Czechia: Walking in giant footsteps to save iconic shoemaker – DW – 05/19/2023

On hearing of Botas’ plight, Vaclav Stanek, owner of shoemaker Vasky, launched a drive to raise the necessary funds and buy the company by selling 8,000 pairs of shoes he had in stock. Although the price has not been disclosed, the tens of millions of koruna the deal likely cost was raised in just a week.

The swift rescue was fueled by a powerful cocktail of patriotism and nostalgia for a legendary brand.

Having shod Czechoslovak sports heroes such as Olympic champions Emil Zatopek and Vera Caslavska in the 1950s and 1960s, Botas went on to become a staple across much of the former Eastern bloc.

That meant that as Adidas, Nike and others of their ilk flooded into the Czech market following the fall of communism, they found their footwear labelled “botasky” — still a synonymous term for sneakers in many parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

But while 25 years or so ago the Botas factory in the central town of Skutec was turning out 2.5 million pairs of trainers annually, output had slumped to just 10,000 by 2022. And amid the energy price spike, and a severe shortage of skilled staff — a long-term problem in the Czech Republic, which has the EU’s lowest unemployment — the company was shuttered at the start of this year.

A picture of Vaclav Stanek in front of shelves with leather
No newcomer to the business, Vaclav Stanek is striving to emulate the success of Czechia’s shoemaking dynastyImage: Vasky

“I thought I would be alone in feeling so strongly about the brand,” Stanek told DW, “but I was happy to find many others shared my vision of saving it.”

In Bata’s footsteps

The Vasky founder’s depth of feeling and determination to save Botas is all the more remarkable for the fact that he wasn’t around to experience the brand’s glory years. Stanek turned 25 the day after the company closed its doors.

However, he’s not exactly a novice in the shoe trade. Vasky has grown rapidly since he launched the company, aged 18 and armed with 30,000 koruna (€1,215; $1,382), as an online trader from his hometown of Zlin in the southeast of the country.

His father, who runs a company making work boots, introduced the boy to shoemaking and helped Vasky take its initial paces. But it’s Tomas Bata’s footsteps in which Stanek junior insists he is following.

A colossal figure in the Czech Republic, Bata also started young in Zlin. By the time of Czechoslovakia’s fabled First Republic years between the world wars, he had already introduced modern conveyer-belt production methods and high-quality, low-priced shoes for working people.

A statue of Tomas Bata in the town of Zlin, Czech Republic.
Tomas Bata turned the town of Zlin and the Czech Republic into a center of shoemakingImage: Herbert Frank

Today, the Bata Corporation is a multinational footwear, apparel and fashion accessories manufacturer, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. It is one of the world’s leading shoemakers by volume, with 150 million pairs of shoes sold annually.

The Zlin that Stanek grew up in was molded by Bata’s patriarchal capitalism, with huge swaths of housing and social infrastructure built for the workers at his factory. Similar towns were constructed in several other European states, and even Brazil, India and the United States.

Vasky grew from similarly grand ambitions, its founder asserts, even if it remains a little more modest for now. “Bata showed that you can achieve whatever you want with hard work,” said Stanek. “He started at 16 and pursued his vision for the next 40 years.”

Seven years since its launch, Vasky operates two production sites and six retail outlets, including a flagship store on Prague’s Na Prikope — regularly ranked as one of the world’s most expensive retail destinations. Last year, the company’s turnover grew to €11.1 million.

When he saw the iconic Botas was in danger of disappearing, Stanek was keen to keep this “legend” of Czech shoemaking alive. “My vision is to preserve and continue the Czech shoemaking tradition. Millions saw the story about our bid to save Botas, and it was that that made the deal happen,” he said.

But saving Botas will mean some fundamental, and for some painful, changes. For a start, although some small production operations may yet remain in Skutec, Botas production will largely shift 100 kilometers (62 miles) or so east to the Zlin base. The move will also entail significant investment in new machinery.

For now, the first Botas models to be made under the new ownership can be pre-ordered from the Vasky website. However, it’s important that the two brands maintain their identities, so Botas will also need its own e-shop and stores, Stanek said.

Heart and head

At the same time, the entrepreneur remains the design lead, and as he works at updating collections for both Vasky and Botas he’s finding it tricky at times to distinguish the two. Maybe, he grimaced, he’ll have to relinquish some control and hire specialized designers.

But it’s not only design challenges that the purchase of Botas has thrown up. There are also likely to be financial hurdles if the iconic brand’s rescue isn’t to intrude on the grand ambitions for Vasky.

“It was my heart that started the rescue off. But I soon had to start thinking about the business side,” Stanek said. “We don’t have unlimited funds.”

Yet he was wary when asked if he might consider taking on investors. Having built Vasky from scratch, he admitted he would find it hard to share his “first baby.”

That means he hopes to independently fund a potentially pricey real-world future for the company as it outgrows its online roots.

A picture of runner Emil Zatopek running past a crowd of spectators during the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki
Runner Emil Zatopek in his Botas shoes won three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in HelsinkiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

There are already six Vasky stores to be found around the Czech Republic, and up to six more are planned for this year, with the move to bricks-and-mortar playing an important role in boosting annual sales to 150,000 pairs of shoes. “Online sales are important, but customer behavior has not changed so much,” insisted Stanek. “People still want to try shoes on before they buy.”

With this rapid expansion in mind, he said he’s confident that within the next four or five years Vasky will break the 1 million pairs barrier.

And while he’s growing the Czech network, like his hero Tomas Bata, Stanek is also eyeing markets further afield.

Bata remains one of the world’s largest shoemakers, with production bases in 18 countries and over 5,000 shops in 70 countries. Vasky isn’t quite on that level, but, despite the “large resources it would take to do it properly,” Stanek hopes to launch in Germany next year.

And that could pave the way for Botas as well.

“I believe it could be a big brand once more,” the young shoemaker said. “Output could quickly grow to 10 times the volume seen last year. The brand awareness is huge. Sixty years ago, almost everyone in Czechoslovakia had a pair of Botas.”

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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