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HOW DID WOLKY BEGIN?
An interview with father and sOn

In shoes for more than 40 years

Wolky has gone from strength to strength since the 1980s. Wolkys are sold worldwide, and we have won awards with some of our models. What’s more, we now have distribution centres in Germany and the USA and a factory in Mexico. But some things remain unchanged. Wolky is still a family business, now under the inspiring leadership of Anthony Diks. We walk through those four decades with him and his father, Wolky founder Kees Diks. But we begin by stepping back even further in time. Right back to Kees’s grandfather, Cornelis Diks, who was a shoemaker.

Family business

Cornelis Diks was a shoemaker in Zwolle. His wife also helped by serving in the shop. They passed on their passion for shoes to their son Anthonie, who opened a shoe shop of his own. Later on he opened another two together with his brother-in-law Eibel Lucht. Anthonie’s son Kees also wanted to “go into shoes”. Kees: “My first job was at Bervoets Vrieselaar, a shoe shop in Utrecht. After a few years my brother Jan and I went to work in our father’s and uncle Eibel’s shops.” The business expanded to a total of six outlets.

Comfort shoes

Well fitting shoes became their speciality. This was a market that was still in its infancy in the early 1980s. Sandals with a cork footbed were starting to make an appearance, marking the beginning of a revolution in footwear. Kees: “We asked the customer: ‘Are you looking for shoes that are really good for walking in? Then shut your eyes. I’ll give you a pair of sandals to try on. Walk around in them, see what you think and only then open your eyes.” To put it another way, that type of sandal was wonderful to walk in but was seen as very alternative at the time – too new and too unconventional. So not many people could pluck up the courage to be seen in them.”

A new Wolky sandal

for your feet”. Through their dealings with their customers in the shop, they developed their own vision of comfort, having heard customers complaining about the hard cork footbeds used in footwear available at the time. Kees: “A hard cork footbed doesn’t mould itself to your foot. In fact, quite the opposite: the foot moulds itself to the footbed. That can be uncomfortable or even painful.” So Kees set out to find a model that fitted in better with their ideas. He found himself in nonconformist circles influenced by Eastern religions and the concept of “close to nature”. Kees then moved to California, which he saw as a breeding ground for this new lifestyle, in the hope of finding something that fitted in with their vision. Finding the direction he was looking for, he had a sandal designed that was flat and wide, with a layer of memory foam on top of the cork footbed. “This footbed felt wonderfully soft and moulded itself to the foot instead of the other way round. What’s more, the sandal had three Velcro closures that made it almost infinitely adjustable – another new feature in the world of shoes.” And so the first Wolky, the Alto, was born.

Alto hits the mark; demand for more

The Alto caught on in a big way, and soon they turned their thoughts to adding a closed shoe to the range. Kees: “But that’s a completely different story: a shoe has to fit comfortably around the whole foot. There are special construction issues involved.” In 1984 they approached shoe designer Charles Bergmans. The first close shoe Charles designed, the Nature, was a hit. Demand for more Wolkys increased and manufacturing was relocated to Portugal.

Unique in the world of shoes

On 1 January 1988 the family business split into two: the Wolky brand, originally set up for sales in their own shops, was hived off as an independent company headed by Kees. Wolky’s big breakthrough came at the end of the 1980s with the launch of the Paris, a sandal presented in a range of colours. An article in the magazine Elsevier sang the praises of the sandal with its innovative use of Velcro straps which made it infinitely adjustable. This opened the floodgates. “People were queueing round the block for that sandal. That was unique.”

The next generation steps up...

Following on from those initial successes, Wolky focused on innovation, expanding the collection and quality. Every season saw new models launched and existing ones refined. Thus the foundation for Wolky was laid. A solid foundation which son Anthony would build on ten years down the line. Because Anthony also turned out to be “afflicted” by the shoe genes. “That was spotted early on by a primary school teacher who had serious concerns about it,” Kees said. “A boy who says, ‘I want to do exactly the same as my father’ – could his parents be exerting an unhealthy influence over him? But we weren’t aware of anything. Anthony often came along with us to our work and loved it there.”

