Meet the Woman Bringing Classic Italian Style to San Francisco
Claudia Volpi is not the person you would expect to open a sneaker shop. The former New Yorker is Ivy League-educated, has a background in finance, is fluent in Italian, and spent three years building an Italian immersion school in San Francisco. But Claudia had noticed a trend for years: everywhere she went in the U.S., people would asked about her Superga sneakers.
For Italians, Superga is practically a birthright. "These shoes defined my childhood and that of many Italians," she says. "They are as iconic to Italy as Keds are to America." As different people inquired about her sneakers from coast to coast, Claudia suspected that there was a business opportunity for Superga in America. Steve Madden saw the same opportunity and secured the U.S. licensing rights for the century-old brand in 2011. By the time Volpi decided to open her shop, Madden had built Superga-USA distribution channels through his existing customer relationships. But a Superga licensing deal is not the same as a local store. And Claudia saw opportunity for the latter.
Volpi says that she couldn't find a shop that sold classic, affordable shoes for the whole family when she moved to San Francisco in 2010, so she started her Superga store (2326 Fillmore Street) to fill the void. "I felt strongly that a local brick and mortar in San Francisco could survive because of our community’s commitment to supporting local businesses."
Opening a small business should be straightforward—find space, procure inventory, et voila!—but, in Volpi's case, there was a significant amount of negotiation involved. First, she had to get approval from Steve Madden, then she had to seek approval from the San Francisco Planning Department to operate as a formula retail business.
In San Francisco, stores that have more than 11 locations worldwide must seek a formula retail variance to set up shop in certain zones. Fillmore is one of those protected zones. Though Volpi's store isn't a franchise—and there are only two Superga stores in the U.S.—her business fell under the formula retail umbrella because she wanted her signage to say "Superga" instead of something generic, like "Claudia's Shoes."
Now in business for almost two years, Volpi stocks a selection of popular Superga styles, like the Kotu Classic, as well as exclusives from Italy that shoppers can only find in her store. "These, of course, go in a heartbeat," she says. "Our customers get first dibs; we email them when new stock is in, and they always fly off the shelf." Beyond shoes, she carries local kids' lines Bash + Sass and WhoaDude Clothing, along with Zip and Zoe backpacks and handmade leather clutches from her cousin in Uruguay.
Volpi may own a Superga store, but it's unlike any other Superga store in the world, from the inventory to the level of customer service. "We know it’s not easy to park on Fillmore, or to make time to come into the store. We take phone or email orders, messenger shoes to clients, ship by post. I’ll deliver them myself," she says. "Anything we can do to keep our customers happy and shopping with us."
Read on to learn more about how Claudia runs her business and keeps customers coming back.
Rockyt: How would you describe your shop?
Claudia: My shop is a family-owned and run shoe store that sells a global brand because we love the shoes and think they are perfect for San Franciscans. We sell only Supergas because my dream was not to open a shoe store, but a Superga store. I wanted the shop to reflect a little bit of San Francisco and a little bit of Italy. Our furnishings were made on Treasure Island by the rad duo of Four/Quarter, the imagery is a mix of San Francisco, shot by Maria del Rio locally and of Italy. The espresso that is always on hand is 100 percent Italian.
Rockyt: What's the relationship between SupergaSF and Superga USA?
Claudia: It’s a huge challenge explaining to our customers that we are not affiliated with Superga-USA. They see the logo and assume that we are all one in the same. But nope, I am David to that Goliath. Basically, I buy Supergas from Superga-USA (Steve Madden) and I buy Supergas from Basic Net, the Italian company that owns the Superga brand worldwide. I curate my collection to offer many of the styles that Superga-USA offers on their website and in their store in NYC, but also a great selection of styles that I import from Italy directly that are available exclusively in our store on Fillmore Street.
Rockyt: Why did you decide to open a store?
