Raised in South Africa by British parents, Alex graduated from Brighton University, completing a BA Hons in Fashion & Textile Design with Business studies, and then an additional shoe course at London School of Fashion’s: Cordwaiers. Having worked for the likes of LK Bennett, Burberry & the British Leather Technology Centre, Alex launched the golf shoe brand Royal Albartross in 2012. She is involved in every step of the brand’s creative direction, and the product development process although admits the only good thing about her golf game are her shoes. As founder and CEO, Alex is dedicated to viewing golf and luxury through a fresh lens. Bringing high-end fashion to complement the game’s traditional aesthetics assures Royal Albartross’ success for decades to come.
THE BARTHOLOMEW STORY —
I was an awful employee. I can’t tell you how many times my “washing machine flooded” and I was ridiculously late for work. I simply could not motivate myself to go to work for anyone else — even in my 20’s. And, I had my fair share of horrible bosses, too. It’s true what they say: the fashion industry can be brutal. After years feeling unsatisfied at work, I revisited some shoe designs on which I had received great feedback while at university. It became a passion-filled task— a hobby, then an obsession and I found a small artisan shoemaker outside Florence who agreed to work with me. Before I knew it, I was accepting a role as a rental agent just so I could work Saturdays and take Mondays off to progress my golf shoes. Fortunately, I won a business and product design prize from the Footwear Friends Charity in London. The money afforded me a booth at the Orlando PGA Show, which lead to a small selection of orders. I also benefited from an invaluable footwear mentorship for a year. Another personal loan from a very nice bank manager — he was Italian — which helped, allowed me to continue with small production runs.
It has been a road paved with adventure, interesting people, some negative experiences, and slow but steady growth. 25 pairs turned into an order from Wentworth Golf Club, then we commissioned a website to sell directly to golfers. Before I knew it my husband and I were quality checking 200 pairs in our apartment for an entire weekend—shoes all over our floor, and I was shipping each pair off from the post office. The rest is now history
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
I’m both mum to a little boy and a CEO. And I’m not a morning person at all! I have to make sure everyone is happy at home, so I can get to work and make sure everyone is happy there too! I am fortunate to have an incredible nanny, a supportive husband who is in the trenches with me, and an excellent team of people at Royal Albartross, both in London and the U.S. I’m passionate about doing a good job, my absolute best, as a mum and as the head of Royal Albartross. I try very hard to give golfers products that enhance the enjoyment of their game through thoughtful details, great style and incredible comfort. My work experience with Italian luxury brands has helped, and made me appreciate time and the process required to create beautiful leather products. It isn’t easy, and as a small business there are lessons at every turn—big ups and downs, and a whole lot of quick skill development and great stories in between.
How did you decide upon the name of the company and the significance in using the word “Royal” in your brand identity?
I visited a men’s store in Albatros, a small Italian town. Of course, this worked well being a golf term, so I trademarked it as the brand. Unfortunately, we had to tweak it slightly to be accepted and that’s where we added “ROYAL” and the alternative spelling. Despite this not being a romantic story, it has a good side story because in the company name is my name; “Al Bart”, combined with my husband Ross. The “Royal” is so typically British and we are proudly headquartered in London.
How does Royal Albartross go beyond what your competition is doing?
Instead of stripping anything away from the product to reach a price point, we start with the customer experience and try to improve what is already available. You don’t get the quality of footwear Royal Albartross produces from a thousand-a-day production line. We work with small family-run factories in Europe and concentrate on sourcing the very best components and leathers for the task at hand. The devil is in the details.
Define who your customer is.
Our customer is anyone with a real passion for golf and style, who appreciates the finer things in life. They may be of any age or culture. They may travel, enjoy luxury products, belong to a golf club that has become a way of life, or just appreciate thoughtful design and small details — great smelling leather and shoes that turn heads. We have a loyal following of people who wear our products because we aren’t mass produced and are built to last. These are investment pieces that hold their value.
How difficult is the mix in achieving a golf shoe both fashionable and durable to sustain the rigors of the sport?
My design process has become embedded with unspoken guidelines that favor a shoe made for playing golf—swinging, putting and walking. Certain things must be kept mind, like the lateral movement of the foot during a shot, the stability and traction required on the course, extra collar padding for comfort, laces that stay tied. Although golf is more conservative in comparison to other sports, and historically hasn’t been as affected by fashion industry trends, this situation has changed dramatically in the past few years. Golfers are in better shape than ever before and want to look good in whatever they wear— from head to toe. We have a strong supplier base for our leathers and materials and work with Vibram- the global leader in sole technology. We have learned from this experience and now it has become easier to combine style and performance in every golf shoe we launch.
Royal Albartross does provides different products — do you envision the company expanding offerings to include a broad range of apparel items at some point?
I am constantly asked about an apparel line. We have ventured into accessories, which have been well received. Particularly our small leather goods—wallets, dopp kits, laptop sleeves, which all can be branded as tournament gifts or embossed with our customers’ initials. But these items are a far cry from apparel. Perhaps in the future we may collaborate on an apparel line. I’m a firm believer in sticking to what you are best at, and our strengths lie in leather craft and footwear.
You create shoes for both men and women. How does each side of the gender aisle decide upon what’s important in their purchases for golf shoes?
Interestingly, when we first started designing for ladies, it was clear that women didn’t want smaller versions of the men’s shoes with a wash of pink. They didn’t necessarily want girly colors, and they wanted a range that was designed specifically for their needs. Men, on the other hand, are more influenced by technology and game improvement.
Interestingly, men are less influenced by price. Men spend more on golf shoes than women and yet the opposite is true for lifestyle shoes. Women decide on style, color and comfort. Perhaps, because they generally spend less time on the golf course, the price needs to be justified. This is partly why we have produced a performance golf flat — the ladies RUNWAY collection — which are designed to be worn for a light round of golf and on to lunch or the shops afterwards.
Companies routinely talk about the importance of customer service. Define the term and the approach taken by Royal Albatross?
In my opinion, being a luxury brand isn’t just about product, it is about experience. From purchase to play, the experience should be enjoyable. Along with our packaging and all the little details, we expect to be available to customers at any time. Our customer care teams are based in Arizona and London, so most time zones are covered, and we are always prepared to go out of our way. Overnighting a shoe bag to a customer’s club for a special event is not unusual. It’s both a necessity and a privilege if we are to give golfers a true sense of Royal Albartross.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally – what would it be and why?
It would be to re-educate buyers and players about footwear. It isn’t all about equipment when it comes to improving your golf game. You have to start from the ground up. An average golfer walks over two miles per round. Why would you want to do that in uncomfortable, cheap, lightweight zero-support footwear? It’s time for retail buyers to realize members don’t want their clubs to stock brands they can get on the internet for half the price. They want specialized product that offers more than all the big brands. Buyers need to be less risk averse, live a little because the reward in sales is worth it. Ultimately, with footwear, you get what you pay for.
Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
From my father, who told me — “enjoy the journey.”
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