based. The oil can darken leathers. It tends to pick up dust and dirt. It also might not mix well with conditioners and polishes you may want to use in the future.

Polish and condition your shoes regularly.

USE SHOE TREES: Make sure that you have a pair of cedar shoe trees, AND USE THEM REGULARLY! Regardless of whether or not you think your feet perspire… they do. Cedar is a dry wood that absorbs even the slightest moisture. Insert them when the shoes are new and immediately after each wear. This will prevent any moisture from settling into the lining of your shoes. Moisture will cause decay of the leather.

In addition to keeping the liners dry, shoe trees help to maintain the original shape of the shoe. They also reduce the prospect of deep creases forming on the uppers caused by normal wear. The split-toe, claw-back style offers even tension vertically and horizontally. They are easy to install and remove. Leave the trees in the shoes until you are ready to wear them again.

SF10: Jack Knife Denim

I met John Alburl and Nick Kemp of Jack/Knife Outfitters in their SOMA (San Francisco) workspace when a friend of mine was getting his jeans finished.  Tailors for the well-known SF shop Unionmade, and former tailors for Levis, John and Nick create custom jeans from paper patterns for individual customers.  While the styles I saw were in the “heritage” and “workwear” vein, they stand the idea on its head. Denim was originally an industrial garment, made purely for utility, and the very idea of unsanforized “shrink to fit” jeans was that a uniform garment could be customized post production.  The trend to buy raw denim, and watch it become personalized with wear, is a natural extension.  This is in stark contrast with the bespoke garment, a piece made for a specific customer, a one of a kind.  Jack/Knife Outfitters makes bespoke versions of uniform garment.  I got to ask John some questions.

Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell us a bit about how and why you started Jack/Knife Outfitters?

John Alburl: Jack/Knife came about as a desire for us to be professionally involved in a space where the only focus was on quality.  In an age of instantaneous education, the modern consumer has become more savvy than ever—consumers are interested in the “story”; the who, what, where, and why of a piece made are questions the market demands answers to. Companies tend to make up a gimmicky story that ultimately, over time, loses dimension, but with Jack/Knife our pieces are the story.

All the pieces that have ever received a Jack/Knife stencil were constructed for a reason. The use of heavy selvedge denim came not because the blogs thought it was cool, but because it was the only material that wouldn’t keep ripping on motorcycle rides. Bandannas also were constructed for dusty trips on the motorcycles. Bags came to carry tools, and it grew from there. Consumers are losing interest in the workwear/heritage/vintage trends, but luckily Jack/Knife does not technically lie in any of those categories. The influence from decades past for us comes not in fit or design, but more in the quality of construction and materials used.

Now we operate in a work studio in the old garment district of San Francisco. We take pride in doing everything ourselves and taking our time to aim as close as possible for perfection. These days there are very few operations left that design, draft patterns, and construct all in-house like we do at Jack/Knife.

FYL: Could you bring us through the process of how you work with a customer to get him the pair of jeans he wants?  How do you get him to the right denim, the right cut, the right details?

JA: Describing the entire experience for being fitted for a pair of Jack/Knife jeans would be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. So I’ll give the “cliff’s notes” version:

The process for being fitted for Jack/Knife custom jeans begins with the first visit—a tour of our operations, a showing of our selvedge fabric selection, the machines, etc. The goal is to knock out fabric selection, thread color, rivets/buttons, pocket shapes, etc. There are myriad details to go over and each client is given the opportunity to bring forth their individual detail requests as well. Measurements are taken, and we also discuss with the client the desired fit of the finished jean. There is much more that goes into the first fitting, and overall this stage is the most comprehensive.

After all the necessary information has been gathered from the client during the first visit, we begin drafting by hand the pattern for the jeans. The pattern-drafting phase by far is the most time-consuming step of the overall process. Once we have your pattern, we construct your jeans, which you’ll try on during your second visit. When you come to try on your jeans in the second visit, there is no waistband yet. Trying on jeans with no waistband can be a a bizarre experience, but the second visit is simply for us to see how the jeans are fitting up to that point. Based on how the jeans fit during the second visit, we either adjust as needed or move on to the next phase.

