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2011 Plus Awards Winners

Innovative design and a commitment to superior service are synonymous qualities of this year’s Plus Award winners for excellence in design and retail.

COMPANY OF THE YEAR: WOLVERINE WORLDWIDE

Blake Krueger, the charismatic CEO behind Wolverine Worldwide, doesn’t mince words when it comes to why retailers bestowed the company with the Plus Award’s top honor: “I would like to tell you that it’s my engaging personality, but first and foremost, our product performed in their stores,” he says with a laugh.

And perform it did: Wolverine Worldwide reported record revenue for 2011, up 12.9 percent to $1.4 billion. “If you look at it in terms of categories, all of our brands grew in 2011, internationally and in the U.S.,” Krueger says. It was a banner year for every brand in the company’s portfolio, which includes Bates, Chaco, Cushe, Hush Puppies, Hytest, Merrell, Sebago, Soft Style and Wolverine, as well as the CAT, Harley-Davidson and Patagonia licenses.

“Coming out of this terrible recession, there’s been a strong preference for heritage brands—ones that stand for something and have stood the test of time,” Krueger says. Shoppers were especially impressed with the company’s “boots, boots, boots,” he notes, particularly in the work arena, with Wolverine clocking in at No. 1 in U.S. sales and Caterpillar at No. 4. The brand’s fashion boots made a splash as well, especially the 1000 Mile collection, which tripled in sales in 2011.

The company’s other heritage brands also scored big at retail, especially Sebago, which made waves when Kate Middleton wore the classic boat shoes on her Canadian tour. Krueger notes that Sebago’s artisan collection, a collaboration with fashion bloggers, was key to getting it placed at Neiman Marcus and other upscale retailers, while a collaboration with outdoor retailer Filson struck the right note between rugged and stylish. Merrell, however, made for the company’s biggest boost in 2011, thanks to its Barefoot collection, which sold more than a million pairs. “Aesthetically it looks great, but it’s a true performance product,” Krueger says.

While the company’s diverse array of products are key to its success, Krueger notes its retailers are just as important: “We’re a relationship company. We’ve been around since 1882, so we really value our retail partners,” he says. “We deliver on time, we try to bring some freshness to their stores and we listen to their feedback.” Krueger credits his talented team—“the best people in the industry”—noting that CEO Magazine named Wolverine Worldwide one of the top 40 companies in the world for leadership development. “Hire and promote somebody better than you,” Krueger suggests. “If you can do that consistently, you’re going to be a whopping success.” —Audrey Goodson

ONLINE RETAILER: ZAPPOS

Online shoe-and-clothing behemoth Zappos knows a thing or two about making people happy. So much so that CEO and co-founder Tony Hsieh could—and did—write a book on the subject. In Delivering Happiness, he upholds that customer service is paramount in today’s hypercompetitive world. And seeing as how the company went from a struggling start-up in 1999 to getting acquired by Amazon in a deal valued at $1.2 billion a decade later, he’s probably right.

“Our reps are empowered to do whatever it takes to make our customers happy,” reveals Steve Hill, vice president of marketing. True to form, Zappos has a 100-percent-satisfaction-guaranteed return policy. “This allows our customers to purchase with confidence knowing they can try them on in the comfort of their living room and return anything that doesn’t work, no questions asked,” says Hill, adding that the retailer upgrades all VIP and clothing orders to free overnight shipping. “We always look to do everything we can to continually improve our customers’ experience. All decisions on the site, policies, brands or anything are filtered against, ‘Is this the best decision for our customers?’” he says. In fact, because the majority of its business comes from referrals, Zappos prefers to spend money improving on what makes its existing customer base happy instead of on marketing.

Something else Zappos believes in wholeheartedly is complete transparency with its brand partners. As Leslie Brown-Witt, vice president of sales for Earth Inc., puts it: “Zappos sets the bar for excellence in selection, service and creativity. It is an exciting and aggressive team that does not want to miss any opportunity to make its site and reputation with consumers the best in the industry.” And Dansko’s Vice President of Sales David Murphy agrees: “They represent the entire range of our products and are quick to adopt and offer new collections. Zappos, like Dansko, believes that the goal is to satisfy every customer, every day, no matter what it takes.”

Zappos’ Hill concurs: “A large part of our success can be attributed to the partnerships we have with our wholesalers where we are both focused on building a successful business together for the long term.” He also adds that the company would be nothing if not for its customers. “[They] are our best brand advocates. They understand our culture and enjoy telling others about their experiences shopping with us. We have many stories of our call center reps going above and beyond to take care of our customers.” —Lyndsay McGregor

NATIONAL CHAIN: NORDSTROM

With more than 200 stores nationwide, it’s easy to forget Nordstrom’s modest beginnings as a shoe store in Seattle, but that history may help explain why, more than 100 years later, the company continues to earn honors from the industry—including this year’s Plus Award for Best National Chain.

Yet Scott Meden, executive vice president and GMM of shoes, is quick to note that the company isn’t resting on its laurels. “While accolades like this are nice, we know we have the opportunity to further improve our product and service offerings for the customer,” he notes. “Collectively, our team is very focused on continuing to execute a customer-driven strategy to deliver compelling new product and the kind of experience that gives the customer a reason to shop with us.”

