Mario Moretti Polegato is a man obsessed with sweat. Slipping his index finger behind the waist band of his stylish pinstriped suit, he helpfully explains that "if you touch your finger here, you find a lot of humidity." Polegato is sitting in the lobby lounge of Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel, holding forth on what makes most menswear so uncomfortable. His suit has a secret: just below the belt of his trousers and above the shoulders of his jacket are discrete perforations that let out body heat, helping keep the wearer cool and dry. His shoes, too, have an agenda beyond fashion: their soles have tiny holes that release vapor but keep water out, helping end what Polegato calls "the smelly-feet era."
This type of crusading anti-sweat technology has made Polegato, 55, one of the world's wealthiest people (No. 287 at $3 billion, according to Forbes). In 1995, he founded the Italian casual footwear company Geox and has grown it into a multi-billion-dollar business that operates in 68 countries. Geox's success comes from a single concept: its patented breathable fabric, first used in the soles of its shoes and now sewn into its new, growing line of apparel. Sales last year were up 26 percent from 2006, reaching $1.2 billion. The value of its stock, listed on the Milan stock exchange, has more than doubled in the past three years, giving the company a market capitalization of $3.9 billion.
Polegato, who comes from a northern Italian family of vintners and holds degrees in wine technology and law, has now set his sites on the United States. The company currently operates 16 stores here, mostly in upscale urban shopping areas like New York City's Madison Avenue and Los Angeles's Beverly Drive and plans to expand rapidly. The stores carry Geox's moderately priced shoes for men, women and children, as well as selections from its new and growing line of apparel. His goal? To overtake giants like Nike and Adidas to become the No. 1 footwear brand in the world.
With its arrival in the United States, Geox has come full circle. Polegato hatched the idea for his company while planning a walk in the desert near Reno, Nevada back in 1989. He was there to promote his family business at a conference of winemakers. "I remember, I took from my luggage sneakers with a rubber-bottomed sole," says Polegato. "As soon as I took these shoes in my hand I asked myself, 'Why is it that every time I need to use a rubber-bottomed sole, I have a problem with my feet: perspiration?' And, with a pocket knife, I cut holes in the bottom of the sole." Back in his hometown of Montebelluna, Italy, he hired five employees to help take his eureka moment from concept to product.
Geox now has a work force of 3,500 around the world. Fifteen engineers work in the Montebelluna research lab, where dummy torsos and feet fitted with heat and moisture sensors assiduously test the company's designs. "Geox first is a technology company," says Polegato, emphasizing that it invests a large chunk of its revenue in research and development. Patents, says Polegato, are at the heart of the company's success, allowing it to stave off competition in the overcrowded apparel and footwear industry.
The timing of Geox's entry into the U.S. market is auspicious. In the past two years, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group, comfort has risen from fourth place to second as a main feature American customers look for when they buy shoes. Comfort used to trail fashion, brand and fit, and now it trails only fashion. "As we gain weight, so do our feet, and comfort becomes much more top-of-mind," he says.
While Geox is largely known as a comfort brand, the company is working to win over fashion-savvy Americans. Until now, Geox's moccasins have been top sellers here for women and men, but the company is unveiling trendier designs. Its spring lookbook features strappy sandals in metallics and bright colors for women, and retro-inspired bowling shoes with tapered toes for men. "Who would guess [these] are Geox?!!" wrote one reviewer recently on the shoe retail site Zappos.com about a pair of $124 bejeweled wedge sandals. Jeanne Merkel, Zappos' senior comfort buyer, says shoppers between the ages of 35 and 55 form the "meat" of the Geox demographic, but that the age has fallen somewhat as the company has rolled out a wider selection of styles. Cohen says Geox's styling still needs a bit of work. "The Geox brand still looks like a European-inspired casual shoe. They need to start to break out of that box and bring in some more international styling."
The more fashion-forward look is just one part of Geox's growth strategy. Last week, the company unveiled its first line of sports shoes, circling back once again to Polegato's original inspiration. And it will continue expanding its apparel line, which currently makes up about 7 percent of sales. Each item of course will be fitted with the company's patented breathable technology. If Polegato has his way, his customers will never sweat again.