Past the second visit, all that is needed is a waistband, belt-loops, and a final hem. We attach the waistband and belt loops once we are past the second visit phase. The final visit from you will be to try the jeans on one last time to confirm that you are happy with the fit now that the waistband has been attached. We also take a final measurement for your hem. The final hem is done during this last visit, as it only takes Nick about 10 minutes or so to hem a pair of jeans. And lastly Nick dates and signs the jeans at the very end.

FYL: Could you tell us a little about the details that sets your jeans apart?

JA: Aside from being completely custom—the entire manufacturing of Jack/Knife jeans is done using hand-worked, single-needle construction. All of our patterns are individually hand-drafted by us in our studio. We use a cotton twill binding on all our raw seams, because in our minds we would be cheating if we used over-lock or cover-stitches. We hand-hammer all of our USA-made hardware to Jack/Knife jeans. The fabric we offer is all selvedge fabric from either Japan or Cone Mills out of North Carolina. We also incorporate the use of selvedge details in the waistband, belt loops, out seam, and coin pocket. Each pair of jack/Knife jeans is hand inscribed, dated, and signed. Oh, and our jeans come with a lifetime warranty.

FYL: What if I have some really specific details I like on my pair?  If they are really dumb, how would you tell me?

JA: The only time I would intervene in someone’s design is if the idea lacked a functional purpose. We are all very honest at Jack/Knife, you would be able to tell if we thought an idea fell short of making sense.

FYL: On the other hand, there are guys who probably don’t really know exactly what they want.  How do you guide them through the process?

JA: Through a series of dialogue we can guide just about anyone through our custom experience. We try in every way possible to make this this process simple to understand. It is during that first visit that we take the time to play host and develop a sense of understanding of the individual’s lifestyle. There are basic design details that can alter the feel or styles of jeans. An example would be that dressy jeans are different in styling than workwear style jeans.

FYL: Everyone I know loves their Jack/Knife jeans.  What would you say is the secret of your success?

JA: Our unwillingness to sacrifice quality. We will always go the extra mile to make the best product possible. In these early days of Jack/Knife we have done everything possible to ignore the standard industry prompts of “selling out.” We have never outsourced. For Jack/Knife, we could never trust an outsourced entity to follow through on a project with the same passion as is practiced in our shop.

FYL: What vision do you have for Jack/Knife going forward?

JA: To continue growing. The introduction of Jack/Knife for women, a series of reproductions from the old mine finds of Mike Harris and Gang (author of Jeans of the Old West), a collaboration with Tellason, Jack/Knife limited edition pieces, and more are all happening just within the next 6months for Jack/Knife. For those coming to the Style Forum 10th Anniversary event, Jack/Knife will be unveiling a yet-to-be-seen limited edition cotton/hemp Japanese chambray shirt.

Thanks John!

Jack/Knife Outfitters
372 Ritch St.
San Francisco, CA 94107


SF10: Talking shop with Tom Park of Leather Soul

Leading up to Styleforum’s 10th anniversary showcase and party, we’ll be talking to some of the people who’ve helped make Styleforum what it is today. First off, Tom Park, owner of one of the world’s finest footwear sources: Leather Soul. With locations in Waikiki, Hawaii and Beverly Hills, California, Leather Soul puts Aldens, Edward Greens, Saint Crispin’s, and others on the most discerning feet in the world. Tom and his Leather Soul colleagues will be bringing shoes from Alden, George Cleverley, and Saint Crispin’s, as well as select accessories, to Styleforum’s 10th anniversary event.

Leather Soul owner Tom Park and LSW General Manager Takuya Hoshino. Photo by Ryan Plett.

Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell us a little about how you started Leather Soul?

Tom Park: I’ve always loved shoes, I can remember my first pair of Air Jordans back when I was five. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family; my grandfather owned a company and my mother had and still has a florist’s shop here in Honolulu. While in college I worked at a high-end shoe store very much like Leather Soul and learned to love high end men’s dress shoes. From that time I wanted to open my own store and knew one day I would. When my grandmother passed away she left me some money and told me to follow my dreams. I quit my job, sold my car, took out credit card debt, and opened LS back in 2004.

