Recognizing Excellence in Design and Retail for 2014
IN LIGHT OF the superlative year Skechers had in 2014, perhaps its new tagline should simply be GOwin. From record-breaking sales and accelerated product innovations (driven by GOrun, GOwalk and Relaxed Fit collections) to high-profile marketing initiatives, the company fired on all cylinders.
Skechers’ annual sales hit $2.4 billion in 2014 (beating Wall Street expectations of $2.35 billion) and marked a 29 percent increase over 2013. “Skechers sales in 2014 were incredible,” says Michael Greenberg, president. “We achieved four consecutive record-breaking quarters, with the third quarter being our highest quarter revenue ever. This resulted in our highest annual net revenues in the company’s 22-year history.” Greenberg notes that the sales growth was the result of double-digit gains in domestic and international wholesale businesses as well as its retail stores that now number 1,000 doors worldwide. “We attribute this success to the high demand for our footwear from consumers, our impactful marketing and the great partnerships we have with accounts in the United States and around the world,” he says.
From a product perspective, Skechers’ broad appeal and diverse offerings helped fuel the growth. “In the United States, where domestic wholesale business increased by 24 percent, we achieved double-digit increases in our key lines, including men’s and women’s Skechers USA, Skechers Sport and Skechers GO, among others,” reports Robert Greenberg, chairman and CEO. “This growth is representative of what is happening around the world as we are seeing our product universally accepted. Every product line has not just a success story, but multiple ones—from our lightweight sport footwear for men, women and kids, to Skechers GOwalk and our Relaxed Fit collection.” In addition, the CEO cites the Stretch Weave collection of woven uppers and the colorful Skech-Air lightweight running shoes for kids as being strong sellers. “Skechers GOwalk has been an in-demand collection with shoppers buying multiple colors; it really is the perfect walking shoe,” he says, noting that Skechers is now the No. 2 recognized footwear brand and the No. 1 walking brand in America. “Relatively speaking, we’re still a newcomer in the performance running world, but after Meb [Keflezighi] achieved numerous milestones—including his win at the Boston Marathon—competing in our Skechers GOrun line, we’ve become a serious player in that arena,” he says.
Key inspirations in the design process continue to be global in nature as ideas are coming from everywhere, the CEO explains. “I watch people’s feet everywhere I go. I watch what they are wearing and how they are wearing it,” he offers. “And I see the world looking more and more the same in terms of footwear. There might be color differences and seasonality, but on the whole, there is synchronicity. What’s popular in the U.S. is working in the U.K., the U.A.E. and China.” As such, he says it allows Skechers to take inspiration from colors, fabrics and style in all walks of life and have it resonate with consumers around the globe. “The world is our Picasso,” Greenberg says.
Indeed, 2014 was a very good year for Skechers. “We have never been so stylish, so comfortable and so innovative across all our divisions,” Robert Greenberg affirms. Judy Leand
THE VANS CLASSIC slip-on was arguably the silhouette of 2014. It was on the runway as well as on celebrities, hipsters, fashionistas, surfers, skateboarders, teenagers and many people decades older who grew up wearing the now iconic silhouette from the brand that helped introduce America and the world to Southern California fashion and lifestyle beginning in 1966. The once counter culture brand, now approaching its 50th anniversary, has reached mainstream appeal while still retaining its youthful alternative edge.
Vans’ sales numbers are solid proof of this broader appeal: 19 straight quarters of double-digit gains and 2014 annual sales up 17 percent and surpassing the $2 billion mark—becoming parent company VF Corp.’s second brand to reach that milestone. (The North Face is the other.) There are simply not enough male teenage skateboarders to account for such enormous growth.
When one looks at the product behind the big numbers, a few categories stood out in 2014, according to Dave Solomon, vice president of footwear. He cites the MTE line, the Classic Lites collection and a series of limited-edition collabs—most notably Star Wars and The Beatles—as being design highlights for the year. “Vans MTE product is bringing us closer to becoming a fourseason brand and a resource for our customers and consumers,” he notes. Designed to provide protection in wet and cool conditions, MTE features include rugged uppers, fleece linings and a thermal heat retention layer as part of the insole. Solomon adds that the Classic Lites collection, consisting of its Classic uppers on UltraCush bottom units, offer improved fit, increased comfort and reduced weight.
