The year 2023 marks a milestone in Lowa's history. The brand celebrates its first centenary and it is the perfect time to look back on 100 years of company history and the evolution of the brand throughout its history.
But make no mistake: This is not a fairy tale. It is a true story. More than 100 years ago, Lorenz, Hans and Adolf Wagner lived in the Bavarian town of Jetzendorf. Their father taught them the shoemaking trade, and the three went down in alpine boot history as founders of the Lowa, Hanwag and Hochland brands.
"I, the eldest son of the family, inherited our parents' estate, which consisted of both some farmland and a shoe store. It was understandable that my goal was to create a business out of the small shoe shop, however foolhardy this plan might seem to many in the area." - Lorenz Wagner.
Music as a prelude to success
Johann, the father of the three Wagner brothers, was a shoemaker and musician. He played in the first band in Jetzendorf, founded by his brother Josef Wagner in 1850. Johann's three sons, Lorenz, Hans and Adolf, were also musicians and joined the band. The Wagner band performed many types of music, from lively Alpine folk music to solemn church music. Lorenz Wagner took over the leadership of the band from his uncle and cousin.
Lorenz later described how he used music to help lay the foundation for the future of his shoe store:
"At that time, shoemakers used to be musicians as well. I played at weddings and events. I made quite a bit of money and used it to buy the machinery I really needed to make shoes."
Within a radius of 10 kilometers
The demand for footwear was huge in the 1920s, at that time footwear was the main item for traveling. People living in rural or urban areas used to walk to get around and visit friends and relatives. The Lorenz brothers also set up their own independent shoe shops. Hans Wagner moved to Vierkirchen and his brother Adolf to Weichs, two locations about 10 kilometers from Jetzendorf. The band split up and the history of the three shoe brands began.
The brand known today as Hanwag was founded in 1921. Hans Wagner began creating shoes for a Munich company and soon began producing his own Bavarian-style designs. He continued to expand his business and began marketing his shoes under the Hanwag brand in 1952. The factory remained in family hands for its first 83 years of existence. The company founder passed the leadership of the company to his nephew Josef Wagner. As a result, Hanwag had only two managing directors for almost its entire history. In 2004, the company became part of Fenix Outdoor AB. The company remains linked to Lowa as a "sister" competitor of the brand to this day.
Adolf Wagner, the youngest of the three brothers, married in 1923 and moved to Weichs, where he took over the local shoe shop and for the next 10 years turned it into a shoe factory with 30 employees. The hiking and ski boots he sold under the name "A.W." were very successful. Like his brothers, he manufactured infantry boots during the war years. The company resumed footwear production after World War II under the Hochland brand name. His daughter Emma took over the management of the company in 1955 together with her husband. The company achieved worldwide renown in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-1970s, the shoe factory was leased to Romika, a company that manufactured its hiking boots there. However, the strong competition at the time forced the factory to close its doors for good in 1981.
The mountain shoe factory "Ilmtaler Sportschuhfabrik".
The parallels with the stories of his siblings cannot be overlooked. As the eldest son, Lorenz Wagner, he inherited his parents' business in 1922. It included some property and the small country shoe shop run by his father, Johann. Lorenz had big plans: he wanted to work with his wife, Therese, and turn the "small country shoe shop" into a real "company". With that in mind, he bought his first machines and set up his own company in 1923, a business that was not yet called LOWA. Most likely, the company started life as "Ilmtaler Sportschuhfabrik". The company first appeared in the records in the 1930s. In 1930, the company had seven employees: six men and one woman. The working space was cramped. Then the first factory building, measuring 15 x 6 meters, was built.
An ambitious apprentice, Josef Lederer, joined the company in February 1930. He said of his experience:
"The shoemakers worked in the attic. I was up there too, as an apprentice. We all ate in the house, including those who lived in the village. Meals were part of our pay. We apprentices had to pay too; in my case, I had to clean the shoes of the woman who later became my wife." Josef Lederer left LOWA after his apprenticeship. But he returned 15 years later and married Berta Wagner, the daughter of the company founder.
