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At Paul & Shark, Championing Italian Family Heritage Amid Global Expansion

The Varese-based fashion brand is moving into lifestyle and doubling down on its sustainability efforts, innovative materials and international expansion while seeking to retain its Italian, family-oriented heritage. BoF sits down with CEO Andrea Dini to understand how the brand is future-proofing for success.
Paul & Shark lead image
Actor Pierce Brosnan together with his son, Paris Brosnan, in Paul & Shark's Autumn/Winter 2023 campaign. (Giampaolo Sgura)
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Paul & Shark, a fourth-generation family-run business based in north Italy’s Varese, began as a mill, manufacturing for luxury houses such as Christian Dior and Balenciaga before Gian Ludovico Dini, the current CEO Andrea Dini’s grandfather, transformed it into a fashion brand. The first sweater designed by the brand used water-repellent virgin wool, pertaining to Paul & Shark drawing inspiration from the sea. Its categories have since expanded into ready-to-wear and accessories.

Today, Paul & Shark is undergoing international expansion, opening their first UK flagship on London’s Regent Street in September, with further brick-and-mortar stores planned for 2024 in markets such as China and India. Despite their growing global presence, the brand will continue to leverage its heritage as an Italian family-run organisation.

Indeed, their recent campaign shot in the Tuscan countryside, featuring father-and-son duo Pierce and Paris Brosnan, reflects these core attributes. But with the brand’s impending growth, CEO Andrea Dini is working to build on the heritage and tradition associated with such epithets to find a newfound relevance.

The company has a focus on sustainable production, making commitments to circularity through “re-cotton” and “re-wool” plans, and to minimise water consumption throughout the production chain. The brand has partnered with the likes of sustainable tech companies, Biofilter and Re-H20, to help reduce the company’s water waste and pollution from dyeing respectively. A range of men’s trousers — named Responsible Blue — employ technology to reduce water consumption across every step of the supply chain.

Meanwhile, their sustainable innovation efforts extend to the brand’s choice and creation of fabrics. Their patented fabric, Typhoon 20,000, is designed to combat extreme weather conditions with its inbuilt water and windproofing, alongside breathability and moveability. Each square centimetre of the fabric can withstand a 20-minute column of water and is used across Paul & Shark collections.

Paul & Shark CEO Andrea Dini

As the brand looks to build upon its global representation following the opening of its Regent Street store, BoF sits down with CEO Andrea Dini to learn more about how the brand is working on a renewed strategy for innovative growth.

How would you describe the DNA of the Paul & Shark brand?

We can trace the origins of our business back to 1921 — the year my great-grandfather started the company as a fabric mill. We progressed as a mill for the next 50 years until, in 1970, dramatic shifts in the market saw us lose customers — brands were moving production to cheaper areas.

My father and grandfather had spent many long nights brainstorming the future of the family business. Fortuitously, my grandfather was enamoured with the golden era of the Royal Navy and a collector of antiquities. During a trip to a sailmaker’s workshop, he saw a sail from an old clipper with the inscription “Paul & Shark”. At the same time, the notion of sportswear was becoming increasingly well-received, thanks to the casualisation of menswear and fashion more broadly. Rather than overt market research, it felt more like fate and multiple opportunities coming together.

My grandfather was also a doctor of chemistry and knew, if we wanted to find our place in the market, we would have to be forward-thinking. So, we developed our first water repellent sweater. Today, we have spent more than 40 years honing our experience in fabric innovation, sportswear and sailing to become an outdoor-driven luxury brand. We let sailing crews test our garments and give us feedback on their effectiveness — but the products are also designed for everyday use. Our customer base is increasingly broad.

What were the motivations behind opening a London flagship store?

Paul & Shark's flagship store on London's Regent Street

Having a physical presence in London felt like an obvious step for us. While Milan is perhaps the capital of menswear, London is the capital of Europe, capturing an audience far beyond the city itself and providing access to a global customer.