The product innovation is proof Vans isn’t just resting on the laurels of its classic styles, which can ride waves of popularity that come and go. For the brand to remain relevant with consumers, Vans President Kevin Bailey has been steadfast in making sure it continually adapts and evolves to meet their changing wants and needs. Part of that involves not only trying to be the best action sports brand in the world, but to be an iconic brand representing creative expression and youth culture across art, music and street genres. That represents an enormous market opportunity worldwide, and it all starts with making cool products. “Innovation comes in many different forms, from helping the best skateboarders in the world perform, to delighting our consumers with products that help them express themselves creatively, to our approach of driving trends through design from the top of our distribution model all the way down,” Solomon says. “It’s a necessity that we approach innovation through the lens of our brand for it to be authentic and resonate with our consumers, and it’s what keeps us unique in the market.” —J.L.
ASICS SET A blistering pace in the performance running category as global revenues hit $2.96 billion in fiscal year 2014 and annual sales in the Americas region rose 26 percent, approaching the $1 billion mark. A good portion of that growth is in the running footwear segment and Yoshiyasu Ando, senior global designer of performance running footwear, attributes the success to an emphasis on listening to runners and meeting their footwear demands. In particular, the introduction of the third generation of the Natural33 collection last spring and the update of the perennial favorite GelKayano 21 in the fall underscored the brand’s commitment to serving its loyal customers.
“Asics is an inexhaustible supporter for runners and their performance, with a brand ethos to pursue continuous improvement and optimize performance at every moment,” Ando says. He cites the Gel-Kayano 21, in particular, as an example of the brand’s innovative new research and design methodologies that used computer simulation to provide valuable insights into how to improve the fit through the heel and, in turn, how that impacts the foot in its entirety. “The result is not only a more comfortable and secure fit, but an overall improvement to the feel and stability of the upper design,” he says, adding that style also featured the introduction of its FluidRide midsole that provides 20 percent more bounceback while also reducing weight.
The Natural33 collection was another design breakthrough in 2014 as Asics achieved significant weight reduction (more than 1.5 ounces in some cases) while continuing to elevate performance. “The uppers were built upon a new ergonomically shaped Natural33 last and featured modern seamless materials and engineered meshes,” Ando says.
Another notable design principle for Asics last year was the concept of Cubism and geometric architecture. “The concept went hand-in-hand with our scientific approach of building performance footwear, creating detailed and technical designs that marry form and function into a new vision of modern construction,” Ando explains. “This reconstruction of simple geometrical shapes created a fresh look and feel within our performance footwear.”
Of course, the proof is whether the product delivered on its performance promises. “Asics can talk all day long about technology and our exhaustive research, but ultimately what really matters to athletes is what happens after they put the shoes on their feet,” Ando offers. “The experience of our performance technologies, the comfortable fit and feel and the smooth transition in the ride of the shoes resonated with runners.”
“IT’S ALL ABOUT supporting the independent retailer,” says Evan Schwartz, president of Aetrex Worldwide. With an attitude like that it’s not hard to see why the Teaneck, NJ-based company received the nod for excellence in wholesale customer service. From its strict Internet sales and MAP policies (Aetrex doesn’t sell its primary products to e-commerce-only dealers and consumers won’t find its Lynco orthotics online at a lower price.) to its in-store iStep foot-scanning systems to the launch in 2014 of a mobile app generator that enables all iStep retail partners to have a customizable app presence for free, Aetrex is willing and able to equip its brick-and-mortar retail partners with whatever tools they need in the everchanging business world.
Specific to the app, customers can shop a store online, find the nearest physical location, receive coupons and stay connected through social media. Customers can also receive personalized alerts when they are in the vicinity of a store and can retrieve past foot scans in order to make the right sized purchases. The technology is expensive and not easy, but CEO Larry Schwartz believes it’s well worth the effort. Because the alternative—that many of these retail
ers become outmoded—would be bad for Aetrex. Offering such a level of service, he says, is “part of how we see our role in the industry.”
Retailers, in turn, continue to benefit from the partnership as Evan Schwartz says that business is booming. “2014 was one of our strongest years in a variety of areas,” he reports, noting that footwear sales were up in spring and fall and prebooks for Spring ’15 were “the best we ever had.” “Staying focused on our message and product really helped us grow last year,” he says, citing the company continuing to step up its style game as a big reason for the sales surge.