 

Not yet in the business

After secondary school, following the advice of an acquaintance Anthony went to England for two years to take a highly regarded footwear training course. His parents agreed – on condition that he wouldn’t come and work in the business afterwards: they wanted to avoid him being seen as the golden boy riding on his dad’s coat-tails. This wasn’t a problem for Anthony, who wasn’t keen to “work for dad” at that point anyway. The course in England proved invaluable. Anthony: “I learned all about shoe design and manufacture and making cost price calculations and marketing plans.” After completing the course, he first went to work in the shoe department at Mexx and then for the young brand Yellow Cab, where he spent a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive 2½ years getting to grips with the trade.

 

First Wolkyshop

Kees opened the first Wolkyshop in Utrecht in 1995. Having a shop enabled him to keep his finger on the pulse of what women actually thought of Wolkys, what they would like to see changed and anything else they needed. After this first shop opened, selling only Wolky shoes, others followed with Tom van Geemen at the helm, and Hub Sillen opened a Wolkyshop in Leiden. Most of the Wolkyshops would be owned by Tom until 2019, and under his inspired leadership Wolkyshop also went online in 1998. This made Wolkyshop.com one of the first international webshops for footwear – something that was still very unusual at the time.

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Two captains on two ships

At that point, a period of major decisions lay ahead of them. With the work experience he had gained, Anthony was living up to his father’s expectations – something that Kees was keen to see before “working for Wolky” could be considered. In 1998, he asked Anthony how he would feel about coming to work in the family business. That happened just at the time when they were talking about building their own factory in Mexico to supply the US market with Wolkys. “I had to take some important long-term decisions. It was the right time to bring Anthony in; I thought he was the best candidate and I had meanwhile come to realise that we could actually strengthen each other.” As it turned out, Anthony was of the same opinion. Shortly thereafter Kees took over responsibility for the US market, with Anthony handling Europe. That proved to be a practical division of tasks, given the significant differences between the two markets. Wolky continued to grow steadily. In 2017 Anthony also took over the baton for the US market from Kees. In the meantime, things had changed on the design front too: Anthony was designing the new collections together with shoe designer Hans Boons, for whom he had previously worked at Yellow Cab.

 

 Made in Holland?

The Wolky factory in Mexico opened its doors in 1999. They called the factory “Holland”. After all, the Americans are crazy about everything that comes from the Netherlands, and Dutch design is seen as the crème-de-la-crème. Anthony: “By calling the factory ‘Holland’, we thought we could label the shoes ‘Made in Holland’.” But the US authorities had other ideas. The shoes may have been designed in the Netherlands and the factory may be Dutch owned, but the shoes are very definitely manufactured in Mexico. The first series of Roll-Clogs was intercepted at the border. The shoes were sent back and “Made in Mexico” stickers were printed.

Love of the trade

Asked about the factors driving Wolky’s success, Kees says: “There are people who love commerce; first and foremost, we love our trade. We are not out to make a quick buck; we work with a long-term focus.” The latter is a typical trait of family businesses, and what also stands out is that Wolky opts for longevity and quality in its relationships with staff, dealers and manufacturers and doesn’t get involved in price wars. “Tinkering with margins is not something we accept. And we also don’t go to China to save one or two euros.” In that respect, there is little to choose between father and son. They focus intensively on quality improvement. “That sharp, critical eye for quality: that’s something we’re constantly working on. It has helped Wolky gain a reputation in the market as progressive.” In fact, they complement each other well. Anthony: “My father put the foundation in place, the vision behind the Wolky brand. He is a bit more reflective than I am; he weighs things up carefully.” Kees: “Anthony is more resolute than me. He tackles things head-on and provides a refreshing perspective. The constant modernisation of the collections, the revamping and expanding and targeting a younger audience – that’s definitely also all down to him. I’ve been following it from the sidelines for some years now and I love seeing how the brand continues to evolve.”

