two women dressed in athletic wear stretching for dance
Dancewear brand Capezio recently signed a global licensing agreement with brand management company GBG to help expand its reach and product offerings. — Capezio

Key takeaways:

  • Capezio has been family-owned and operated for its entire 134-year history and distributed exclusively through its branded stores and independent dance retailers.
  • A licensing deal with Global Brands Group is poised to expand the company’s products into athleisure, footwear and accessories at retailers all over the world.
  • The athleisure market is projected to reach $231 billion by 2024.

Dancers' careers can be unexpectedly brief, but the brands that outfit them tend to have a lengthier history. The trick is to take something iconic and move it forward with creativity and a modern spin. That's what's happening now with Capezio, according to Anthony Giacoio, executive vice president and fourth-generation family member of the iconic dancewear brand.

He told CO— that in addition to Capezio's century-long offering that is long on pointe shoes for professionals and consumers alike, the brand's focus on movement and wellness is poised for a breakout moment, with a bold bet on expansion into new categories and new markets via licensing.

It’s expanding in an athleisure market it actually helped to create, Gaicoico said.

Indeed, there’s a running joke among the members of the families who own Capezio, according to Giacoio. “If Lululemon and Nike had a baby, the baby would be named Capezio.” The reason is simple, he told CO—. The brand has always been about movement, wellness and athleisure, Giacoio said. “We've been doing leggings for a hundred years.”

Make that 134 years to be exact. Salvatore Capezio, a 17-year-old Italian immigrant, set up shop on Broadway and 39th Street in New York City in 1887 where he catered to the performers of the Metropolitan Opera. From there, the company, which is still family-owned by the members of the Giacoio and Terlizzi families, became a mainstay of the theatrical world, one painstakingly handcrafted shoe at a time. Although Capezio branched out into attire and accessories through the years, the brand achieved icon status when its name became synonymous with a particular type of jazz Oxford shoes favored by trendy teens in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The licensing opportunity and picking the right partner

The ink had barely dried on New York-based Capezio’s global licensing agreement with Global Brands Group Holding Ltd (GBG) when Giacoio sat down with CO—. For the uninitiated, brand management company GBG is a member of the Fung Group of companies, which includes Li & Fung.

It currently designs, develops, markets and sells products in a vast portfolio of owned and licensed brands like Frye, Spyder, Aquatalia, and many others.

Under the agreement, the Capezio brand will put its name on new collections of women’s, men’s and kids’ sportswear, athletic sneakers, fashion flats, casual shoes, dress shoes, slippers, slides, flip-flops, boots, handbags, headwear and cold-weather accessories. Under Global Brands’ direction, these new lines will be available in the fall of 2021.

“Capezio is an incredible brand with a deep heritage in dancewear and also presents significant opportunities for joint collaboration,” said Ron Ventricelli, president of Global Brands Group, North America. “The brand is a highly respected leader in the dance accessories space and Global Brands knows how to produce great apparel. By leveraging each other’s competencies, we’ll be able to create new product that will be distinctly recognizable in the market.”

For Capezio, choosing this partner, as Giacoio puts it, was as important as putting the right two dancers together for a pas de deux. “There were many people that came to us and we could have done deals with them,” Giacoio said, but the families were unsure about the quality and the craftsmanship and where Capezio would be placed in the market. Giacoio credits branding firm Graj + Gustavsen for brokering the introduction to GBG. “They said [GBG] are unbelievable in the work that they do and the knowledge that they have in the marketplace and really extracting all of the brand's value and putting it forward,” he explained. This was especially important in the wake of the pandemic.

I think going forward, that digital aspect of dance wellness is still going to grow. I believe that we're going to be positioned well to capitalize on that.

Anthony Giacoio, executive vice president, Capezio

The pandemic factor: E-commerce and at-home workouts drive sales

Giacoio noted that many of the 2,000-plus “mom and pop” dance stores that carried Capezio as well as its 13 corporate stores worldwide experienced a slowdown as they were deemed “non-essential” businesses. Likewise, professional theaters closed and many dance classes moved online. “Broadway is still going to be part of who we are,” Giacoio maintained. “Unfortunately, it's on pause for now, but [theater companies] were still buying from us, they were just buying less, of course; they were trying to still be active, digitally.”

