How Mario Moretti Polegato, Founder of Geox, Eschewed the Family Wine Business in Favour of Shoes
“My story is similar to Steve Jobs because I started in a garage with five people”
“In the beginning, to me it was a joke,” Mario Moretti Polegato sputters during my sit-down interview with the Italian founder of Geox shoes. Polegato, dressed in an imposing grey business suit with blue tie, has flown into Toronto to usher in the grand re-opening of the Geox store in the Eaton Centre; it’s a concept store with cool grey walls, minimalist display racks and historic mosaic floors that bring a touch of Italian design to Canada because, as he tells me, “A lot of people believe Geox is not Italian.” Outside, a security guard patrols the entrance of the store, telling people they can’t come in. In person, Polegato is physically overwhelming; an extremely tall and broad man who retells the beginnings of his company with such incredulity it’s almost as if he can’t believe it himself.
Back in Italy, Polegato’s family is famous for the Villa Sandi prosecco they have been producing since 1622; a wine the LCBO website describes as “Pale lemon with light mousse; aromas of apple, pear and a touch floral; dry and light in body with flavours of peach, lemon & lime, fresh apple and melon.” Villa Sandi is also the name of the palatial residence that Polegato grew up in, an ornate mansion with a pristine white exterior flanked by four Ionic columns, that he whips out his phone to show me a picture of via Google Image Search. An illustrated version of the house appears on the logo of every bottle of Villa Sandi prosecco.
Naturally, Polegato was expected to go into the family wine business – which he did, for a time. His Eureka bathtub moment came after attending a wine industry conference in Reno, Nevada, where he decided to stay on for a small vacation after the conference ended. Walking in the Nevada desert – or as he calls it, “suffering” – his feet got so hot, he slashed holes in the bottom of his sneakers with a pocket knife so his perspiring feet could get some relief. Thus, the first ‘breathable shoes’ were born.
While literal holes in the soles of your shoes might be fine for one afternoon in the Nevada desert, they’re certainly not practical for every day. So when Polegato returned back to Italy, he began to tinker in his garage to figure out how to make a pair of shoes that expels sweat and doesn’t let water in. He found the silver bullet in a material worn by astronauts that instills breathability in one layer of a giant space suit.
After he had patented Geox’s signature breathing technology, he spent three years trying to sell the technology to sportswear companies, but none took an interest. Undeterred, he decided to found his own business and started making the shoes himself.
“My story is similar to Steve Jobs because I started in a garage with five people,” Polegato says. He hired five young locals and gave them different responsibilities; one person to make the shoes, one person in sales, one person in marketing etc. “From 5 people we became 50, then 500, then 5000. We now have over 50,000 employees,” Polegato says. Geox continues to innovate sneaker technology by hiring plenty of engineers, collaborating with universities, and invests 2% of profit into research and development. The company now holds over 35 patents. “We use this technology with Italian design, and quality leather to create a unique product,” he says.
The latest Geox collection includes basically something for everyone –there are sneakers and ‘fashion sneakers’ a plenty, but also this season’s unstoppable flat mules, simple oxfords with a sneaker sole and vivacious red snakeskin pumps. I lock eyes, so to say, with a pair of creamy nubuck platform sneakers with tiny divots on top that remind me of something Carrie Bradshaw would wear if she were a millennial.
Now with over 1000 stores worldwide, Polegato has long let go of the idea that his Swiss Army-knifed sneakers were ever a joke. “From a joke, came a real, challenging business,” he says. There’s nothing funny about that.
Click through for a gallery of the new Geox store in the Toronto Eaton’s Centre below.