FYL: Could you tell us a little about the evolution of the store and about the products you carry? It’s been quite a success story.

TP: My original concept was to open a classy, comfortable shop where local businessmen could stop by during their lunch breaks and pick up a pair of shoes. I had zero aspirations of opening a location on the mainland or even in Waikiki. I started out selling everything from $75 Sebagos to $500 Aldens. As time passed, my product mix evolved and eventually when I opened in Waikiki, LS evolved into a higher-end specialty shop. Aldens, which had once been my most expensive line, became the lowest priced line in the shop. To this day, we are still growing. I went from being a one-person operation to having a staff of 10. Our next move is to broaden our offerings to include more leather goods, vintage timepieces, and a small selection of clothing. I also plan to open another location here in Honolulu later this year to serve my local customers better.

FYL: How did you find Styleforum? What made you stay? Did you participate in any other forums?

TP: Back in 2004-2005 I found Ask Andy and became very involved there. Members were extremely friendly and I was happy conversing with other shoe lovers and giving any advice and information that I could. Styleforum was always a bit scary to me because I was not into clothing back then and had zero knowledge about clothing. As I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about clothing, I started posting more on SF and found the crowd to be more serious and better suited for my evolving business. To this day I check SF daily and really credit it for providing me the knowledge of clothing and footwear I have today.

FYL: You have a very successful (and really, very stylish) blog. What is the traffic like?  Do you ever envision having a webstore?

TP: We average about 3,000 visitors a day on our website. I have no intentions to have a webstore. I think web checkout is too impersonal for the products we sell. The website is blog based and the purpose is really to let our customers know what’s going on. I still write all the content for the blog and take all the pictures. It’s really meant to be very casual and intimate, more like I’m talking to you about the shoes. After people check out the blog, they can visit us, call us, or email us if they want to order something. I get emails every now and then complaining about instant sell outs, accusing me of being all smoke and mirrors. What people don’t realize is that we have about 15,000 customers in our database, thousands of eyes watching our website daily, 40 people visiting LSW alone per day, and 10 salespeople all trying to sell shoes. Of course we sell out quick. Our typical Alden size runs are only 66 pairs. Why not order more? We simply cannot order more and keep the same kind of selection going. We are limited by production issues as well.

FYL: You certainly taught us a lot about shoes. Did the influence ever go the other way?

TP: Of course, I learn every day from Style Forum. If I have a shoe-related question myself, I can often times find the answer on SF.

FYL: Forum people love minutiae, whether it’s about shirts, or jeans, or shoes. Any questions that you’d like to answer once and for all? This is your chance.

TP: Shoes are never perfect. Do not expect them to be. They go on your feet and touch the nasty ground all day. The stitching does not need to be perfectly straight. If there’s a missing perforation, who cares.

FYL: Could you tell me a little about the Leather Soul specials for Styleforum? How did they come about? What were the end products? Things you would have changed if you went back in time?

TP: When my business was smaller, I often times took suggestions from my best customers for new models. For instance, we were the first to do a shell cordovan Indy Boot back in 2005, which was a suggestion from a customer of mine. After successfully doing a collaboration for Ask Andy, I wanted to do one for Styleforum and after a lot of discussions on the forum, the SF Boot was created. We ended up doing an SF Shoe as well which was essentially a low-cut version of the shoe. I really enjoy doing this kind of collaboration with the forum members but it’s becoming very difficult due to production lead times. Also, there are so many limitations that are difficult to explain to people, especially when they are so passionate about the brand. Passion tends to overshadow reality sometimes and people often do not understand why we can’t do this or why we can’t order that. Of course I wish I could do anything and everything people desire, but ultimately I’m just a retailer and I have to go by what the vendor can and cannot do.

The OG Styleforum boot from Alden and Leather Soul.

FYL: You told me that you’ve met a lot of people on the forum. Any memorable stories?