Specifically, in 2011 that meant continuing to deliver a diverse array of new shoe styles to keep shoppers coming back for more. “Our customer is clearly responding to fresh product and the best fashion the market has to offer,” Meden points out. In addition, the company has been quick to adapt to consumers’ shifting shopping habits—from rolling out mobile checkout devices at all of its full-line stores last year to introducing its first shopping app. “We recognize customers increasingly have better tools, more information and the ability to shop on their own terms,” Meden notes. “We’re responding and developing more ways to help us be where the customer wants us to be.”

It all added up to another banner year for the chain, with same-store sales up by 7.2 percent last year. Of course, Meden notes that Nordstrom couldn’t have done it without the help of its many standout manufacturers. “We recognize our success is the result of the many great partnerships we have with our vendors, who create the great product that we’re able to offer to customers in our stores,” he says. —A.G.

WOMEN’S COMFORT & CORPORATE GOODWILL: DANSKO

While other women’s brands may be getting the majority of their style cues from runways in New York and Paris, Dansko tunes in to a more direct source for design inspiration: its loyal consumers. “We’re much more attuned to lifestyle trends,” explains Dansko CEO Amanda Cabot. “Mainstream trends inspire us most and drive the expansion of the line.”

To stay on top of those trends, the company has perfected the art of taking its shoppers’ pulse, Cabot notes. “We survey our fans on our website and look for immediate feedback on purchase decisions with inbox surveys. We also track responses received by our customer service team and talk to customers directly at various events throughout the year,” she says, adding that last year, Stylophane, the publisher of the Facebook Fashion index, rated Dansko No. 1 among footwear brands for ‘Most Engaged Facebook Fans.’ “Not only are thousands of fans out there talking about us, but we’re listening—carefully,” she says.

That attentiveness continues to pay off for Dansko, as it brings home the Plus Award in the women’s comfort category for the sixth straight year. Not to mention, 2011 was the best year in the company’s history, with double-digit growth across all categories. And while the brand saw significant growth in its core clog business—sales of styles in the performance-based Arcadia collection, for example, were up by 36 percent—Dansko’s more recent brand extensions, like the Sanibel sneaker-clog collection and the Bristol tailored heel collection, have helped the company reach an even larger audience.

While the company may be best known for its comfort, industry insiders know that Dansko also delivers when it comes to keeping the planet healthy and its employees happy—two big factors behind why the brand snagged a Plus Award in the first-ever Corporate Goodwill category. Or as Cabot puts it about the award: “Not only does it underscore how our retail partners appreciate our commitment to socially responsible business practices, it really validates that we continue to be on the right path.”

On the environmental front, the brand’s headquarters boasts one of the most eco-friendly distinctions in the world—LEED Gold certification—with plans in the works to build an LEED-certified 200,000-square-foot warehouse to open this fall. Not to mention, the brand offsets 100 percent of its energy use with onsite solar energy and wind credits, redesigned its shoes boxes to use less paper and ink, and recycles, reuses or eliminates materials in the manufacturing process whenever it can.

On the philanthropic side, Dansko thinks both globally and locally thanks to the efforts of its employees, who are paid to volunteer up to 20 hours a year at local nonprofits and who also direct the Dansko Foundation, funded by company profits. Some of the organizations the foundation sponsored in 2011 include Habitat for Humanity, Wings for Success, AmeriKids and Ronald McDonald House. It’s all part of a plan to make Dansko’s employees feel empowered to help both on the job and beyond the brand’s headquarters—a mission that was recently realized when Dansko announced all of its shares were held by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, resulting in a 100 percent employee-owned company.

Yet even with all of these endeavors, Dansko has no plans to scale back, Cabot notes. “Now that this award exists, we see it as a challenge, not only for Dansko going forward, but for the entire industry to elevate our game,” she says. “We look forward to some healthy competition going forward!” —A.G.

LAUNCH OF THE YEAR: EARTHIES

WHEN EARTH INC. dreamed up Earthies, a line of comfort footwear with high fashion-inspired silhouettes including short heels and wedges made of premium leathers and suedes, the company execs knew they were on to a big idea. Earthies brought something long-sought to the comfort table: style.

“We set out to create products that excite women when they see them and deliver a memorable comfort experience when they try them on—similar to the level of comfort they’ve come to expect from Euro-comfort offerings,” explains President Gary Champion. “The femininity of the designs and the fashionable cues and accents serve as an invitation,” he adds. “And once we extend that invitation, it’s critical that the comfort of the product delivers against it during try-on.”

It’s that unexpected feeling of comfort that sets Earthies apart from its, for lack of a better word, frumpy competitors. That construction involves a three-pronged approach: A cupped heel sets the foot into the proper supported position; an anatomic arch increases touch points along the transition from heel to forefoot; and a cradle toe area evenly distributes weight. As the marketing team at Earth penned it, it’s ‘Wellness. Elevated.’ “That’s the trigger behind the word-of-mouth storytelling and the pass-along,” Champion says. “When that begins to fall into place, you know you’re really onto something.”

