When Alex Bartholomew, ex-shoe designer for the likes of Burberry and LK Bennett, offered her shoes to the Wentworth Golf Shop early last year, they might well have been tentative. Here, in effect, was not the trainer-style golf shoe that has dominated sales over recent years, but a “proper” leather-soled style with calf leather upper and layered heel, together with anti-microbial fabrics and cleat technology.
It was, in short, a more luxury golf shoe – for £350. Surely Bartholomew’s Royal Albatross label was a step too far for most casual golfers? The shop bought some anyway. And six weeks later the brand was its best-seller.
“It’s a specialist item,” concedes Bartholomew. “There have been attempts to make golf shoes like this before, but the process has been cost-prohibitive. But consumers are changing – with the recession and issues of sustainability, there is less of a throw-away culture, more a readiness to invest in the stylish but long-lasting.
And it’s happening in golf too – it’s getting a much more quality minded market.” And a big one too – according to estimates by the British Golf Industry Association, the golf apparel and footwear business across Europe is only growing, worth in excess of 125m euros in Germany and 36.2m euros in France, for example, but even 5m euros in the relatively immature market of the Czech Republic and 3.5m euros in Russia – where the number of registered players has tripled in the last five years.
Small wonder then, that while global brands the likes of Puma and Adidas are pushing into golfwear, with specialist labels the likes of skiing company Bogner taking a side-step into it, the sport is seeing an explosion of relatively young or new niche brands, among them the likes of Natural Born Golfers or Tattoo.
Supported by golf retailers – if only because golfwear provides much higher margins than equipment – these are ready to capitalise not only on golf’s growing popularity as both a participant and spectator sport, especially due to TV coverage, but a fundamental shift that (in many, if not all countries) is seeing it evolve from an elitist, expensive, middle-aged, largely male sport to one that is more inclusive, younger and female-friendly – one BGIA estimate reckons that while 25% of registered players in Europe are women, they account for 60% of all golfwear sales.
Even drastic improvements in golf course conditions, notably with drainage systems, are having an impact, reckons Mike Johnson Hill, UK managing director of Galvin Green.
“People are not so worried about having to wade through muddy sections and so are prepared to put on some nice trousers,” he says.
“The changing nature of the sport is changing the way golfwear looks,” argues Robert Hart, the creative director of Bunker Mentality, which launched in 2005.
“Golfwear is having to become much more fashion and fit-conscious, especially since everyone now thinks of themselves as being and living in a much younger spirit too now. Its getting some of the more radical style it used to have. Remember Nick Faldo with his diamond-print shirts? We might think they look pretty bad now but they were a style revolution at the time. Golf, unlike other sports, has a history of dressing up to play and that is coming back.” Indeed, Hart stresses that the shift is really from golfwear to golf fashion – clothes are that reflect fashion trends and are wearable direct from course to pub or social gathering, a shift also reflected in the growing number of fashion brands now with strong golfwear lines, from Hugo Boss for men, through to Casall, La Perla and Escada Golf for women.
“That crossover element is getting more and more important,” agrees Andy Davies, sales director for Sub70, which launched in 2004. “We meet what is the key market demand – effectively mainstream fashion you can play golf in. This is a consequence of golf being more a lifestyle sport for many players – they may take their game seriously but they also want to be the best-dressed person on the course.” Sub70’s best-sellers include its black-and-white tartan trousers and Groove shirt – a simple, fitted style in six colours with contrast piping and pocket detail, with the brand launching knitwear this summer and waterproofs in autumn – designs that have taken thebrand from a turnover of £30,000 to £0.5m in just six years. But Davies can see the turnover of styles increasing just as rapidly, so that golfwear keeps pace with seasonal fashion trends – Sub70 already introduces new styles every three months.
“And the customer seems ready to update his golf wardrobe just as regularly as he might his off-course wardrobe,” says Davies.
But what then will distinguish what is worn in civilian life as opposed to that worn in active duty on the green? The deciding factor is likely to prove the technological edge, one which, according to Johnson Hill, is set to see more traditional, all-cotton golfwear gradually fade from the market.
According to Hart, tech remains a secondary issue. “We decide whether a new design looks cool, and then we think about making it in the intelligent fabrics,” he says. “Golfwear’s utility is an increasingly essential part of its proposition, especially to a younger tech-savvy consumer.” Isabelle Prchlik, spokesperson for Golfino – Europe’s largest single supplier of golf apparel and leader in golfwear for women – stresses that while a certain fashionably preppy chic may shape the look of its clothes for this summer, functional factors such as waterproofing, “moisture management”, stretch and comfort are all factors that modern golfwear design must consider.
“Golfwear has to work in different climates and has to be able to give so as to not interfere with your swing,” she says.
“But the important factor is that this technology is hidden – it’s there in the clothing but you wouldn’t know it – and that it does not interfere with the silhouette. Golfwear can be sporty but there is a strong demand for it to remain elegant, and doing that in technical fabrics is a challenge. We have advanced stretch micro-fibre materials for trousers, for example, that you could do gymnastics in.
“The fact is that golfwear is in a period of rapid change, in much the way that the sport itself is. Golfwear is getting more sophisticated in style and substance. Keeping both factors up means that inevitably it will get more expensive. But just as many golfers want the best clubs or the latest balls, it seems that many too are more than happy to pay for the best clothing.