F is for Falke by Antje Wewer | 1st June, 2018 | Personalities
For Paul and Franz-Peter Falke, it’s a family business. From their headquarters in the small town of Schmallenberg, the cousins produce the most exquisite socks and hosiery – and have taken the world by storm. Thanks to a very simple rule: every important decision is always taken together.
The driver who is meeting us at the station and takes us to the company’s headquarters in the town of Schmallenberg is called Herr Rickert. He’s an old-school chauffeur: he might not wear a cap, but he knows exactly what’s OK to chat about and what’s not. After all, he used to work for Franz-Peter and Paul Falke’s fathers. The cousins are the fourth generation of their family to run the hosiery company. Ever since it was founded in May 1895, Falke has been based in this town of 6,000 inhabitants in the Sauerland region of Germany. The Falkes employ half the local population – some Schmallenberg families have been working for the company for three or four generations. The story begins with roofer Franz Falke-Rohen, who knitted socks in the winter to earn some extra money and was smart enough to found his own knitting mill – thus laying the foundations for today’s Falke Group. The first factory was built in the middle of the town and still produces for the company to this day. Falke is now a globally operating corporation with annual sales of approximately €230 million. Last year, it opened a 200-square-meter flagship store in Beijing. In front of the plain clinker brick building in Schmallenberg that serves as head office stands a Tesla Supercharger – a sure sign that modern times have long since dawned here in the provinces of western Germany. Paul Falke might collect vintage cars, but his everyday vehicle is electric. His cousin Franz-Peter, who is seven years his senior, is in South Africa this week, inspecting the company’s production facilities and pursuing his hobby: he and his wife Danièle own a vineyard near Stellenbosch. No Falke celebration is complete without his prize-winning Peter Falke Wines.
“We produce the Airport model alone in 40 colors, seven sizes and two lengths.” Paul Falke
We’re shown to Paul Falke’s office: a big, chaotic-looking desk with various piles of papers on it, a competitor’s colorful sock box on the window ledge, an upmarket wooden case bearing the embossed Falke logo alongside it. Rather than cigars, it contains limited edition Vicuña socks that sell for €860 a pair. But the bestseller for men (which is often bought by women) is the Airport model – which retails at €15. Paul Falke is tall, broad shouldered and generous with his roguish smile. And he’s used to people only looking him briefly in the face before turning their gaze to his feet. Today he’s wearing blue knee-length socks with polka dots to match his light blue shirt, a knit blazer in Yves Klein blue and suede shoes (“handmade by Dieter Kuckelkorn in Aachen”). Falke always wears knee-length socks because they don’t slip and reveal bare skin when he sits down. He pours the coffee and hands out some neon-colored ballpoint pens. He spent a long time looking for the perfect shades – as with the socks, it’s all a question of nuances. Then he starts telling us about the family firm: “Our fathers actually shared an office. Their desks were arranged head to head. But although Franz-Peter and I are great believers in consensus management, we do have separate offices. It wouldn’t work otherwise. We’re completely different characters and both need our own space. But we both give 100 percent, each in our own way. That’s probably the secret to why we work so well together.” A portrait of his father hangs above the conference table. Was it always a given that he would follow in his footsteps? “Yes, it was. But it was also clear that I would get to do my own thing beforehand and gain experience outside the family firm.”
“Our fathers shared an office. Their desks were arranged head to head.” Paul Falke
In the 1980s, Paul Falke built up the U.S. office in Manhattan. During that time, he realized that socks may be a fashion accessory for some but are an everyday item for most people. “The U.S. market is still difficult for us,” admits the entrepreneur. “The Americans want socks that are easy to care for and one-size-fits-all with lots of Spandex. That doesn’t quite fit in with our philosophy of providing the very highest quality. Our socks still look like new even after 25 washes. I hate empty product promises.” When his father died unexpectedly at the age of 70, Paul Falke had to take up his position in Schmallenberg earlier than planned. He and his cousin took over together in 1990. One of the first big changes they made together was to dispense with the square falcon logo, which had been the firm’s registered trademark since 1950 (Falke means falcon in German). The bird was made much smaller and banished to the back of the pack, leaving just the name in a minimalist font. That was followed by the launch of ergonomic sports socks, the expansion of the shop-in-shop principle, stores at airports and the purchase of the Burlington brand in 2008. Paul’s wife Kristina Falke puts her head round the door: she’s the company’s head of PR. The couple have two teenage children; before moving to the Sauerland for love, Kristina lived in Paris, where the family still keeps a pied-à-terre for her sake. For years now, they’ve been vacationing at their home on the shores of Lago Maggiore. It was Kristina who orchestrated the firm’s collaboration with Manolo Blahnik and Philipp Lim. “My wife has lots of brilliant ideas,” says Paul Falke, “but she sometimes forgets the huge logistics operation behind our production capability. We produce the Airport model alone in 40 colors, seven sizes and two lengths.” He takes us to the warehouse where the huge reels of yarn are kept. The pictures in the corridors tell of the successes of his father’s generation, too: fashion shoots with photographers like F. C. Gundlach, Helmut Newton, Michel Comte. That period was the heyday of licensed partnerships, and the Falkes produced for labels like Giorgio Armani, Dior, Moschino and Kenzo. “Our fathers were pretty canny when it came to marketing. They had the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra flown in from New York to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary.” Franz-Otto Falke, his uncle, is 94 years old – and still drops by the office every day. In the production halls, Bentley machines from the 1960s are still whirring away alongside their state-of-the-art counterparts. Knitting machines are loud monstrosities topped with spools of colored yarn that keep dancing back and forth until an almost-finished sock plops out of a tube. The toe is linked by hand to ensure the socks won’t rub when worn with shoes. After that, the socks are checked, washed, shaped and labeled. “A pair of socks goes through a dozen different stages before it leaves the yard. That’s what makes production so labor-intensive,” says Paul Falke. “We’re proud of being a hundred-percent family-owned company – and that’s not about to change any time soon.” But nobody’s talking about the next generation taking over quite yet, he adds. “I know from my own experience how important it is for my kids to get away from the Sauerland and do their own thing before they even think of coming back.”