Earthies showed strength across the board, with styles like the Bonaire, Veria, Cristiana and Sarenza all performing well at retail. Champion credits the succes to his product development team, who he says “turns over every stone as it builds out a line.” To that end, he argues that it’s nearly impossible to point to any specific point of design inspiration that made Earthies worthy of a Plus Award in the first-ever ‘Launch of the Year’ category. It’s how the team interpreted and represented all of these points, Champion maintains. “They understand the nuance that goes into building out a line and where the subtleties should reside to ensure they’ll stand out.” —L.M.

RUNNING: NEW BALANCE

Although New Balance is slated to surpass the $2-billion mark in sales this year (fueled largely by the success of its running division, which grew more than 10 percent last year in the U.S.), the company refuses to become complacent. That’s why it placed a major emphasis on injecting new designs and fresh silhouettes into its successful running collection for 2011.

“In the beginning of 2010, we put a lot of effort in building up the design team,” says Tom Carleo, general manager of running and outdoor for the brand. That meant bringing in new designers and “creating a more focused and successful innovation zone,” he says. “It allowed us to step back from the daily grind of trying to compete in this category and to look downfield a little more.”

The result: two new lines that made quite a splash in the running category in 2011. First up was the REVlite collection, featuring a new lightweight foam compound that is up to 25 percent lighter than its competition. Style standouts in this collection included the 890—which is made with .6mm synthetic suede and single-layer mesh and available in nontraditional colors like pops of lime, blended blues and hot lava reds—and the 1400, a low-profile race-day shoe that comes in a mix of bright colors inspired by the Ms. Pac-Man machines of the ’80s.

The second collection to make an impact was Minimus, a line of lightweight minimalist running shoes that focused on eliminating the difference between heel and forefoot height, creating flatter contact with the ground and mimicking the barefoot feel. Available in trail and road versions, the latter was recognized by Runner’s World as a top minimal shoe. Carleo notes that the Minimus collection was “on trend with the barefoot running buzz in the marketplace, which we were able to pounce on as early as anyone.” In fact, the collection was such a hit for New Balance that the brand has already introduced new styles, like the Minimus Zero for Spring ’12, and will continue to do so for several seasons, Carleo maintains.

The two running collections only serve to further boost the expansive offerings that Carleo says New Balance is known for. “What’s most unique about New Balance is the breadth of our design line,” he declares. But this breadth also comes at a price: Mainly, the pressure to consistently tie its disparate lines together. “Our burden is to make it look like there’s connectivity—that it’s not five or six different brands,” Carleo explains. And to do this, he says New Balance will continue designing running shoes that meet its customers’ needs, whether they’re occasional runners or hardcore marathoners. “We have to continue to be slaves to the human foot, because that’s what we’re here for: to do the best construction possible,” Carleo says. “And when you do that, you’ll get fresh design.” —Mary Avant

RAIN BOOTS: HUNTER

When the word luxury comes to mind, rain boots likely aren’t the two words that follow. But for Hunter, the 156-year-old rubber boot behemoth, that description is synonymous with what the brand represents. “Hunter Boots are made from natural rubber—from over 28 pieces that are vulcanized together—so the quality is exceptional. We are the luxury boot in our category,” says Wendy Svarre, president and CEO of the Scottish-born Wellington boot brand worn by the likes of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. “Our original Wellington boot has a long history of classic style and performance for which we are proud of and hold to be a key reason why our customers are loyal to the Hunter Boot brand.”

For 2011, Hunter stepped in line with the wildly popular equestrian and country-living inspired trends that dominated the boot market. Many of its Regent Carlyle and St. James riding boot styles featured two-toned color schemes (such as the classic black and brown, brown and hunter green, camel and brown, and black and burgundy) with details like gold buttons and a monogrammed ‘H’. Svarre also points to the brand’s high-fashion heeled styles—with slim silhouettes and hardware like zippers, multiple buckles and lace-up detailing—as a best-seller and notes, “We always focus on functionality, style and performance as important factors to consider when designing each collection.”

It’s this combination of fashion and function that makes Hunter a hit at Chicago-based Hanig’s Footwear. “Hunter fulfills two niches,” notes owner Dan Hanig. “It looks good and people are using them as a fashion item, and it also works for the wet, slushy Chicago winters.” While Hanig reports that black was still the No. 1 color for his customers, the brand’s olive green was a close second in 2011.

Svarre reports that numbers for the brand were strong in 2011. “Sales of the original boot and the Welly socks have been growing steadily as new customers discover Hunter and current customers return for additional colors and socks to update their wardrobes,” she says. Hanig, who reports its Hunter boot sales were up in 2011, says that his store sold the brand’s socks one-to-one with boots and adds that the men’s side is booming. “The guys are catching on that it’s a really comfortable brand and great for Chicago,” he says. “And it looks good, too.”

Outside of the rain boot arena, the brand introduced a line of leather footwear for both men and women, as well as an all-weather outerwear collection for men, women and children. Hunter has also been dipping its toes in the collaboration waters, partnering with luxury home-goods brand MacKenzie-Childs for a “Courtley Check” signature print boot hitting select retailers this spring. —M.A.

