For Ecco, inspiration sparks innovation

The Danish company's Brooklyn, New York, design studio is a space where creatives can connect and collaborate with industry-wide footwear, manufacturing and design professionals

The Ecco design studio, located in Brooklyn, New York, is the first of its kind for the company and opened in October.

BROOKLYN, New York — Stepping into Ecco’s cavernous and chic warehouse studio there is a feeling as though inspiration permeates the air more so than oxygen.

Rows of footwear prototypes and high-end leather swatches are complemented by a manufacturing area, where think tank meets innovation.

The first undertaking of its kind in the U.S., Ecco opened the 7,000 square-foot studio last October at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with the purpose of connecting and collaborating with industry-wide footwear, manufacturing and design professionals.

“Ecco has always prioritized making spaces for creativity and inspiration," says Panos Mytaros, CEO of Ecco. "We believe in opening spaces where creatives can be exposed to different environments."

Opening the studio made sense to the Danish company that made its first golf shoes in 1994, what with New York serving as a fulcrum for fashion and design. It plans on having an open-door policy while, in turn, being able to organically tell the brand's story.

"[Our neighbors] get inspired by us," says Alfred Lacueva, Ecco's U.S. key account manager, "and we get inspired by them."

Make no mistake, golf footwear is part of the brand's history. Shoes make up 10 percent of the company's volume, according to Jesper Thuen, general manager of Ecco Golf USA.

He wouldn't divulge how many golf shoes Ecco sells annually, but acknowledges, "We are the fourth-largest worldwide golf shoe brand in the world." Ecco shoes are available in 89 countries, with the U.S. and China as its top markets.

Amazingly, Ecco's entry into the competitive golf market is almost mythical.

After Birte and Karl Toosbuy founded Ecco in 1963 in Bredebro, Denmark, the company produced only shoes before expanding into leather production and accessories. In 1994, Ecco experimented with its first golf footwear prototype. The company put a premium on comfort during a time when golf shoes were rigid and heavy. That year, due to word of mouth, 264 pairs were sold in Denmark.

"It was just people calling to the corporate headquarters because they heard Ecco made golf shoes. Denmark is small and news travels fast," says Thuen, a former European Challenge Tour pro who became the company's first sponsored golfer in 1996. He joined Ecco full-time after his playing career ended in 2002.

The airy design studio serves as a space where creativity is encouraged and, as Jesper Thuen, general manager of Ecco Golf USA, says, "Always, always, the foot comes first."

In 2002, after Rankmark lauded the company's first serious golf shoe, Ecco decided to go all in with development, manufacturing and distribution. Not until 2010 did the company send shock waves through the golf world with its lightweight Ecco Golf Street shoes, made famous by Fred Couples. His Masters win gave it, and the company, untold impressions thanks to television coverage. For the first time many saw a durable spikeless golf shoe, and one that felt as light as running footwear.

"That was the start when golf shoes crossed over as fashionable on and off the course," Thuen says.

At the time, roughly 1 percent of the market contained spikeless shoes. Today, that's closer to 50-50, Thuen says.

The company currently doesn't take customized orders, but it does cater to some of its sponsored players, such as Thomas Bjorn, Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, Henrik Stenson and Couples.

In Stenson's case, the company recently made a shoe using cracked leather. The leather was so unique — comfort at its core — that the shoes could only be worn up to two rounds. Thuen says it's possible the company will one day offer a a customizable option to the public.

Continuing to innovate, Ecco is banking on its latest Gore-Tex collection as a complete waterproof solution. With one-third of the foot's moisture coming from underneath, according to Thuen, the latest models are surrounded by exhaust areas on the soles. Gore-Tex helps expel moisture while its molecular makeup doesn't allow any in.

In 1991, when the company decided to make its own leather, Ecco positioned itself in full control of the enrire manufacturing process. Its shoes are made in-house with more than 200 sets of hands touching each pair during development. Thuen says the company sees itself as a shoemaker first and not as a competitor in the golf space.

"Always, always, the foot comes first," Thuen says. "We innovate and design to the foot."

Unique to the industry, Ecco makes leather at its own tanneries and produces shoes at its own factories.

Which brings us back to the Brooklyn studio. Instead of resting on its laurels, Ecco views the studio as a place where ideas are born, analysis has a home, and trial and error have a place.

"We are constantly evolving and innovating," Ecco studio director Kevin Isabell says. "We want to continue to be at the forefront of Ecco's core vision while really connecting to the U.S. market and consumer. There is a lot of potential of that happening as we grow."