Claudia: When I moved to San Francisco in 2010, for the first time in my life I found myself being someone’s wife, someone’s mother, and having no professional identity of my own. I had lived in NYC for 39 years and had worked for Fortune 500 companies, run my own advisory, and now just felt lost. I threw myself into helping to found an Italian language immersion and International Baccalaureate school, and for three years worked tirelessly to get it off the ground. Once it was well on its way, I found myself again asking how I could use my business skills. People in San Francisco continued, as in NYC, to ask me, "Where did you get your shoes?" This, and the fact that I had three kids to buy shoes for—and very limited options in and around my neighborhood—brought the Superga shop idea back to me.
Rockyt: What’s the best thing about owning your own shop?
Claudia: Our customers, hands down. I love interacting with our customers. We aim to deliver a great experience for each person that walks through the door, whether they buy or not. The conversation we might have, the smile we may elicit, the joy a child might have at playing with our toys. Whatever it is, we have only failed if they walk out feeling bleh about having visited. Going to the shows to shop for each collection is really fun, too. It gets me to New York, Las Vegas, and Italy a few times a year, so I’m not complaining. I also have an infinite supply of very cool sneakers.
Rockyt: What’s the hardest part of doing business in San Francisco?
Claudia: The high fixed monthly costs of operating a business and having so much competition for everyone’s eyeballs and time. For me, also not being able to sell digitally. [Steve Madden owns exclusive rights for hosting Superga-branded e-commerce in the U.S.] In our city which some might argue is the most digitally dialogued city in the US, it is a major challenge. I’m always looking for alternatives and a solution.
Rockyt: What does your average day look like?
Claudia: I typically rise at 5:20 am and go to the gym at 6 am. It is the only hour of the day that is truly mine. I return home by 7 and wake up my kids to get them out the door. My mom lives with me, so she helps me by getting breakfast ready while I dress the kids and help them tidy their rooms before heading out. After drop offs, I typically have meetings in the morning for Superga, La Scuola or a few other investment projects we have. I head over to the store, and—if I’m not on the floor—I’m usually in the back office dealing with the "boring" stuff of running a business.
I try to free up in the afternoons to spend time with my kids. In the evenings, I may have an event for work, school or my husband’s work. If not, I head home, have dinner and am in bed with a book in my hand by 9:30 pm.
For the first year we were opened I worked pretty much seven days a week. I now have a fantastic team in place that allows me the flexibility to balance life/work. On days that I have to work on the weekends, my daughters and husband are often in the store with me, helping out. Nic is the tall, geeky guy talking up the shoes; Chiara is the fashionista with very honest opinions about how they look on you; VV is quiet and a great stock runner; Enzo is too small to work in the store, but he will soon enough!
Rockyt: What do you do on your days off?
Claudia: I don’t have many days "off" while I’m in San Francisco. We sometimes escape to Santa Cruz with our kids or up to Marin and towards Bolinas. My favorite place to be "off" is in Italy. The pace of life is different; the color, the light, the texture of everything is different. And the nine-hour time difference makes it so that for the greater part of the day, I can allow myself to be “off.”
Rockyt: There are lots of thought pieces right now about how shoppers are craving unique experiences. What makes your store experience unique?
Claudia: I always tell my team that our goal is to deliver a great visit first. The goal of the sale comes after that. We have espresso, water, snacks, great stories. We hope that all of this makes the customer feel appreciated, and that they leave feeling good about having visited. We do lots of events in the store. My mission is to use the space to help other entrepreneurs and local community groups so we will lend our space to that and in the process give our customers a reason to keep coming back. I’d love for Superga to be like Cheers. I have wine and prosecco in the fridge, too, so water, coffee or a drink... anytime.
Rockyt: Not including your store, what are your three favorite shops in the area?
Superga San Francisco is located at 2326 Fillmore Street. Store hours are 10 am–6 pm, Monday-Saturday, and 12 pm–5 pm Sunday.