WOMEN’S STREET: MINNETONKA

Without a tumbleweed in sight, city slickers scooped up plenty of Minnetonka’s suede fringe boots, beaded sandals and traditional moccasins—all complementary accessories for the ongoing native and tribal trends sweeping women’s fashion in 2011. In addition to being on-trend, Minnetonka’s 66-year legacy of crafting quality footwear made the brand the authentic choice among fashionistas. “We’re the real deal and, more than ever, the fashion shopper is looking for authenticity,” explains President Scott Sessa.

Design highlights in 2011 included double-fringe, side-zip booties; tall boots with dramatic multi-tiers of fringe; and the El Paso suede and fabric moccasin, a traditional silhouette with a pop of southwest color. Sessa adds that an expanding offering of fringe and beaded sandals, which he notes is taking a more fashion-oriented direction with higher heel espadrilles and cork wedges, helped secure Minnetonka as a year-round must-have in closets. In fact, Sessa hears stories about women eager to expand their collections and be the first to own the newest color or silhouette. “We have customers that call stores to track the arrival of new product,” he says, adding that limited-edition colors have helped fuel the frenzy. For example, teal and cranberry were offered for spring, followed by brick and evergreen in the fall. The forecast for Spring ’12: fringe boots in royal navy and cherry red.

Sessa reports 2011 as a record-setting year with the company’s “plethora of mocs and slippers” and fringe boots selling well. Based on orders for 2012 and the native-inspired trend continuing, he expects another banner year. Just don’t label Minnetonka a one-trick pony, Sessa advises, noting its latest designs are in step with themes coming down the pipeline. “From tribal to motorcycle, we’re on trend,” he says. —Angela Velasquez

BRAND OF THE YEAR AND BOOTS: UGG

Picking up a Plus Award in the boots category for the fifth straight year and snagging this year’s coveted Brand of the Year award, it’s no secret that powerhouse sheepskin boot brand Ugg is still going strong. In fact, sales for the brand were up by 48 percent in the third quarter of 2011 and on track to top $1 billion for the year.

What’s made the brand stand out year after year? “Consumers always respond to our casual, comfortable footwear that can take them to the office, school, outdoors, city streets and home,” explains Brand President Connie Rishwain. That versatility, she notes, is reflected in the styles that rocked at retail, from the brand’s entire slipper category (especially the newcomer Ansley) to the equestrian collection, the surf collection and the brand’s sneakers, including the Evera.

That diversity is also what helped the brand maintain its momentum in 2011, says Leah Larson, vice president of product. “The standout factor from Ugg this year was the ability to create a range of footwear from our classic shearling boot to high-fashion footwear, while maintaining an impeccable level of luxury, comfort and function,” she says. On the high-fashion side, that included the launch of the Ugg Collection, luxury footwear and handbags made in Italy using exotic skins and materials, like stingray, python and ostrich embossed leather. On the casual side, styles like the men’s desert boot collection, featuring a genuine crepe outsole and the brand’s signature shearling lining, scored big with shoppers.

In fact, Ugg’s vastly expanded men’s collection picked up more than a few admirers last year, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who sported the brand’s new designs in its fall advertising campaign. Larson says that the Cascade collection, which combined comfort and performance features like a Vibram outsole, waterproof uppers and shearling lining with “smart street style,” elicited an amazing response at retail. —A.G.

CUSTOMER SERVICE & MEN’S: CLARKS

Clarks knows a thing or two about customer service, as it has long been considered top of the class by retailers nationwide. And last year the company upped its game even further by rolling out a consumer-focused platform to improve the shopping experience and get a better grip on why buyers were reaching out. “Our approach is simple: Partner with our retail customers and be the easiest company to do business with,” says Elizabeth Parker, director of customer service. “In addition, regardless of point of purchase, we simply want all of our customers to have the same Clarks experience.” This new platform has made life easier for all, enabling retailers to check availability, place and track orders, and access marketing materials. As Parker notes, “Our approach is constantly evolving, but we’re always focused on keeping our product on our customer’s feet and delivering service that centers around accessibility, commitment and partnership.”

The effort hasn’t gone unrewarded. Sales in 2011 were up by double digits, as confirmed by Vice President of Men’s Glen Arentowicz, who credits the brand’s success with its ability to deliver on its promise every time. “The most overt call-outs for Clarks men’s shoes are comfort, value and details,” he says. Arentowicz adds that all of its designs are what the company refers to as a ground-up process, meaning its shoes are unique as well as structurally sound and comfortable. “We make every effort to offer the details that make our shoes look special,” he explains, pointing to last year’s introduction of the Maguire collection as the perfect example. Intended to attract a consumer with an elevated sense of style, the line was built with quality details of classic bench-made shoes such as stacked heels and leather welts. “In men’s, it’s the little things like lining colors, webbing details and leather finishes that make our line successful,” he says.