TP: Well, I’m always happy to meet SF members in person. I love to meet people at LSW especially because I love to show off the shop and I appreciate their visit so much. My most memorable meeting was probably meeting Mark (yfyf on the forum) and Parker at the LSBH opening. I remembered Mark (yfyf) being kind of distant and not so friendly (haha!). This was before he opened the Armoury. Now, we are close friends and do business together. He is such a great easygoing guy and I really feel blessed to be his friend. The Armoury is probably my second favorite store (other than LS).

FYL: Could you tell us a little about the latest projects you’ve done in collaboration with Styleforum members?

TP: My collaboration with Kiya and Self Edge was actually about 2 years in the making. We met in Tokyo (with Johan of 3sixteen), ate ramen, drank beers, and decided we wanted to do something together eventually. We have very similar backgrounds and think very similarly. We have become good friends over the past few years. Look for another Leather Soul x Self Edge collaboration in the future.

FYL: Anything else you’d like to tell us?

TP: See you at the W.

Leather Soul rolls deep.

Saint Crispin's 316 in red 076 Inca grained calf from Leather Soul.


Edward Green Top Drawer Lichfield at Leather Soul.


Alden Norwegian Split Toe boot in Chromexcel at Leather Soul.

Leather Soul x Self Edge boot by Alden.



A chat with Will Boehlke of A Suitable Wardrobe

On November 27, 2006, Will Boehlke posted the first entry at his blog, A Suitable Wardrobe (to a smattering of applause). Today it’s recognized as one of the first blogs to cover classic menswear, influencing many to follow suit and spawning a store specializing in hard-to-find men’s accessories.


Will records a monthly podcast.


It’s hard to imagine that Will’s modest office space houses one of the largest collection of, say, Drake’s ties, but it’s also Grand Central for store operations: shipping/receiving, a photo backdrop with lights, a small audio/video recording studio, and of course, the merchandise. And not just ties, but also bolts of gorgeous chambray, soft suede chukkas, striking pocket squares for summer, and enough shoe-care products to care for the collections of Styleforum’s most profligate shoe-philes.

Peter Zottolo: What was the main reason you started the blog?

Will Boehlke: I was between things, and I had a lifelong interest in clothing. So I just thought I’d start doing something that I enjoy doing, and if it paid, it paid.  It started with informational posts, primarily—how to put a wardrobe together, what kind of shoes you should have, what kind of necktie, etc.  Nothing like that was available 6 years ago.

PZ: So it filled a niche?

WB: It did at the time, but I think now the blog and the store are more geared toward the clothing hobbyist, and that’s probably where we’ll stay. At first I thought I’d support the blog by advertising, but even at over 300K unique visitors a month, many advertisers just aren’t interested. So I thought if I was going to do this for the long run, I needed to open a store. And it’s been great—I get to go to around the world, I get a lot of clothes, and life is good.

PZ: Speaking of clothes—what’s new for the spring?

WB: I don’t really think that way; I sell perennials. I buy things that I think are beautiful, and I sell more of them than most others. Drake’s ties, for example—I have more of their ties than anyone else, aside from their stores.

A summer combination of silk and linen.

PZ: Since the shop has opened, have you seen any changes in men’s clothing?

WB: Well, ties may have narrowed a bit, but the classics never really change. The number of people who buy the items has increased, but the items themselves are basically the same.

PZ: Was there anything at Pitti Uomo this January that really caught your eye?

WB: Recently Drake’s has made things with fabulous colors and textures—stuff that I don’t recall ever seeing in my lifetime. For example, this year I bought a silk bouclè necktie from them. It’s a beautiful textured weave. Photos can’t do it justice. You have to see it in person.

PZ: Would you ever consider opening a brick and mortar store?

WB: Absolutely—we’re planning on opening up a retail store perhaps by the end of this year. Not sure where, but if in San Francisco, somewhere between Union Square and the Embarcadero, so it can be close to those who come to visit the city. Nothing huge, just a small haberdashery, and open the store to traveling tailors. My only concern is if enough people would buy what I’d sell.

PZ: But I’m sure if people just came in to see and touch the stuff…

WB: …and who can blame them? I have customers who buy an enormous amount of stuff, but start out with just one piece.

PZ: Just to see?

WB: Right. Because you just don’t know… The item may not be soft enough, or the exact color as the picture. But once someone sees and feels them in person…

PZ: …they’d all be gone?