Not to mention Aetrex’s ability to ship orders faster than ever before. “We get 50 percent of our orders out on the same day, 40 percent within 24 hours and the balance within 48 hours,” Schwartz maintains. “We’ve put a lot of technology in place and we ship from both the east and west coasts from 7:30 a.m. through to 2:30 a.m. every day to ensure that this happens.” Schwartz adds, “We’re very fortunate that our customer service team has a customer-first attitude and works in sync with our sales team and upper management to help each account grow.” —Lynsday McGregor
YOU WOULDN’T USE a spade to finish drywall. That’s the message behind Rocky’s Elements collection of work boots that launched in 2014 and, according to Director of Product Development Mike Roundhouse, likely the reason why the brand grabbed the Plus Award for Design Excellence in the Work Boots category. “We think of work boots as another one of the tradesman’s tools,” Roundhouse quips, adding that the Elements collection “really resonated with our end users.”
Focusing on four specific areas of work—Dirt, Block, Wood and Steel—each grouping is built to suit the individual needs of that job: the Dirt offering focuses on waterproof constructions; Block boots feature a chemicaland abrasion-resistant vamp; Wood styles are designed with a medial cushion for kicking boards into place and a puncture-resistant plate; and a high-heat outsole and flame-resistant stitching and laces offer extra protection to welders wearing Steel boots.
The Dirt boots, in particular, stood out at retail. “Four of the five top-selling new styles for fall were from the Dirt collection,” Roundhouse shares, adding that it appealed to the masses because of its 5-mm lug depth outsole and padding around the ankle bone “for guys who bend and squat a lot on the job.” Roundhouse adds, “We worry about the comfort of our guys.”
Another introduction last year was the Rocky EnergyBed footbed, available as an insert as well as a standard feature in the Elements collection. “We know these guys are on their feet a lot. Building a correct sole is one thing, but the footbeds touch their feet all day,” Roundhouse notes. The Energy Bed has a 3-mm top layer of memory foam “for that instant wow that forms to the shape of his foot,” a moisture-wicking lining and 40-density polyurethane to absorb shock.
Elsewhere, staples like the IronClad collection continue to sell well and Roundhouse reveals Rocky plans to develop new welted product this year, as well as expand its offering. “We’re always trying to evaluate the market and see where we could expand our niche and grow even bigger,” he says. “When construction workers hear Rocky, they think waterproof. Now they’ll also think comfort.” —L.M.
BIRKENSTOCK HAS BEEN sold in the United States since 1966 and the German comfort brand (founded in 1774) has experienced waves of popularity cycles, be it with hippies, Deadheads, granola-crunching eco activists, comfort purists, Silicon Valley tech gurus and Volvo-driving yuppies. But in the past couple of seasons a new consumer demographic emerged: Fashionistas.
Birkenstocks have become undeniably cool and are the sartorial footwear choice among trend-setting celebrities and style mavens. What gives? Experts point to designers such as Celine’s Phoebe Philo and Giambattista Valli, who put their own spin on the brand’s classic cork footbed silhouettes and featured them in their Spring ’14 runway shows. Others cite the ongoing popularity of heritage brands as consumers increasingly seek authenticity in all their purchases. Then there’s the oft-discussed Normcore movement that embraces a comfort aesthetic that jibes well with Birkenstock. Add it all together and it’s no wonder the brand’s U.S. sales were through the roof in 2014, reports David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock USA. Its original footbed sandal was one if not the fashion silhouette, of 2014.
“Last year was a breakthrough year for Birkenstock,” Kahan reports, noting the Arizona two-strap sandal and the Gizeh thong in metallic as best sellers. “The all-white and all-black Arizonas were so hot, they were virtually sold out early in the season.” The iconic styles could be found on the likes of street style icons and celebrities alike, paired with everything from yoga pants to couture dresses.
