Mr. Rollig it is a real pleasure to have you invited on Claymoor knowing the fact that your name is a very respected one in the business and furthermore you have an emotional connection with Romania through your wife Alexandra. I know Alexandra Diaconu as a Forbes journalist and now I see her in a new and very interesting role at Zonkey Boot. Where were you born Alexandra, how did you meet Mr. Rollig and how is to be a part of a Zonkey Boot shoe saga?
Alexandra Diaconu: I was born in Galati, Romania. Moved to Bucharest at the age of 19 to study journalism and lived there for the next 10, studying and working in the media. In 2009 I was an editor at Forbes Magazine, covering small businesses, when I met Michael to interview him. Had no idea that on that day the end of my career as a journalist was about to begin. Michael later came to Bucharest to see me and we soon knew that we wanted to be together. I moved to Vienna at the end of the same year and 2 months later we started Zonkey Boot. To be part of Zonkey Boot… ZB is rather part of me and part of Michael. We were both there when it was born, we started it with the drive for building something together, from scratch. The shoes we make are what we together dream of: inside and outside.
Alexandra Diaconu: Michael is rather an organised person who loves precision and order. Between us, I’m the difficult ‘artist’.
I have entitled one of my past postings with your shoes “Zonkey Boot – “young heart!”. Although your shoes have a young and joyful heart they do not lose their sense of style. What is the philosophy behind Zonkey Boot brand and how did this project develop – and why the name “Zonkey”?
Alexandra Diaconu : The whole idea was to create very good quality shoes for the fashion-oriented men and to create outstanding, stylish, casual shoes for men used to wear bespoke classics. It all started from a brainstorming, jotting down ideas on our kitchen table. Michael had been doing classic footwear for more than 15 years, trying to make the best shoes from a shoemaker’s point of view. And he succeeded. But the prices of these products were prohibitive for most younger customers and also for a significant growth of the business.
We started from a few simple questions: what’s the best we can offer in this and this price range? The best materials? The best sole construction? Very complex lasts? Hand craftsmanship in all the important operations in shoe making? The answers to all these questions was yes. But it all depended of course on working with the right manufacturer. Which we just happened to meet, weeks before.
It’s a factory in Northern Italy, owned by two brothers, who produce shoes for several high end brands and who know very well to combine innovation and flexibility with a deep interest and passion for traditional shoe making techniques and hand craft.
The name of our brand comes from a crossbreed between donkey, the reliable hard working, enduring animal, and zebra, the gracious good looking wild animal. These qualities are the ones we are trying to put into our shoes. That’s one reason for choosing this name. Another… The rather empty road on Google searches…
Michael Rollig : After so many years of being in the bespoke and MTO business with all its technical limitations which go along with bench-made shoes, I wanted to return to my roots, to design, pattern cutting, last making and reintroducing specific hand making techniques to industrial production, where such hand making techniques increase the quality significantly. Hand welting would be a good example or hand lasting at the shoe’s waist or water shining finishing techniques.
Another motive to return to the industry was my desire to get new “input”. I consider myself rather a professional shoe tinker than a specialized expert in one part of the trade and I felt that I wanted to work again with highly specialized expert technicians in shoe production field who know more than me.
According to my experience, there is no other country where the entire industry is so fanatic about creating new products and styles and where each and everyone involved, has a desire to contribute to make something new and beautiful. In Italian companies it’s not unusual that workers in the line of production are commenting on prototypes or making suggestions how things could be improved. Creating “bellezza” seems to be a national sport and everybody can take part. This somehow playful atmosphere in a hardworking industrial environment is unique and that is why we like MADE IN ITALY.
Alexandra Diaconu : We make the design, the technical specifications. We travel to Italy every few weeks, where we spend time in the factory doing development. We cover the branding, the marketing and the sales strategy, working with representatives in several markets.
Our collections comprise of several groups of shoes, differentiated by the type of sole construction and/or purpose: hand-welted shoes (casual and classics), travelling shoes with Blake bottom construction and a slim and flexible leather sole, moccasins hand sewn on the last, leisure and urban sports shoes with light rubber soles.
All our uppers in full grain leathers are stained by hand. We use high quality calf suede hunting suedes for unlined shoes, vegetable-tanned bovine leather insoles (for breathability) deer chamois linings for the urban sports, just to name a few… We have developed with a small workshop from Germany, these unique leather laces, smooth and rounded, only 2-2.5 mm thin, tear proof. A lot of attention goes into the details, those details which bring comfort and which give value to a pair of shoes. And it’s rewarding to hear from our customers that the first time they put on our shoes they were able to wear them for 10 hours straight without any discomfort. Most of them already own now 4-5 pairs of Zonkey Boot, although the brand was launched on the market one year and a half ago.
Alexandra Diaconu : We have 20 retailers that sell Zonkey Boot, in Germany, France, Netherlands, Japan, Russia and soon also South Korea, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Some are classic outfitters and others are fashion-oriented stores. They are all among the best shops in their markets. The plan is to… go on making the best possible shoes and combining hand craft and industrialized processes to offer very good quality stylish men’s shoes worth the price.
