A conversation with Martin Koller
and Christoph Mayer,
Business Unit Think!
"I have a wife, three sisters and a mother. I always get honest feedback from them and the employees in the company. Any new development must always pass a practical test. If a model fails that, it's hard to get it into the collection."
– Martin KollerBrand founder and Head of the Business Unit Think!
Martin Koller, Head of the Business Unit Think!, was in his mid-20s when his professional life took a new direction. In 1990, the great-great-grandson of a family of Austrian shoemakers was faced with the question of whether to continue running the family business as before, i.e. specialised in men’s shoes, or whether to take a different path with a new strategy and new products. He chose the latter. “I asked myself at the time, What do you really want to do in your life? If you made shoes just for yourself, what would they look like? What materials would you use?”. That was the starting point for Think!. At the time, the new brand pioneered sustainable footwear made from vegetable-tanned leather. “But not because we recognised a trend that we wanted to capitalise on. Rather because we thought it was right and made sense. To this day, nothing has changed in that regard,” Koller explains.
Christoph Mayer, Deputy Head of Think! product development, sums up the brand’s philosophy: “Think! shoes must feel good, not only on the feet, but also in the mind. The whole package has to be right.” Things that are healthy have to be packaged beautifully, explains Martin Koller. “If the end product is too specialised for the general public, it might be ecological, but you’re not reaching people with it. We’ve always believed that you must balance maximum ecological thinking with what consumers want.” Koller has dedicated himself to this philosophy, body and soul: “I couldn’t be without this. And I would never just do a job. For me it is a vocation and it comes from a calling.”
"Others are just discovering sustainability for themselves. At Think! it has always been standard practice."
– Christoph MayerDeputy Head of the Business Unit Think!
While Think! was for many years largely a lone wolf and niche player in the field of sustainable footwear, the segment has now taken off in wider society and is addressed by all companies in the footwear industry. “Others are just discovering sustainability for themselves. At Think! it has always been standard practice,” says Christoph Mayer. The brand’s shoes are produced exclusively in Europe (Hungary, Romania, Bosnia, Italy). Materials are also sourced as far as possible from suppliers on the home continent. And that applies to all the brand’s shoes. Vegetable-tanned leather is used and sustainability is also a top priority for component parts. “It’s our DNA, we don’t do anything else,” Koller stresses.
The focus on ecological products is restrictive in some areas, because not every material can be used for Think! shoes. The company principal sees this as an opportunity: “If all the ingredients are available to a chef, it’s relatively easy to create a great dish. But if you can only use five ingredients and want to conjure up even a better dish from them, that’s a tall order.” The shoes from Kopfing, Upper Austria, are expressly intended to be worn for a long time. And they can be sent to the in-house workshop for repair and reconditioning if necessary. Up to 1,000 pairs of shoes are renewed in this way every year – and continue to be worn.
According to Christoph Mayer, almost all Think! production sites are Fairwear-audited. 30 models in the collection have been awarded the Austrian Ecolabel and the Blue Angel. He would like to see a uniform and universal certification for sustainable shoes: “In addition to the green button, a green shoelace would be great. That would be a good guide for consumers.”
Think! design has an individual touch, but should always be pleasing. “We don’t do art. We don’t make shoes just for the sake of looking good. They should be beautiful and fit well,” clarifies Koller. A strict test regime in Kopfing ensures that the appearance also meets the wishes of the customers. “I have a wife, three sisters and a mother. I always get honest feedback from them and the employees in the company. Any new development must always pass a practical test. If a model fails that, it’s hard to get it into the collection.”
The coronavirus pandemic also presented new challenges for the Think! team. “I suffer physically for our retail partners who bought so many beautiful shoes and then had to deal with lockdowns and declining footfall,” reflects Koller. Think! has weathered the crisis in a very stable condition for which he is grateful to the specialist trade. “We realised how much the dealers were behind us, how faithful and loyal they were. This partnership is incredibly important to us.”
The interview with Martin Koller and Christoph Mayer first appeared in schuhkurier 4/2022