It has been an ongoing project with property management company Crown Estate, the body which owns and manages the building, since before the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused numerous delays.

Across two floors, the store is a physical manifestation of our brand. The store’s outfitting, for instance, is 80 percent recycled. What appears to be wooden panelling is, in fact, fabric derived from production waste. As we expand into these new markets, building on our commitment to more circular methods is critical to our brand strategy.

How is the brand facilitating growth while still making efforts to produce sustainably?

More than 15 years ago, we began to make sustainable decisions a priority — particularly in relation to materials. We took a hard approach, for instance, on fabric sources — they had to be organic, while the possibility to incorporate recycled materials had to be explored. Today, 95 percent of our down is recycled. Next season, we will introduce a new Icelandic down, which is naturally shed by birds during nesting. This down doesn’t rely on any birds being killed and is painstakingly and delicately collected by hand.

Today, our efforts centre largely around increasing water efficiency and minimising our impact on the planet’s water resources. It is a focus that connects deeply with the brand’s inspiration and ethos. We collaborate with Biofilter, a filtration system, to which we connect our fulling machines. It utilises bacteria to keep water in constant reuse in our production processes — even when dyeing our garments.

There is ongoing research into how we can do better. It is important to be candid — a significant amount of our carbon footprint as a business is linked to the transportation of product, over which, at present, we have limited control. We cannot be wholly sustainable without more sustainable logistics options — hydrogen trucks and cargo boats need to be available at scale. It is critical to be honest with consumers and to consider the reality of what is within my control and focus on lessening impact within our production processes.

What role does technology play in Paul & Shark’s innovation?

While we prioritise technology within our products, I have set a precedence — building on our heritage — that technology is a hidden quality in our garments, rather than something that is front and centre of our communications. Often, with extremely technological garments, the end-product can be ugly because you are accepting a specific, technical fabric and working with what you have. We prioritise comfort and durability. It can take time for our consumers to realise, for instance, they are wearing a supersoft microfibre jacket.

We do not need to shout about technology, it has just become a core part of our business.

Our patented Typhoon technology — which makes products water repellent, thanks to an ultra-soft membrane lining the surface — is constantly being innovated. We are experimenting with both recycled membrane while also seeing how thin we can make the membrane itself. Recently, there is a new generation of Typhoon called Typhoon Platinum, where the membrane is barely noticeable.

We do not need to shout about technology, it has just become a core part of our business. We focus on quality control and the effectiveness of the technology itself, rather than making it a communications or marketing tactic. Customers will quickly discover this technology for themselves through multiple wears.

What role do purpose-driven causes play in your overall business strategy?

Part of operating as an outdoor-driven brand is thinking about the outdoors, about nature, in a meaningful way. The shark, for instance, is a core aspect of our brand identity and so we feel a particular sense of responsibility to protect it. Each year, millions of sharks are killed by humans and it has inspired our collaboration with non-governmental organisations to protect sharks through education and projects aimed at safeguarding their environment.

How is Paul & Shark developing its communication strategy with global expansion in mind?

The company history — it being a fourth-generation family-run entity — has formed a core part of the message we want to share as we expand into new markets. My son and daughter have now joined the business, so that concept of legacy and of father-and-son dynamics was something we were keen to explore.

More than 15 years ago, we began to make sustainable decisions a priority — particularly in relation to materials. Today, 95 percent of our down is recycled.

We looked for a similar narrative — the chance to tell a story of a father and son together, drawing parallels with our own — and collaborated with Pierce and Paris Brosnan. The shoot and collaboration had broad appeal — it was fantastic to talk to and engage a different generation.

Speaking to our communication strategy more broadly, we do not want to be a brand that shouts every day from the rooftops. We want to be measured, using the right channels at the right moments, drip-feeding content slowly. As we do this, we are focused on our key markets — Italy, the UK, Germany and China. We are now in the process of deciding how to evolve our father-son narrative. There are many beautiful stories to be told and I feel increasingly energised by what’s ahead.

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