We will now move in another area trying to “take advantage” of your long history in the shoemaking business. The market of bespoke shoes and in general the shoe market was really shaken by economic crises. A lot of shoemakers (both bespoke and RTW) complain of a decrease of clientele. How do you see the future of the market?
Michael Rollig::From the very beginning we were aiming for a type of customer, which can be found in every country in the world; in short: a man who appreciates excellent quality in making, combined with modern design and who wants to be approached and treated in an honest, respectful way. How many of these potential costumers we can find in a country depends on its cultural and economic situation and development. Not one market, or country is the same, neither in its current situation nor in its potential for future development.
As a yet small operation that are, we find it crucial to appear transparent and communicable to every retailer or individual customer out there. We are not so much serving markets but a community of existing and potential customers. That is why our corporate language is English and why we are not referring to any national cultural background like Hungarian / Viennese or English or Italian tradition. And that is why we sell to any country at the same ex factory price and we do not adjust prices to the “potential” of markets. So back to your question: Our future is bright as long as we make outstanding shoes and let open minded people all over the world know what we are doing.
You live in a very stylish town and travel all over Europe. What changes took place over the years in men’s fashion that influenced the shoe? Please tell me more about today’s gentleman’s preferences and how did these preferences change when we travel from London to Vienna, Budapest and then Eastern Europe?
Michael Rollig:When retailers want to get rid of a sales representative who wants to talk them into taking on a new brand, they often argue like this: “Your merchandise is very nice but the Germans (or Italians, or Americans, or …) are different; they are more conservative and stick to their old brands, and so on…” When the sales representative says: “But I already have 100 shops in your country who buy and successfully sell my brand”, then the shop owner says: ”yes, yes, I know but here in our city people are different.” If these shop owners would be right, no international brand would exist because everybody would buy only from his local tailor or shoemaker. But the truth is that since ever people found the neighbor’s fruits more attractive and since ever one could gain attention and prestige by his social surrounding when he had something new from abroad, which was not the usual local stuff.
Nowadays luxury men’s fashion is dominated by very big brands and you can find these all over the world, the spread might be different in each country but a typical style, which could be assigned to a country does not exist anymore. The diversification of the merchandise on the market is incredible and has never been that big. Still, Italian menswear is dominating the segment but many new small brands are popping up in many countries and find their customers. Zonkey Boot is one of them.
I know I am not directly answering to your question and I know that everybody can detect different style preferences in street scenarios in different countries, but whatever I would remark, it would be a generalization and very easily becomes an offend. Of course, when speaking privately, I also start sentences with: the Italians, the Russians, the Japanese or the Viennese (note: Vienna is a country!!!) but as a designer and businessman these categories don’t exist.
What has been one of your most memorable experiences in the business since the beginning?
Michael Rollig: My first visit to Romania. I was on a research tour in Baia Mare and Brasov looking for options to establish a small industrial production plant for hand welted shoes and hand stitched moccasins. I visited two cooperatives and was amazed to learn that in both companies a couple of dozen workers were familiar with hand lasting and welt stitching.
Among them, I met about ten young guys, who belonged to the last generation of apprentices who were trained in these cooperatives. Until the Revolution they used to make shoes for the military and, due to the lack of modern shoe machinery, many operations were carried out by hand. These young guys, amongst them a few girls and elders, with their basic skills in using shoemaker’s tools only needed refinement. They enabled me to start a highly specialized production for the finest footwear. After three years we had 150 employees and made wonderful moccasins and welted shoes for Italian, English and Japanese shoe factories and brands. The company still exists and is mainly owned by Prada.
Michael Rollig : Suits: Cesare Attolini (Napoli), Luigi Cappelli (Florence)
Shirts: Attolini and Finamore (Napoli)
Socks: Zonkey Boot (knee high and wool only)
Boxers: Gino Venturini (Viennese shirtmaker, bespoke)
Undershirts: Oscalito (high twist – filo scozia)
Scooter: Vespa ET4
Watches: Zenith (el Primero) Omega (Seamaster, Speedmaster)
Shoes: Hm, don’t know ….
Alexandra Diaconu : Since two years you can hardly get him out of his Zonkey Boot, which he doesn’t clean nor polish!!!!
Michael Rollig: Actually we don’t go to Romania often and I am looking forward to go this summer, as a tourist, to Bucharest.
From the very beginning of my stay in Romania I was never astonished by the changes that happened. These last 15 years’ progress was in very in many respects predictable for an outsider like me, because I understood the motives and goals of the conqueror, EU.
I saw that many Romanians wanted to make the best out of it and had hopes for a bright future but were constantly discouraged by the political class. This winter, when the people went out on the street to protest for the Syrian hero, I really liked the Romanians and it’s a shame the other EU countries did not pay enough attention.
Otherwise, like with the hand made operations in shoe industry, the great “cizmar” left another legacy to Romania which could now turn out to be good: no big debts.
“People” picture by courtesy of Corey Knight of aandhmag.com
Zonkey Boot Shoes: Autumn Winter Collection 2012-2013.