This past fall the brand introduced updates to make the iconic styles even easier to wear without straying from their design DNA. Gleaning inspiration from ready-to-wear collections, Birkenstock’s designers outfitted the classic shapes in colors and materials that coordinated with what was trending in the apparel market. Think metallic details and patent leather. Kahan adds that it’s not just the shoes’ ability to complete a look or even its style versatility that has fueled the brand’s astronomical success last year. He also attributes the popularity to the authenticity of the brand’s message. “You can’t fake a 240-year history or the comfort and orthopedic benefits of our footbed,” he says. “At a time when consumers are craving authenticity and comfort, Birkenstock is the leading example of it in footwear.” —Tara Anne Dalbow
IT WAS A case of history repeating itself at Cole Haan in 2014. Not only was the nearly 90-year-old brand two for two in the Suit & Tie category, it dipped into its extensive archives for design motivation, too. “As a classic shoe company born in 1928, we decided to look back into our history for inspiration first and found a wealth of classics that could be re-interpreted for modern use,” shares Andrew Dubin, chief merchandising officer, noting that the focus on heritage fused with innovative technology saw Cole Haan’s men’s footwear sales steadily swell last year.
While the brand found success with its perennially popular Grant Drivers and the newly launched Cambridge dress collection, the big story in 2014 was last July’s debut of ZeroGrand, a collection of classics infused with Cole Haan’s proprietary Grand OS technology. Touted as its “lightest and most flexible” shoes ever, ZeroGrand shoes weigh in at only 290 grams each and every design detail features carefully considered components to offer greater flexibility and increased cushioning. For instance, the Wing Oxford is made using a Strobel stitch construction for greater flexibility. “Men wear them sock-less with suits for a trendsetting style that’s as appropriate for the boardroom as it is for a night out,” Dubin says.
To that end, he adds, “We’re finding that our customers are less attracted to one-off fashion items, but instead seek classics that are made modern through innovative engineering and attention to craft.” For example, the Pinch Grand Penny, another 2014 bestseller, marries hand-sewn craftsmanship in hand-finished nubuck, suede or brush-off leather with a Grand OS construction, replacing traditional steel shanks with lightweight molded ones. “Shoes that feature Grand OS represent the highest standard of shoemaking craft coupled with shoes that can be worn comfortably all day, without forsaking great style,” Dubin says. —L.M.
CONCEPTS COULD HAVE taken the easy route when it came to creating a St. Patrick’s Day-themed collab. Throw a few shamrocks on a sneaker, maybe a leprechuan detail on the tongue, add a little green and call it a day. But that’s not how the Cambridge, MA-based sneaker boutique rolls. Moreover, the store has many discerning eyes upon it—the U.S. Census reports its Boston home base is the city with the most concentrated population of Irish descent at around 20 percent.
Concepts owner Tarek Hassan and general manager Deon Point knew their design team had to kick it up a notch to deliver a shoe that would stand above the expected as well as make the locals proud. Enter its Concepts x Converse “Aran Sweater” hi-top. The key detail of this take on the brand’s classic Pro Leather silhouette: swapping the signature upper material with a cream-colored wool blend like the traditional Irish sweater. An orange Chevron and green star logo completed the look, and the sneaker came with additional options of green and orange laces. “We didn’t think slapping a shamrock on a sneaker would be justifiable,” Point says. “So we dug a little deeper into how the holiday came about and the background of Irish immigrants coming to America. We wanted it to reflect the holiday but also pay homage to Boston’s huge Irish population.”
Mission accomplished. But it wasn’t easy, Point notes. Incorporating the bulky sweater material came with numerous challenges. In fact, Point says the Concepts team had been working on a variation of the design for three years. “Other brands we approached just couldn’t execute our vision properly,” he says. “It had to be 100 percent or we just wouldn’t do it.” Hassan notes that Converse stepped up and delivered. “We take pride in every single one of our collabs, but this particular one hasn’t ever been done before—it involved creating a new way to make a shoe,” Hassan says.
Only a couple hundred pairs of the “Aran Sweater” ($110) were made, having gone on sale a few days before the holiday in the store only. “We sold out in minutes,” Hassan reports, noting a few hundred people waited in line. “We could have sold in the thousands—2,500 to 3,500, for sure,” Point says. “And I don’t think it would have been just Irish people either. Everybody’s a little bit Irish around that holiday, right?”