In the beginning, LOWA mainly manufactured Bavarian Haferl shoes made of leather. But the factory also produced "sports shoes", i.e. hiking and ski boots. These boots were also made of leather. Alpine sports experienced a surge in popularity during the "golden" 1920s, and the shoemakers Lorenz, Hans and Adolf Wagner took advantage of this trend.
World War II and the birth of LOWA
In 1936 the factory grows and a 13-horsepower electric motor is added. The first generation of Lowa ski boots is also manufactured.
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the factory produces footwear used by mountain infantrymen. The shoe and leather industry throughout Germany comes under central control in 1934 and quotas are established as part of this change. Shoemakers like Lorenz Wagner (and his brothers) enjoy special status in National Socialist economic policies. Up to 30 French POWs from the Moosburg camp work in Lorenz Wagner's shoe factory during the war. They reside in Jetzendorf. The relationship between the French and their employer is apparently good: after Germany's capitulation in 1945, the French talk to the Americans about the Jetzendorf company.
During the post-war years, the product range is expanded and the shoe factory also receives a new name during this period: LO(renz) WA(gner).
In 1952 Lowa experiences a major crisis. The Korean conflict causes leather prices to swing sharply. The former apprentice Josef Lederer, who was managing director at the time, and Lorenz's daughter Berta, head of sales, rescue the company. And Josef and Berta get married on July 5.
On February 13, 1957, LOWA KG is founded. Josef Lederer and his brother-in-law Josef Wagner become partners. LOWA follows a new marketing strategy that focuses on the collaboration with professional mountaineers, LOWA provides equipment to the most important expeditions during the following years.
LOWA's growth and internationalization
In the 1960s, LOWA continues to grow. The company employs 95 people and generates a turnover of around DM 2.5 million. Josef Lederer invests boldly in LOWA's future. After acquiring a vulcanization system, he buys a polyurethane injection molding machine to manufacture ski boots. In doing so, he becomes an industry pioneer. In 1972, the LOWA development team achieves another major success. With the help of an inflatable air system, the inside of the ski boot can be molded to fit the foot exactly. The new boot is called LOWA AIR and will be a bestseller for years to come.
In 1977 LOWA expands its sales beyond Germany and in 1983 employs more than 100 people in Altmühlmünster, Altmannstein, Pirmasens and Jetzendorf. Twenty percent of the company's shoes are exported abroad.
In 1988 there is a change of generation at LOWA. After Josef Wagner leaves HANWAG in 1979, Josef Lederer resigns from his position at LOWA and passes the leadership reins to his son Stefan Lederer who develops the range of trekking shoes and lightweight hiking boots.
In 1992 LOWA faces major business difficulties and the Italian company Tecnica acquires LOWA in 1993. It is a group whose brands include Nordica, Rollerblade, Blizzard and Moon Boot. Processes are optimized at LOWA and the ski boot business is moved to Italy. Jetzendorf remains the manufacturing location for LOWA mountaineering boots and trekking shoes.
In 1997, a breakthrough was achieved with the RENEGADE model. This model becomes a bestseller even today. In the 2000s, LOWA sells 1 million pairs of shoes for the first time. The company grows and builds new production buildings. The 15-square-meter store in which Lorenz Wagner started out is transformed into a modern 7,000-square-meter production facility.
In 2010 LOWA reaches its next milestone - selling two million pairs of shoes! LOWA markets its products in several countries, including the United States, China and Australia.
In 2019, Alexander Nicolai becomes CEO and heads LOWA together with Werner Riethmann. In the same year, LOWA acquires Riko Sport, its long-time production partner. The development location in Italy is known as LOWA R&D and the Slovakian production as LOWA Production. More than 2,000 people are employed at that time at LOWA. We come to 2023 and LOWA celebrates its 100th anniversary by producing more than 3 million pairs of shoes. Today, Lowa is one of the world's leading manufacturers of outdoor footwear and exports its products to 80 countries.