Overall, Arentowicz says consumers were drawn to Clarks’ updated styles and colors in 2011—and the comfort features are a given. “Men are wearing more color and we delivered on that,” he says, citing the Wave Walk collection and the Broome and Hunter series as bestsellers. Building on the success of previous Wave Walk styles—which include a comfort system featuring a rocker sole construction that uses the foot’s natural momentum—last year’s editions evolved into diverse groupings of on-trend styles. The Broome includes taupes, olives and navy with light touches of color, while the Hunter, a vulcanized group, featured steel blue and gray. Supremely comfortable and equally stylish, Clarks’ iconic Desert Boot also received updates and performed well at retail last year. “It’s critical that we make product that men can easily determine what to wear it with,” Arentowicz says. “We like to ‘wardrobe’ our brand from classic wool pants to dark denim to chinos.” —L.M

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE: HARRY’S SHOES

Harry’s Shoes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been outfitting New Yorkers with stylish footwear since the 1930s, and while its smorgasbord of A-list brands has earned the store a loyal following, it’s the traditional sit-and-fit standard of customer service that keeps them coming back season after season.

“Whether providing information on key features and benefits, advice on style or color trends, or expertise in fitting, we are constantly making efforts to expand the knowledge base of our staff,” says Harry’s COO Robert Goldberg. Customers value the experienced staff’s expertise in providing patient and attentive fittings, taking the time to measure and evaluate the fit of each pair based on factors like the flexion, girth and width of a foot. “They go to extraordinary lengths to determine customers’ needs and to attempt to satisfy them,” he says. “Our wholesale partners respect this level of service and provide their own expertise to facilitate this. In turn, we attempt to provide a proper forum for their products, respecting them with the integrity they deserve.”

A throwback to classic shoe retailing, Harry’s offers a plethora of styles (key brands include Frye, Merrell, Ecco, Ugg, Clarks, Cole Haan, Dansko and Ara), plenty of fitting chairs, Brannock devices and knowledgeable salespeople, minus pushy sales tactics. There’s nothing self-service about Harry’s, which serves as an antidote to the largely stripped-down nature of retailing today. It’s old-school, and that’s what makes Harry’s a memorable customer experience.

Not surprisingly, Goldberg says that business last year for Harry’s was solid. “In any economy—good, bad or indifferent—we attempt to challenge ourselves in every facet of our business, including merchandising, marketing, staffing and training—and especially in an unwavering focus on the consumer,” he says. “It is our commitment to meeting their desire for style, selection and—most critically—service that we believe is our key to continued success.” —L.M.

WELLNESS: FITFLOP

FitFloP Cashed In on the comfort craze almost five years ago with its casual sandals and sneakers that became an instant hit with women nationwide. Featuring a biomechanically engineered Microwobbleboard midsole that activates leg muscles and offers shock absorption and underfoot pressure relief, busy moms loved the fact that they could “work out while [they] walked,” says FitFlop founder Marcia Kilgore. But the brand soon realized a shift in design was necessary. “Customers have reported back that they get hooked on the FitFlop feeling, but don’t have style options to wear to work or to wear for between-season weather,” Kilgore reports. “So we’ve worked over the past couple of years to fit our technology in a fashionable way into shoes and boots that will give our customers the opportunity to wear FitFlop 365 days a year.”

To this end, FitFlop released designs in 2011 like the Supertone sneaker for men and women, the two-bar Gogh slide and the crystal-studded Rokkit sandal, as well as a cool-weather, multi-occasion collection that included the single-piece, molded upper Shuv clog. Kilgore adds that colors like plum, midnight blue and metallics for its High Summer collection and amber gold and cool grays for men were popular sellers last year.

In addition, 2011 saw several high-end collaborations for the brand, including the debut of the floral print Fiorella, a guest-design by Anna Sui that Kilgore says was a hit for retailers like Nordstrom and Harrods. FitFlop also partnered with the women of the Wola Nani cooperative in Cape Town, South Africa, to release the hand-beaded Manyano sandal, which was sold exclusively on Net-A-Porter.com. “We believe fashion has the ability to unite women across the world, and we are extremely proud to support Wola Nani and help HIV sufferers to take control of their lives with confidence, diginity and hope,” Kilgore says. These partnerships are just one reason for the brand’s continued growth. Kilgore notes the average buyer has shifted from just the “time-starved but appearance-conscious” mother to commuting career girls, teenagers and, most notably, men. “While we started out focusing mainly on the female customer, we very quickly had men asking us, ‘Where are mine?’” Kilgore maintains. “Our total business has grown 50 percent-plus year on year for the past four years, but our men’s business is building even faster.” —M.A.

CHILDREN’S: CROCS

A few years ago, when stock prices for Crocs dropped to less than a $1 per share, many in the industry were quick to write the brand’s distinctive designs off as a fashion fad that had gone the way of the fanny pack. But with revenue topping $1 billion in 2011 and a Plus Award in the children’s category, it’s clear that Crocs are here to stay—and to keep ringing the register for retailers.

Dale Bathum, senior vice president of product at Crocs, chalks up the impressive turnaround to the brand’s expansion beyond its signature clog, but notes that it’s not just a wide array of new products catching consumers’ attention. “It’s a little bit more than one style or one design cue; it’s the idea that Crocs is more than a single injected-molded clog now,” he explains. “Before, we just had one or two styles and those sold very well, and they were an impulse buy. But now we’ve really become a brand with collections and storytelling and given kids a chance to personalize their product.”