Beyond pleasing a couple hundred lucky sneakerheads and Concepts’ celebrity and athlete clientele, Point believes the “Aran Sweater” helped raise the bar with respect to all holiday-themed collabs by forcing designers to look at such projects differently. “Now you can’t just do a Christmasthemed shoe in red and green,” he says. “Or a St. Patrick’s Day-themed shoe just by putting a shamrock on it or a Halloween shoe featuring a pumpkin…You’ve got to dig deeper.” —Greg Dutter
THE MOST IMPORTANT rule of customer service at Harry’s Shoes is simple: Always listen to your customer. Robert Goldberg, president of the Manhattan Upper West Side institution, learned this rule from his father and still takes it to heart. “We pay attention to our customer,” he states. “We really want to know how they feel and what they think. I’m out on the floor talking to them all the time.”
In addition to the sit-and-fit basics of comfort, this philosophy led to an expansion in 2012 that gave the décor a facelift
and the merchandising mix an injection of sophistication to better reflect the changing tastes and needs of the Harry’s customer base. Specifically, Harry’s broadened its selection to appeal to younger, higher-income professionals, many of whom are choosing to raise their families in the city rather than flee to the surrounding suburbs. But don’t think that Goldberg abandoned any of the 80-plus years of Harry’s service legacy in doing so. He credits the consistency of the store’s approach to business as what has garnered the Plus Award for Customer Service, not to mention similar recognition by Zagat’s in 2014. “Our overall assortment, the service level we give, the legacy of the company as a fixture on the West Side for so long and our ability to stay true to who we are make us resonate with our customers,” he states.
While Goldberg plays his service trade secret cards close to the vest, he does emphasize sales associate training as a necessity and stresses the importance of all customers being served. He monitors the sales floor himself to oversee the level of service, noting, “We’re not absenteemanaged and it’s a big focus of ours.” This hands-on approach to business is part of the Harry’s Shoes tradition. It’s also frequently cited by an array of wholesale executives as a textbook example of how service should be conducted.
Overall, Goldberg views 2014 as an OK year. “Mother nature sure could’ve been more cooperative,” he laughs, noting that the cold and snowy weather at least bolstered boot sales. As for 2015, he plans to stay the course. “I just want to run the best business I can and be held in the highest regard by our customers,” he says. —Lauren Fusilier
THE COMBINATION OF fresh ideas and heritage at New Balance served the brand well in 2014. Take the launch of its men’s Bespoke Made in USA 998 sneaker, as an example: The classic silhouette seeks to capture the beauty of simplicity by using premium luxe materials like Horween leather in styles that come in deep burgundy with beet red details and rich brown with mustard trim.
“It showcases the iconic nature of our brand while celebrating craftsmanship,” states Steve Gardner, general manager of lifestyle at New Balance.
With the Normcore trend hitting its peak in 2014, the iconic New Balance jogger silhouette caught stride with the comfortdriven movement. The year saw forgotten gems from the archives re-emerge in new colorways, inspired by fresh themes and designed through the lens of collaborators. A top performer, the 574 Pennant Pack, was inspired by vintage baseball jerseys and featured a combination of suede and heather knit uppers. In addition, the 420 Tomboy style for women reached a wide customer base, according to Gardner, because it appealed to the sporty girl as well as the fashionista with its clean lines. He lauds the Ronnie
Fieg x New Balance 530 collab—the deep red, brown and gold colorways were meant to reflect Central Park in late fall, the insoles were custom-printed with a map of the park and the typography appearing on the shoe matched that of New York street signs.
Perhaps the most venerable collab of 2014 was the Concepts x New Balance 997 Rosé. Created in conjunction with the Concepts pop-up shop in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood , the model takes its inspiration from the celebratory drink and featured a rose-colored suede upper with crocodileembossed accents. Gardner says it was “game changing for what it represented” in that it helped popularize the re-launched 997 silhouette across the board.
Putting new spins on classic styles, making individual designs unique with subtle details and delivering time-honored quality all contribute to New Balance’s solid year in the Athletic Lifestyle category. “Fundamentally, we’ve been able to capture trends that excite consumers while staying true to who we are as a brand,” Gardner notes. “We have also been a consistent partner for our retailers—we listened to them and we delivered products that were great wearable stories.” —L.F.
THE SHOES MAY be little, but the response was big for Jambu Kids in 2014. “Sales increased fivefold year-over-year and 2015 is on pace to more than double 2014 revenue,” reports John Licata, sales director for the Vida Shoes Intl. brand. “We’re very fortunate to have a lot of new specialty retailers selling the brand—our independent door count has doubled year-over-year.”