aLL TIME FAVOURITES

In 2000, Wolky rocked all records with the Roll Moc boot. The slightly upturned toe gives the foot a natural roll-off, making walking easier than ever before. Thanks to the moccasin design, the shoe is also extremely flexible and there are no uncomfortable seams on the inside. What’s more, it gives the boot a unique profile – both literally and figuratively. To this day, the Roll Moc remains a favourite in our spring and autumn collections. The Roll Moc family has grown and grown. There are now many different options featuring the same sole and moccasin design in the Roll Moc line, from slip-on pumps and mules to lace-up boots and shoes. 2001 saw Wolky launch another top seller: the Tulip. This sandal, with its removable footbed – ideal for women who use arch supports – and three Velcro fasteners that make it easy to adjust the shoe to the foot, was a huge success. It is still our best-selling sandal worldwide today.

Have a look at all our favourites >

Quality with a capital Q

Another factor that will endure is the love of a beautiful product, of comfort and quality. At Wolky we still develop our shoes entirely in-house, with our own designs, moulds and lasts. This sets us apart from many other shoe brands. ”We do everything we can to make our shoes as comfortable as possible, because that’s what makes our customers happy,” says Anthony. “We have been working with the same factories in Portugal for many years. Each one specialises in a different type of shoe or sole. Thanks to our long-standing relationships with them, we know exactly what to expect from each other. The experts there also have a truly proactive approach. Making a shoe is still a real craft: almost everything is done by hand. We always talk about factories, but in reality they are workshops staffed by craftsmen. The same also applies to our factory in Mexico, incidentally.”

 

Wolky@Work

Wolky was receiving more and more requests to produce elegant yet comfortable shoes for flight attendants and women working in the hospitality industry. Anthony: “Flight attendants spend a lot of time walking in court shoes, and that’s not good for your feet. A high heel is by definition a lot less comfortable than a flatter shoe, of course: after all, you’re standing on your toes all day long, and that puts huge pressure on the ball of your foot and the big toe joint. So we took up the challenge of designing a line of court shoes that were comfortable to walk in. In our Fit2Feet line we have produced a series of court shoes and pumps that are much more comfortable because the shoes stretch where your foot needs them to. Besides these, we now also have other models in the Wolky@Work collection, and we can also customise shoes for company employees with a logo.”

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Proud

When we ask what the Dikses are proud of as they look back over 40 years of Wolky, Kees replies: “For 40 years  we have been making shoes that women really can walk around in all day long. That’s by no means the case with all shoes. Many women tell us that they only take off their Wolkys in the evening when they go to bed. Isn’t that amazing? Satisfaction with our product makes me proud.”

Shoemaker stick to thy last

And the future? Are there any plans to go down a different path? Anthony: “We did try launching a more fashionable line at one point. They were wonderful shoes, but because they had slightly higher heels and a slightly more elegant, slimmer shape, they weren’t as comfortable as our usual Wolkys. We learned from that. That’s literally why they say “Shoemaker stick to thy last’! We are good at comfortable shoes, and within that segment we are hip, distinctive and colourful. Wolky has its own profile, its own character, and doesn’t blow with all those winds of fashion. What we are making good progress with at the moment are our specials. Shoes for women who need just that little bit more. This is taking us in a good direction that is also a great fit for our brand. In other words, doing what we’re good at and getting even better at it!”

Wolky specials

slightly higher or different expectations of their shoes. Anthony: “We started off with shoes with more room across the instep, because women with a high instep or a full foot often have trouble finding shoes to fit.” This was followed by the Personal Pair Programme. This programme enabled women who have trouble finding boots that fit to have boots made that are a perfect fit round their calves. “We also have shoes for women with bunions. The shoes in our HV (hallux valgus) line are slightly wider at the pinch point where those annoying bumps at the onset of the big toe joint are. Besides our regular HV line, we also make shoes in our Fit2Feet line that stretch at those points. Take a look for yourself at what kinds of specials we offer. Another point to mention is that we also launched a range of shoes for women with diabetes last winter. Diabetics can suffer greatly from painful feet. The shoes in our DB line have no annoying seams on the inside of the shoe and are also lined with a soft layer of foam.”

Read about Wolkys specials > 

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