In 2011, the brand introduced sneakers for the first time in its back-to-school kids’ collection, combining Crocs’ signature lightweight Croslite material in the midsole and outsole with a traditional canvas upper. “It’s a known silhouette but it’s just been ‘Crocofied’ because it’s so lightweight and comfortable,” he points out. The brand also scored big with kids thanks to its Chameleon translucent series released in May, featuring shoes that change color in the sun. “We had such good response from the kids’ collection that we’re now pushing it out to the women’s line,” Bathum adds. Not to mention, the brand’s licensed lines, like Cars and SpongeBob SquarePants, continued to keep consumers coming back for more.

It’s an approach to footwear—innovative, lightweight, comfortable, fun, colorful and unique, Bathum says—that kids intuitively understand and parents appreciate. “The easy on-and-off is critical, both for the kids and parents, because it’s easy for the parents and the kids like the responsibility.” Plus, the affordable price point makes it an easy purchase for parents—a big bonus for stores who carry the collection. “Retailers get a complete footwear line that generates revenue for them,” Bathum adds. “It’s the whole package.” —A.G.

PRE-WALKERS: PEDIPED

Minimalism was all the rage in 2011, but Pediped tapped into the lightweight idea long before barefoot became the new black for toddlers. In 2004, the brand—launched by husband and wife Brian and Angela Edgeworth—debuted its Originals line of shoes for babies from newborn to 24 months. Designed to mimic the feeling of barefoot walking by incorporating soft, flexible leather and a spacious toebox, the Edgeworths crafted a shoe that was “the next best thing to bare feet” for infants learning to walk. “We’re true to our beliefs in barefoot technology,” says Angela Edgeworth, president. “We’ve been saying this since the early 2000s: Barefoot is best.”

Over the years, the Pediped line has expanded into a three-step system, which now also includes the Grip ‘n’ Go line—an early-walkers line launched in 2011 that fits 9 months to 3 years—and the Flex collection, a line for confident walkers ages 1 to 8 years. And while the launch of Grip ‘n’ Go was the highlight of Pediped’s business in 2011, sales of the Originals were nothing to scoff at. With an updated outsole for better grip and breathability, as well as the debut of new colors and style features, the line had a lot to offer. “We were driven by color, materials and silhouettes,” Edgeworth says, noting that the brand introduced both boys’ and girls’ ankle boots in 2011, a silhouette that was especially popular in the Northeast. Purple and multi-color shoes, like the Daisy sandal, were big hits on the girls side and, although Edgeworth says she likes to keep colors simple for the boys, even the Jax—a navy and gray sneaker—experimented with pops of neon green.

But no matter the color or silhouette, it’s Pediped’s quality and comfort that matter most to its customers. “We always consider that children are tough on their shoes, so we build shoes to withstand this,” Edgeworth maintains, noting that the company performs extensive wear testing and constantly seeks customer feedback to ensure its shoes are as comfortable and durable as possible. “When we design, we think hard about: ‘Is it going to function well? Is it going to wear well?’ That’s what parents rely on us to do,” she explains. “We don’t want to put a shoe out there that looks good but doesn’t wear well.” — M.A.

WOMEN’S DRESS: L.A.M.B.

Red lips, platinum hair and an adventurous appetite for fashion—if you’re part of L.A.M.B.’s design team being led by the point of view of one of pop culture’s most iconic fashion plates, outstanding design comes easy. “The themes we follow that make up the aesthetic of the L.A.M.B. line are very symbolic of Gwen Stefani’s personal style and that in itself is unique,” explains Sarah Formslag, national sales manager for Titan Industries, the licensor for L.A.M.B. footwear.

For 2011, that meant blending L.A.M.B. (and Stefani’s) signature motifs—African prints, Jamaican-inspired colors and aggressive silhouettes influenced by Japan’s Harajuku girls—with new bright colors, textures and unique constructions that complement the brand’s core look and speak to the L.A.M.B. wearer. That’s one reason Head Designer Elizabeth Benzing enjoys designing for L.A.M.B. She says there is room to be inventive and there’s freedom to play with new constructions, but notes, “We’re not chasing trends. It just so happens that what we do is also what the market is following.” For example, L.A.M.B. struck gold with chunky platforms in 2011, and as Benzing notes, so did many other brands. “But it’s part of our Harajuku inspiration that’s been there from the start of the line,” she explains. “For us, it’s natural and not forced.” Other highlights included glossy coral stilettos, exotic material mixes, curved heels and graphic black and white combinations by way of bold prints.

It’s an eclectic mix sure to stand out on store shelves, and is also supported by successful apparel and handbag lines. Going into each season, Benzing says the apparel, handbag and footwear design teams trade inspirations. “We work on very different calendars, but it comes together because we’re researching the same books and museums and telling one another about new materials we’ve seen,” she explains. “We never rest and as soon as we’re finished with one season, we already have ideas for the next three.” —A.V.

OUTDOOR: MERRILL

For outdoor enthusiasts, 2011 was clearly the year to do more with less—specifically, to tackle trails and streams with lighter, brighter footwear. It’s no surprise then that Merrell, which launched its Barefoot collection in Spring ’11, took top honors for its active offerings.

