As he settles in for his interview with The CEO Magazine at his desk in Cologne, Germany, Mirko Ostendoerfer reaches into his bag for something important.
“So this is the original Spice Girls shoe with the original signatures,” he says, proudly brandishing a chunky Buffalo platform trainer worn by a member of the iconic girl band. “This one here is from Victoria.”
When it comes to footwear, Mirko knows his stuff; he held several Managing Director roles throughout his career in the industry before becoming COO of Buffalo Boots in 2017 and CEO two years later. He discovered this 90s artefact shortly after the company was acquired by the German footwear retailer Deichmann.
“When Deichmann bought the company, I saw it on a rack, just sitting there with a lot of dust on it,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Oh my God, how can you do this? This is such an important thing from the past!’”
The distinctive shoe won global fame adorning the feet of Ginger, Baby, Posh, Sporty and Scary, helping the Buffalo brand approach a level occupied by Dr. Martens and Timberland. Which is to say: the moment you saw the shoe’s design, you knew who made it without seeing the logo.
“We managed to take this heritage 90s culture from rave and so on and transmit it into today and express ourselves with authenticity.”
But in the years after girl power swept the globe, the brand fell off the map, even as the family-owned company continued to produce the trainers from its base in Germany’s Hochheim am Main, where it was founded in 1979.
After it was bought by Deichmann, its star began to rise again, with Buffalo shoes appearing on catwalks and red carpets around the world amid a wider revival of 90s culture and fashion.
“We managed to take this heritage 90s culture from rave and so on and transmit it into today and express ourselves with authenticity,” Mirko says. “This is also what young people, I think, love about the brand.”
As excited as he was to come into possession of an iconic shoe autographed by the Spice Girls, Mirko also recognised early on that the brand itself was in dire need of an update to make it appeal to younger consumers. “Generation Z is now our main customer, and they don’t know about Buffalo’s history, about the Spice Girls – they’re not interested in it. But we managed to bring the brand back to life.”
When the brand’s revival started more than four years ago, the company gifted its shoes to the likes of singer Billie Eilish and model Gigi Hadid, who then wore them while being photographed by paparazzi.
“They wear our shoes because they love the shoes, and we did not pay one cent for it,” Mirko reveals. “This is the most important thing for us: to be authentic, because the community recognises very fast whether you do something paid or unpaid.”
Something that’s causing a stir in the community – and the greater footwear industry – at the moment are non-fungible tokens. The digital collectible format has already been embraced by the sneaker scene, with Asics releasing an entire NFT collection of digital sneakers in 2021. Mirko says it was an obvious step for Buffalo to take.
“We’ve teamed up with digital fashion house The Fabricant to create a digital-only flaming virtual trainer that can only be ‘worn’ in images for social media,” he shares. Subsequently, the trainer was offered as a limited NFT for fashion lovers.
On the physical side, the company has also collaborated with top designers like Vivienne Westwood and Junya Watanabe, a strategy Mirko plans to continue and sees as a key pillar of growth.
On the sales and distribution side, he sees a big opportunity in expanding Buffalo’s online shop. Internet sales represent about a 17 per cent share of the business, but the plan is for that to grow to 30 per cent over the next three years.
“In the near future, we will for sure be entering new, strong markets, like Asia.”
The company will also extend its licensee business. At the moment, its brand adorns belts, jewellery, watches, leather jackets, beachwear, socks and even fragrances via these licensing agreements, but there is plenty more mileage here.
“We’re still looking for partners for sunglasses and bags,” Mirko says. “So far, I haven’t found an international partner who is doing this, so this is one area I want to really concentrate on.”
There is also plenty of room left for geographical expansion – something that was stifled by the COVID-19 pandemic. “In the near future, we will for sure be entering new, strong markets, like Asia,” he reveals. “We had partners before the pandemic who wanted to start, and then the pandemic happened and it was all postponed.”
Culture of boldness
While the pandemic has taken a harsh toll on the retail and apparel industries, Mirko is grateful that it strengthened Buffalo’s good partnerships and exposed the bad ones.
“What was really interesting during the pandemic was to see who are the real partners and who are the fake partners,” he says. “Some accounts just looked after themselves and said, ‘OK, no matter what, I will just cancel the order. That’s it. Bye-bye.’”
But others worked hard with the company to start a dialogue about how to move forward in ways that minimised the impact for everyone. From Buffalo’s side, that meant, for example, agreeing to cancel an order but still committing to buy the fabric a supplier had already purchased and use it later.
“It wasn’t so easy in the beginning, but now I think we’ve found the right partners to work with and grow with.”
In other cases, retailers agreed with Buffalo to postpone rather than cancel orders. “It wasn’t so easy in the beginning, but now I think we’ve found the right partners to work with and grow with. This is very important for me,” he points out.
The company and its people made it through the tough early days of the pandemic with the help of what it calls a culture of boldness. “Bold means we face challenges, take responsibility and dare to be curious, with forward-thinking and by creating beyond the limits of the ordinary,” Mirko explains.
“It means appreciating each other, communicating openly, practising social responsibility, embracing awareness and living diversity – being one team. No matter where you come from or who you are, it doesn’t matter here at all. And this is all very normal for us.”