But outfitting dancers with tights, leotards, leggings and shoes, especially among Capezio’s core customer—students from ages three through teens—continued apace albeit through Capezio’s online store as well as through Amazon, according to Giacoio. “E-commerce definitely grew in 2020,” he said. “There was clearly no other place to purchase those products.”

And as more people were restricted from gyms and exercise classes, Capezio’s customer base expanded to include those focusing on health and wellness with at-home workouts accessed online. “I think going forward, that digital aspect of dance wellness is still going to grow,” he said. “I believe that we're going to be positioned well to capitalize on that.”

Giacoio is also bullish on physical retail. “I think there's going to be some bounce back into the old normal,” he said. “Even though Amazon is a big player, even though you can buy a lot of things online, easier, you want to be able to feel product, be able to put it on and see how it looks.” Additionally, Giacoio argued, “You don't want to just get it shipped all the time and then if it doesn't fit, you have to ship it back.”

This is especially true for dance shoes which need to fit the feet in just the right way. Pointe shoes, in particular, come in so many varieties that ballet dancers are famous for their loyalty to specific styles that work for their feet.

The health-and-wellness opportunity

Giacoio came back to the trend of health and wellness and how the clothing and footwear necessary to work out is spilling over into everyday wear. He admitted to not being fond of the term “athleisure” but observed that with so many people working remotely, leggings and ballet slippers or jazz Oxfords have become wardrobe staples. A reportfrom Allied Market Research confirms this. They expect the global sports and fitness clothing market to reach $231 billion by 2024. “Though performance sportswear accounts for higher value share, the athleisure segment is expected to grow at a significant rate,” the report stated. “Moreover, athleisure is now increasingly being accepted in the work environment. A lot of employees consider wearing comfortable tees and athletic shoes in offices. Thus, the comfort factors facilitated by athleisure apparel is one of the key reasons driving the demand for the clothing segment in the global market.”

Capezio wants to be part of that crowded but growing market, Giacoio said.

Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester suspects that Capezio’s success depends on their price point and their distribution strategy. “Are there underrepresented price points now in the space? Are there designs or other new offerings they could provide that don’t already exist or is there something technically superior they can offer for youth or certain types of users that don’t already exist?” Kodali told CO—. “And where would they distribute? Direct to consumer or through online or store partners? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of the above, they should be able to carve out a niche for themselves in a growing space.”

Although Giacoio confessed that he didn’t know exactly which items would be available in the first collection with GBG, nor what the price points would be, the merchandise will reflect the brand’s long-standing tradition of finely made shoes and apparel, as well as its reputation among professionals, which places Capezio in the realm of higher end brands like Lululemon.

While Capezio never capitalized in any major way on fashion trends, the jazz Oxfords did become an iconic look in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Giacoio pointed out that for a while the company expanded into handbags and even cowboy boots.

As a private company, Capezio doesn’t release sales figures, but when asked to compare how the brand was doing versus what Dun & Bradstreet had estimated its sales to be in 2018, Giacoio says they were “definitely higher” than $56 million.

Careful expansion of a family-run brand

For now, though, Giacoio is optimistic that the family business found the right partner in GBG to expand its global market share through licensing, which works like royalties. Though these deals don’t typically ramp up sales right out of the gate, they hold the potential to diversify the way a brand increases its revenue, including incremental revenue, which can help shore up any seasonal sales lulls.

“[We] board members sat around a table many times saying, ‘How can we expand into this area by mitigating some of that risk?’” Giacoio said. Through the agreement with GBG, he said, they can leverage the backbone of Li & Fung, which is a huge global sourcing provider. “Even more than that with their retail partnerships and global brands, it is really the company that's going to take us forward into all those areas where it would be harder for a small family business.”

Giacoio once again recalled the families’ deeply rooted commitment to quality and craftsmanship. “My grandfather Frank was a cobbler with Salvatore Capezio and he worked in the first shop.” For his part, although Giacoio tried tap dancing (“I wasn’t very good at it,” he said, laughing) he can remember doing pointe shoe fittings with the dancers of New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. “We've all grown up in this business and it's our life's work,” he said. So, while Capezio waits in the wings to take its place among larger global players, the family is tempering its excitement. “We are careful with our brand,” he stressed. “It’s not just a name. This is our family. This is our history.”

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Published February 15, 2021