“We collaborated with our longtime partner Vibram to create a collection of running, fitness and casual shoes that allow the feet and body to move naturally,” explains Seth Cobb, general manager of Merrell. “The consumer responded in a very big way and it turned into an immediate commercial success for our retail partners.”

With the brand’s minimalist trail and road running collections picking up accolades from magazines like Runner’s World (Best Debut of 2011) and Shape (Best Trail Running Shoe), it’s clear that the outdoor community embraced the brand’s take on barefoot. Specifically, the men’s Trail Glove and the women’s Pace Glove “became instant classics,” says Cobb, who attributes the styles’ popularity to a flawless combination of performance features—like a Vibram sole, a forefoot shock absorption plate and an antimicrobial footbed—with “progressive” eye-popping design and colorways, like orange, yellow and teal.

Yet Cobb is quick to note that the brand didn’t dive into the minimalist movement without thoroughly preparing both retailers and consumers. “We invested heavily during 2011 to educate the consumer about the barefoot movement and bareform running technique,” he adds. “We launched an educational microsite on Merrell.com, we created online videos that we shared with our retail partners, we developed a barefoot running app and we delivered POP to tell the barefoot story on the retail selling floor.” He adds, “We’d like to think that our efforts resonated with consumers and encouraged lots of them to enter the barefoot movement.”

Not to mention, barefoot wasn’t the only Merrell offering ringing the register in 2011, Cobb notes. The brand’s Origins collection, released to celebrate Merrell’s 30th anniversary, struck a chord with consumers seeking classic styles. “We reached into our archives, found a few of our most iconic products and then re-imagined them with some modern technologies, more sustainable materials and updated colorways,” Cobb says. “It was a great play on our outdoor heritage and a great vehicle to appeal to a younger audience.” —A.G.

WORK AND MEN’S STREET: WOLVERINE AND WOLVERINE 1000 MILE

In a year when consumers were clamoring for authenticity in their sartorial selections, Wolverine’s 125-year history in the footwear industry clearly helped the company stand out: Completing its near-sweep of the Plus Awards, retailers recognized Wolverine’s rugged Work and 1000 Mile fashion collections for striking a delicate balance between timeless and trendy.

“Consumers look to us for making a comfortable, durable boot, and I think every time we come out with something new, we try and expand on something we’ve done in the past,” says John Estes, Wolverine’s vice president of sales. On the work side, that meant combining the brand’s time-tested Contour Welt and MultiShox comfort technologies with improvements like an abrasion-resistant ArmorTek coating on the high-wear areas of the boot for styles like the brand’s bestselling Corsair. “We just made the world’s most comfortable boot more durable,” Estes points out. Other popular updates included adding a TPU waterproof shell to the brand’s SwampMonster—an adept adjustment for harsher environments.

Yet the biggest story for Wolverine in 2011, Estes says, is the growing consumer demand for the brand’s made-in-the-U.S.A. styles. The company was first encouraged to make products at its Michigan factory by its international distributors, Estes notes. “We said to ourselves, ‘What the heck are we doing? We’ve been around longer than anyone else. Why don’t we start doing this?’” Not to mention, the timing was just right, as consumers stateside started seeking domestically made goods, as well. “It’s really not a trend—it’s more like a movement. And I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” he asserts.

Wolverine’s rugged American-made work boots like the Northman and Plainsman, made with a Vibram outsole and premium leather, picked up a hefty following. But by far the biggest boost went to the brand’s 1000 Mile fashion collection, crafted in the company’s hometown of Rockford, MI, and based on Wolverine’s century-old original designs. “We’ve taken pictures and photos from our archives and tried to keep the design as true to those old patterns as we could, since there’s such a huge movement towards vintage and heritage looks,” Estes explains.

It’s that nod to authenticity, he adds, that helped 1000 Mile stand out at retail and why the brand snagged a Plus Award in the Men’s Street category. “We actually have the old ads and catalogs it was in. It provides us leverage that other people don’t have,” he explains. It also allowed the brand to maintain a more premium price point starting at $265 and even including a $760 limited-edition shell-horsehide boot for Fall ’12 that sold out after just five short appointments.

In fact, sales for the 1000 Mile collection more than tripled in 2011—after only three fall seasons on the market, Estes reports. “We’ve never even been on the radar before for the Men’s Street Plus Award,” he points out. “For us to win, and to be chosen by the retailers, it’s really cool and flattering.” —A.G.

ATHLETIC LIFESTYLE: ADIDAS

with more than 80 years of rich design heritage to tap into, Adidas took a look at the past to pave the way for a successful year in 2011. Specifically, Simon Atkins, vice president of sport style at Adidas America, says the Adidas Originals collection, which has been around for more than 40 years, split into two areas of focus: “The iconic models that celebrate 40 years of Adidas Originals and a new reference point in contemporary models.”