WB: Well, that’s what I’m hoping.

Bolts of shirting fabric, including fine chambray.

Silk boucle, with 50 nubs per inch (NPI).

Robert Geller Fall 2012 – Interview and Collection

Styleforum’s Marc Bain brings you a Robert Geller interview and a discussion of the New York-based designer’s Fall 2012 collection.

For his fall 2012 collection, the eleventh for his namesake label, Robert Geller looked to England for inspiration. Models layered with sturdy wools, rain-repellent waxed cottons, and that most British of fabrics, tweed, walked a dirt runway that seemed to lead from an English garden. Gray, brown, and olive dominated the palette, while a few bright notes of marigold and fiery orange sparked amid all the sobriety.  ’80s British post-punk influenced the collection (The Sound’s “Where the Love Is” provided the show’s soundtrack), and a sense of brooding disquiet infused the clothes. Maybe more notable was their debt to English tailoring, with sharply cut blazers and coats, and, in place of Geller’s popular jeans, wool trousers.

Robert Geller’s secret garden.

Although not a departure from his previous work, this was Geller’s most mature show. Some traits were recognizable from past seasons: mesh underlayers and skinny leather pants; sweatshirts, including Geller’s well-known dip-dyed version; ballooning lounge pants. Footwear—suede chelsea boots; balmorals in black, or brown with a black toe—came from the designer’s ongoing collaboration with Common Projects. He also continued his experimentation with the silhouette, balancing slim and voluminous, cropped and elongated shapes. Geller took some of his most successful ideas of the past few years and integrated them into the wardrobe of his slightly older, more sophisticated English muse.

After his show at New York Fashion Week, a smiling Geller spoke with Styleforum contributor Marc Bain about his new collection, English style, and why he really wants his own line of socks.

Dip dye and layers (and non-Men’s-Clothing-approved buttoning) at Robert Geller fall 2012.

Marc Bain: English tailoring and style had a big influence on this collection. What makes English style so great?

Robert Geller: Since I’ve been of an age to recognize style, when I go to London I like the way that the boys dress. There’s a little bit of a dandy-ness to it, but it’s still very masculine. That goes very well with the way I like to dress. There’s still a little sensitivity, a little romance, but I still want it to be masculine. So that really drew me to it, but also the music. I really wanted to look into what it is about English culture that I like so much.

MB: When you think about this collection in the street, do you have a particular scene in mind?

RG: We always design the collection for the street. In the end it’s a business, of course, and I always think about the street. With men, you have your things you obviously need to have: a trenchcoat, you need to have your duffle coat. You need to have all these elements. It’s spinning it in a way that works with what you’re thinking about and where you want to go. So the way it is on the runway, with the bowler hat, isn’t the way people are going to wear it. But definitely some of the layering and the way it’s put together, I would love to see people wearing that on the street.

MB: I imagine it can be frustrating when you make a cool piece that doesn’t get produced. Are there any items this season that you really want to see on the racks in stores?

RG: Yeah, the blazers this season, especially the soft-wool yellow one with the gray trim. I love that jacket. People do buy that from me, but it’s not the main thing people come to me for, like the stronger outerwear, and people want the denim and the shirts. But I’d really like people to get some of the more eccentric pieces.

“I just throw some light / On your cold floors” — The Sound

MB: Are there any fabrics or fabric treatments you relied on a lot in this collection?

RG: Yeah. We actually did a lot of research about the English fabrics, and we ended up using Harris tweed in the collection. We did a lot of coated, waxed cotton, and things that are very British.

MB: For a rainy day, that sort of thing?

RG: For a rainy day, yeah. We have a Mackintosh. All of those things are very directly influenced by England.

MB: You’ve come a long way since Cloak, a line people still talk about. Collectors buy and sell it online and it’s highly sought after. What do you think made it such a popular label?

RG: I think the timing. There wasn’t so much menswear coming out of New York, and I think it surprised people. I look back at it and I think it was cool. I think it was fresh at the time, that look, much fresher than it is today I mean. My development since then has been changing. I’m getting older. That was something I did with Alexandre [Plokhov] and it was a great partnership, but now I’m doing my own thing.