While many brands in the children’s shoe category focus on takedowns of adult styles, Jambu’s approach is to design shoes that meet the specific needs and tastes of its target audience with kid-friendly features, engaging colors and versatile designs. “We take a thoughtful, strategic approach to how we can meet the child’s needs,” Licata explains. “We know, for example, kids are intrigued by nature and we use that in our designs and colors. Then we add an educational component to our packaging and marketing.” Each shoe features an animal fun fact that changes by the season and every shoebox offers a seeded tag that the child can plant.
Naly Lee, design director, notes the brand’s Mary Jane collection—the Boa, Fia, Blossom and Greenwich—was a home run in 2014. “They captured the feminine details such as iridescent/glitter webbing and floral meshes, and combined them
with functional rubber grip outsoles and toe protection for a perfect mix of fun and sparkle with durability,” she says, adding that a girls’-specific last was used to ensure a better fit. Another highlight was a waterproof collection that featured quick closures for kids on the go and insulation so they can play in the cold. Because, as Licata explains, pleasing kids is one aspect, but moms have to be sold on the product attributes as well. “Today’s mom wants a shoe that can do everything—it has to look great with an outfit, but also work on the playground and in the water,” he says.
Lee believes Jambu’s vibrant colors and little design details help the brand stand out on the shelf. “Whether it’s a reptile or floral print on webbings, our shoes are all about the details,” she says. “Color combinations are often unexpected—like mixes of glitters or neon camo on our outsoles—that are the perfect amount of details that kids are constantly drawn to.” —J.L.
REYERS SHOES, DUBBED the world’s largest shoe store at 36,000 square feet and 175,000 pairs in inventory, is also one of the country’s oldest, having opened its doors in 1886. The Sharon, PA-based sitand-fits mecca has served millions of customers since the Jubelirer family took control in 1953.
Reyers is big in many aspects, but one facet has remained a constant: everyone gets their feet measured. President Mark Jubelirer believes it all starts at the fitting stool. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing—take their shoes off, measure their feet and, when they try on a pair, watch them walk around. You may notice a heel slip or toe sliding and you can accommodate the customer in ways they didn’t even know they needed,” he states.
Jubelirer notes that more than half of Reyers’ customers wear sizes other than a regular medium-width shoe. And while narrow and wide options used to be widely available at local family-run shoe stores, those stores and the knowledgeable salespeople they employed are now fewer and farther between. That’s where Reyers Shoes comes into play, serving its loyal customer base that has spread across the country over the years.
“We’re about taking care of every customer—we’re not running away from customers who need a bit more service,” Jubelirer asserts. “Our employees have devoted themselves, they are knowledgeable and they get genuine satisfaction from helping customers.” Jubelirer credits the entire Reyers workforce for making the business successful, and he dedicates the Plus Award to them.
As for what the future may hold, who really knows. But the aim at Reyers remains steadfast: “Work hard and keep doing what we’re doing,” Jubelirer says. “I believe if you pay attention, if you’re out there on the selling floor asking questions and getting feedback from customers and from your employees—really listening to what they’re saying—then everything takes care of itself.” —L.F
Centennials are a big deal and Wolverine 1000 Mile knows it. That’s why the Rockford, MI-based brand did more than blow out some candles to celebrate when its iconic 1000 Mile Boot turned 100 in 2014. A special Centennial Edition of the original pattern featuring an All-American update hit stores in the fall and Martin Shobo, global product line manager, claims, “Everyone went wild.”
Made in Wolverine’s Big Rapids, MI, factory using genuine American bison from the Horween Leather Company, the Goodyear welt construction sits atop a leather outsole with a Vibram heel. Shobo describes the style as “a good story to tell with American bison being a true American beast.” He adds, “We have some diehard 1000 Mile fans and they were just so excited when we did something unexpected and celebrated 1000 Mile in all its true authenticity.”
That’s not the only reason the brand was crowned best Men’s Collection at the Plus Awards. “Between domestic and international sales, we’ve had an increase of 20 to 25 percent,” Shobo reveals, pointing to the Montague Chelsea boot and the Wesley wingtip chukka as top sellers. “We’re really happy with the momentum that we’re driving,” he adds. “The products are so timeless; you can go to New York and see the hipsters wearing them and come to Michigan and see a guy who’s 45 wearing them. The appeal is so diverse and that’s what brings people in.”
