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The history of shoemaking in the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic’s best-known footwear brands don’t just produce desirable products; they’ve also helped to change the face of the country. Discover the centuries of experience that make these brands what they are today

Hannah Lewis

Feature

by Hannah Lewis

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For well over a century, the Czech Republic has been known for producing excellent footwear, from classic styles to seasonal trend-led creations. For Bata and Botas, two of the biggest names in the business, producing high-quality shoes has gone hand in hand with supporting local industry and workers. As well as influencing trends worldwide, these two brands have had a profound effect at home, providing far more than just footwear.

Humble beginnings
Founded in 1894 in the town of Zlín, Bata was one of the world’s first modern shoe manufacturers. The firm was driven forward by the entrepreneurial spirit of Tomáš Bat’a, and within just 10 years was producing 2,200 pairs per day, employing some of the most talented craftsmen in the country and using state-of-the-art machinery.

Innovative ideas
Bata went from strength to strength in the first half of the 20th century, thanks to the inventive mind of its founder. He travelled the world in search of the latest strategies, eventually developing a model that put employees first as never before. Bata workers lived in specially built housing and were given shares and incentives in the firm. Educational organisations were established for their benefit, as were schools for their children. From 1923 to1932, Bat’a served as mayor of Zlín, a role that saw him modernise and develop the whole town.

Excellent craftsmanship
None of this could have happened without great products, and Bata has always been focused on excellent craftsmanship and innovation, both in manufacturing processes and in design. Throughout the decades, the creative team has pioneered new styles, influencing trends across the globe (Bata is sold in over 70 countries worldwide). However Thomas G Bata, company chairman and grandson of the founder, is keen to stress that Bata’s core ideals of quality and innovation remain.

Caring for the customer
‘Our success is built on our legacy of values and beliefs,’ he explains. Even after 120 years, with around 270 million pairs of shoes sold each year, quality has never been allowed to slip. The same goes for its approach to people. As Bata’s own-brand retail stores opened, the caring approach it took to its employees was naturally passed on to its customers, and the service is second to none. ‘We see a sale as the beginning of a relationship,’ explains Bata.

Another market leader
Botas is another of the nation’s leading footwear brands. Founded in 1949 in Skuteč, a region with a shoemaking history stretching back to the 16th century at least, it originally specialised in walking shoes for men. However, in 1962 the focus changed to sports footwear, which brought immediate success both at home and internationally. Botas creations were worn by top sportsmen, including Olympic medal winners, and by 1974 the brand was shipping its locally made shoes to 35 other countries.

An instant classic
It produced many styles over the decades, but the most recognisable is the Botas Classic, launched in 1966, which has been named one of the 100 icons of Czech design. So ubiquitous were these shoes in the 1980s that the term ‘botasky’ became synonymous with almost any sports shoe.

Reimagining an icon
So timeless is the Botas Classic, in fact, that it has inspired the founding of a whole new brand. Now under the Botas umbrella, Botas 66 began in 2008 as the university project of two students at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. Jan Kloss and Jakub Korouš were challenged to redesign a classic Czech product. For Kloss, the choice of the Botas Classic was ‘pretty simple’, and the two set about creating a separate lifestyle brand surrounding this one shape: Botas 66. The project won first prize at the European Design Awards, which led to a direct co-operation with Botas and in 2009, Botas 66 launched its first collection.

For Kloss and Korouš, the Botas Classic was a testament to superlative, long-lasting Czech design. Reinvigorating a local brand for today’s market was the key challenge. ‘There are many traditional companies with a lot of attractive nostalgia, but without the know-how to use it,’ Kloss explains. ‘And there are lots of new brands without the story behind them. Botas 66 combines both.’

Looking to the future
While Botas 66 now offers more than one style, its new shapes are still influenced by the archives of its parent company. It also follows in the footsteps of Botas with its manufacturing process, which is carried out entirely in the Czech Republic, sourcing materials locally wherever possible. ‘Why should we produce shoes in other countries if we used to be the best?’ Kloss asks. And he’s positive that the industry can regain that reputation. ‘The world is small enough that it’s possible to make big things happen if you have the know-how and the energy.’

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