Chunky knits at Robert Geller fall 2012.

MB: You mentioned really liking the tailored pieces from this collection. Do you see yourself heading more in that direction as you mature as a designer?

RG: Yeah, but also I like the mixture. I like to take sportswear and to mix it with tailoring. I think they go together really well. If you’re smart about the styling, I think it can look beautiful. I don’t think it has to be either-or. There are definitely looks where it’s just tailoring and it’s really beautiful, but I like the mixture: the soft and the hard, a little bit playful but refined. You can wear it all day.

MB: Can you talk to me about the collaborations you did for the collection? You’re still working with Common Projects, of course, and now you’re collaborating on socks with Etiquette Clothiers. Why did you want to do socks?

RG: I met this guy, Benjamin [Vergnion], who does this sock brand called Etiquette. We got to talking and I said I always wanted to have Robert Geller socks, and he was like, “Let’s do it.” He makes the finest quality socks in Italy, really amazing, and we knew that we had a lot of these shorter pants—jodhpurs, rolled-up pants—and there were going to be a lot of socks. So rather than buying black socks, because that’s boring, being able to make these really beautiful socks with Etiquette seemed like a great option.

Polka dots and billowy trousers from Geller.

MB: And what about Common Projects? Anything new going on there?

RG: New shoes. I love working with those guys. I think their collection is amazing. We sit together, we think about what we want to do, and season after season we can deliver such a beautiful product.

MB: How has your Robert Geller Seconds line been received since its launch?

RG: It’s good. It’s a way for me to make the things I want to wear when I’m either playing sports or just going out and being casual. You can also integrate it: most of my undershirts are Seconds and the sweatshirt that I have. It’s just a way to make it a little more approachable.

MB: I can see that you’re still playing around with the silhouette in your looks, something you started doing more of in your last collection. Can you talk a little about that?

RG: It started with Raf [Simons], but then definitely with Dior when Hedi [Slimane] was there, it became so slender. I loved it when I first saw them doing it. It was great. But it’s time for a change. It’s not saying, “Now it’s ’80s big, huge shoulders,” but like pushing and pulling the silhouette, mixing it up, and just seeing ways that feel right. I guess I’m figuring out where I feel like it should go as I’m doing it.

MB: I noticed some pieces from previous collections, the mesh for example. Why did you bring it back?

RG: It’s a great styling element, even for me just wearing it in my wardrobe. Instead of just wearing an A-shirt, you have a little bit more texture and you can play around with colors. It’s part of continuing the styling and vision of the past season into this new one. I like that idea.

Pitti Uomo: A Buyer’s Perspective

Mr. Kuhle goes to Firenze.


At this point you guys have probably read a hundred Pitti Uomo recaps. But I figured that I’m chime in with somewhat a different perspective: what it’s like to visit as a buyer, and a first-time Pitti attendant at that.

It’s huge.

Good lord. I’ve been to plenty of trade shows in my time, but never on this scale. Pitti Uomo is held in Florence’s Fortezza da Basso, a sprawling fortress complex that dates back to 1534. Without stopping, it would probably take at least 40 minutes just to walk the perimeter of the show. I’ve been to men’s shows before in NYC, Vegas, Germany, and Spain, but this one dwarfs them all.

The old main drag at Pitti.

You need to stay focused.

Trade shows are all about meeting people and putting names to faces. Most of my time is taken up with appointments for brands I already carry–for example, an Alden buy might take 2 hours, Southwick might take 90 minutes, etc. If you’re investing the time and money to fly to Italy, then you really need to make that investment worth it. That means getting there at the opening bell, keeping things tight and focused, and really trying to balance time spent in meetings with time spent looking for new brands and product. Pitti was the most difficult time-management in buying that I’ve ever dealt with.

The hardest items to buy, focuswise? Ties. Buying ties and scarves is hard as hell. There’s hundreds of fabrics and hundreds of designs in several colors apiece. Best to grab a strong-ass coffee and some water to stay well hydrated for those tie appointments.

Add a fresh bunch of Italian paisley... Scarf swatches.