On the iconic side, Adidas re-launched four styles that have been major sellers throughout Originals history: the Superstar, Samoa, Gazelle and Campus. Each of these shoes celebrate the Adidas heritage while “maximizing the core DNA of what makes Originals original,” Atkins says. The re-launched styles hit their peak last fall with an all-Originals TV campaign featuring stars like NBA player Dwight Howard and Snoop Dogg. The brand also reunited with Run DMC to promote the Superstar model—a shell-toed classic the rap group made famous in the ’80s. “It was a really great job of articulating who we are: authentic, iconic, original products,” Atkins maintains.

But not everything from Adidas Originals was old-school cool in 2011. With new products, the Adidas Originals aimed to capture a preppy, urban, sophisticated look. “These models are hi-top, basketball lifestyle products meant for high school students that want to wear it when they’re not on the court,” Atkins explains. Shoes like the adiRise and AR 2.0 focused on material mixes—like full-grain and patent leathers—and subtle color pops in shades like burgundy and olive green. “Both males and females are clearly dressing to impress, and they’re doing that using color and material mixes,” he says.

Overall, Atkins reports that Adidas had a “stellar year” in 2011. In fact, for the first nine months of 2011, sales were up 14 percent overall in North America. “It’s great to see that consumers are coming back to athletic,” Atkins says. “Adidas’ business overall is on a run, and Adidas Originals is a major part of that.” —M.A.

MEN’S DRESS: COLE HAAN

When it comes to award-winning design, Phil Russo, vice president of design for Cole Haan, says it all starts with the consumer and understanding their needs in terms of function and style. As in previous years, by merging timeless design with modern innovation, such as the use of Nike Air technology, Cole Haan has been able to change how classic dress shoes perform and function in modern environments. It’s a golden combination that shines at retail.

Daniel Leppo, Bloomingdale’s vice president and divisional merchandising manager of men’s classic sportswear, accessories, underwear and shoes, says, “Cole Haan is always unique in its shoes due to its ability to infuse Nike Technology into the production. This season, however, Cole Haan was able to marry that ability with its rightfully earned heritage as one of the best updated classic American style shoemakers, and the result was some of the trendiest shoes in the market.”

In 2011, Cole Haan based its designs on focused and visually robust color and material palettes that highlighted the brand’s key silhouettes and product stories—a perfect blend of craftsmanship and innovation that Russo notes delivers solutions that really do make a difference as people go about their everyday designs. And that’s not an easy task for a customer base that cares about the way they look just as much as how their shoes perform. “The beauty of Cole Haan is it’s potential breadth,” Leppo praises, adding, “The brand appeals to a classic consumer and has the ability to stretch to a contemporary consumer when their look is on trend. As a result, we can sell Cole Haan shoes to my grandfather, my fashion director and everyone whose lifestyle sits between the two.” —A.V.

DESIGNER BOUTIQUE; SAKS FIFTH AVENUE

Nearly five years after the express elevator doors opened to Saks Fifth Avenue’s 10022-SHOE, the department continues to dazzle countless consumers with more than 100,000 pairs of mouth-watering designer shoes and the high-caliber service such pedigree labels respect and demand.

Still the only shopping mecca the world over boasting its own postal code, Rena Krasnow, COO and fashion director for Aquatalia by Marvin K, believes Saks’ celebration of beautiful design and “brilliant marketing” have further established the importance of footwear as a whole in the minds of consumers. It’s as if Saks has created an 8,500-square-foot cathedral of couture shoes where fashion disciples come from all ends of the earth come to worship—and spend.

Along those lines, Krasnow says Aquatalia has worked with Saks for more than 15 years and, thanks to its openness to new ideas and trends, has created many successful exclusives for the flagship. Vena Cava designers Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock agree, lauding the retailer for taking risks on new talent and channeling brands with a fresh aesthetic. “Supporting new lines always helps the industry,” Buhai says.

Saks’ celebration of haute footwear is carried from the selection to the décor and to the selling floor, says Suzanne Johnson, group senior vice president and general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue. Johnson finds that customers appreciate the relationships they have with its attentive sales associates and the extensive product knowledge they possess. “Our associates keep customers informed about new arrivals, special events and any additional initiatives throughout the store,” she explains. The store also offers personal amenities usually left to smaller, exclusive boutiques. Examples include an on-site cobbler and a private VIP room to enhance the attentiveness guests can receive. “Many customers have commented that, when the doors open, they feel like a kid in a candy store,” Johnson says. “And then when customers are finished shopping or, if they simply need a break, they will stop into the Café SFA for a bite to top off the end of a perfect shopping experience.”

Still, beautiful shoes are the overwhelming reason a unique mix of A-list Manhattanites, as well as out-of-towners, keep coming back. By offering an assortment of the best fashion styles ranging from established to emerging designers such as Nicholas Kirkwood, Jerome Rousseau, Diego Dolcini and Chrissie Morris, Johnson says 10022-SHOE has become a go-to, must-see destination. “The store always has a finger on the fashion pulse while still offering timeless styles,” Krasnow concurs. “There’s something for every kind of woman,” Mayock adds, noting that Saks has an edge without going too overboard or avant-garde.

If a retailer can learn one thing from this approach to footwear retailing, Mayock says it’s to dream big and take risks. “They are taking chances on new designer lines and this is really creating an exciting area to shop in,” she says. —A.V.

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