Buying and attending are different experiences.

Before I went to Pitti, I had a cool idea. I would bring along my 1950s Leica M3 and shoot dazzling photos. Oh yeah; I got the lens cleaned and adjusted beforehand. I would make an entire photo gallery of 35mm pics of the “Pitti scene.” I’d have dozens of photographs of incredibly dapper Japanese guys and an overview of all my rounds there.


I had two and a half days at the show. The first day I spent 9 straight hours in the basement of one building, just moving from vendor to vendor. I didn’t get outside until dark and didn’t shoot a single photo with the Leica. Believe me, I was pretty envious of the #menswear Tumblr crew and the many pictures of them hanging out in the main square. When you’re buying at Pitti, you never really have time to appreciate all of the peacockery and happenings going on there. You obsessively look at product and slam a panini for lunch. Not that I’m complaining. An entire day of looking at shoes and sportcoats is a pretty damn good day for me. But buyers never really get to shoot street style photos and ogle the Brunello Cucinelli booth (unless you carry his line in your store).

Check ch-check check check check it out. Shirt swatches.

Pitti is a great resource for manufacturing.

There’s nothing better than talking with people who make things. There’s no BS, no showroom hustling, and no guy-who-just-got-the-account-6-days-ago-and-knows-jack-shit-about-what-he’s-selling. Meeting with manufacturers is a joy for me and it’s one of the best parts of my job. And Pitti is absolutely filled with small-scale manufacturers. I’m talking incredible artisan companies that you’d never find outside of Europe. There’s a robust domestic market in Europe in general and Italy in particular, so Pitti is dotted with small firms that just serve local shops and designers. You’d never know about them unless you go there, and you won’t find them there unless you really put the work into it. But I found a bunch of great stuff, and hopefully all of these contacts will bear some serious fruit come fall 2012.

Mike and team Carmina.

Knit samples.

Florence is pretty ace.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Florence a few times before, and it’s a gorgeous city. In terms of trade show cities, it’s pretty close to the top of the heap. I love Cirque du Soleil shows and dinner buffets as much as the next man (editor’s note: Mike’s opinion on Cirque du Soleil is his own and does not reflect ours), but Florence has it all over Las Vegas. And the Fortezza da Basso will put a serious hurting on the Jacob Javits Center. It’s an inspiring place to visit, and touring the excellent menswear shops in the city will definitely put you in the right frame of mind. Of course, I don’t even have to mention how great the food, wine, and coffee is. It’s a small city, so you’ll run into friends and contacts easily. Overall, I had a wonderful time, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend Pitti Uomo to any other menswear buyers interested in expanding their assortment with some really unique collections and pieces.

The Arno.

Photos courtesy Mike Kuhle.

Sartoria Partenopea at Pitti.

Coordinated elbow patches are the new pocket squares.

Sartoria Partenopea is one of the Italian tailored lines we’d like to see more of in the United States. The company has roots in the celebrated sartorial tradition of Naples and a reputation for quality, but with a lower profile than the Kitons and Attolinis of the world. Constructed in factory near Naples by a staff about 70 tailors, Partenopea jackets have all the features typical of current Neapolitan style tailoring (Partenopea translates, basically, as Naples)–soft, full-canvas construction, natural shoulders, and a close-to-the-body cut throughout that still allows for movement. You rarely see the label in the states, although Partenopea makes for some select stores.

The collection at Pitti seemed like it would be an immediate e-gent/#menswear smash. Colorful elbow patches on sportcoats and sweep-lapel, double-breasted suits are Sartorialist bait. Almost all of the jackets would complement denim, and in fact the Partenopea reps were dressed down as they eyed me suspiciously (42Rs aren’t encouraged to try on samples), although they were quite happy to demonstrate the freedom and comfort of a Partenopea jacket. We hope to bring you more on Sartoria Partenopea soon, but for now, enjoy a little jacket pr0n.

The “Italian Heisman”–it’s the next “Tebowing”

A beautifully soft, trip-patch jacket in gray herringbone.

Throwin bows.



SP D to the B.

Nice shape on the breast pocket. (1) Trim thread, (2) insert camel driving gloves.