Rather than chase whatever’s trending on the runway, Wolverine 1000 Mile sticks to what it knows: heritage. “The Wolverine brand was born with work. That’s a real inspiration for us each season,” Shobo notes. It’s a strategy that works. “With us there’s a sense of honesty in our designs because they’re our own. We haven’t ripped off any other design work in the marketplace. It’s all built up in our archives, in our library, from 1883 right through to today,” he says. “Being honest and true in our design work is what sets us apart.” —L.M.
WHOEVER COINED THE phrase “four is a party” must have been referring to Nordstrom because for the fourth year in a row the nearly 100-year-old luxury retailer has received the Plus Award nod for Excellence in Retail in the National Chain category. Its third-quarter earnings reported an 8.9 percent increase in revenue, driven primarily by gains in its online and off-price divisions. Total sales at the company’s Rack division increased by 15 percent (owing to robust growth at existing stores and the opening of 27 locations in 2014), while net sales at the combined NordstromRack.com and Haute Look flash sale site surged by 34 percent.
So what’s the Seattle-based retailer’s secret? According to Scott Meden, executive vice president and GMM of footwear, it’s simple: “We are uniquely positioned to serve customers however they want to shop.” He adds, “We don’t think customers care about channels; they just want to shop whenever and wherever is convenient for them. Our focus continues to be on elevating our service for our customers, remaining relevant and evolving by giving customers choices.”
In 2014, that included snagging the exclusive on Sarah Jessica Parker’s first foray into footwear and handbags, SJP Collection. To launch the line, the actress
and style maven embarked on a promotional tour of select Nordstrom stores across the country where she met with customers and signed shoes. “We were thrilled to offer customers the once-in-alifetime experience to meet Sarah Jessica in our stores. She was so approachable and open to meeting with her fans and customers,” Meden says.
Nordstrom also introduced customization technology last year in the form of “Design Your Own Shoes,” an in-store design studio at its Bellevue, WA, location in partnership with Australian website Shoes of Prey. Shoppers can choose from 12 silhouettes and more than 170 fabric options, as well as heel heights and embellishments, to create their dream shoe. “It’s a great solution for customers who wear very large or very small shoe sizes,” Meden notes. Five more shop-in-shops are slated to launch in Q1 of this year.
While Meden is keeping mum on what else is coming down the pipeline this year, he stresses that Nordstrom will remain steadfastly committed to seeing the business through the eyes of the consumer. “Our focus continues to be on elevating the service experience we offer our customers, remaining relevant and serving them however they want to shop,” he says. —L.M.
WHILE FASHION AND comfort used to be considered separate entities when it came to shoemaking, today’s more comfort-conscious consumer expects a shoe to feel as good as it looks. It takes innovation and creativity to deliver attractive shoes that possess great comfort properties—a skill Clarks delivered on once again in 2014 and why the brand was recognized with the Innovations in Comfort Plus Award, presented by OrthoLite.
“Clarks has done a wonderful job of customizing comfort in each of its collections to get peak performance—each kind of shoe is fitted with a unique foam combination to deliver specialized comfort features,” says Pamela Gelsomini, president of OrthoLite.
Indeed, comfort features have been at the core of Clarks for nearly 200 years. Rick Byrne, senior vice president of research and development at Clarks, declares: “A great shoe is the sum of its parts. Understanding hardness, resilience and densities of sole compounds, choosing the right compound with the best feel and having amazing lasts as the great fit foundations of everything we build are all key components.” These components are reconfigured for each style.
Clarks introduced three comfort innovations of note in 2014. The Active Air Vent technology circulates fresh outside air through the shoe by way of a small air bladder encapsulated in the heel. Clarks Plus delivers targeted cushioning where feet need it most and a new gait mapping technology promotes natural foot motion.
Also launched in 2014 was Clarks’ Cushion concept, which encompasses a series of different under-foot comfort applications. It is an umbrella under which the differing comfort-driven technologies can be categorized, Byrne explains. “Ultimately, where the consumer sees Clarks Cushion, they’ll know it’s a commitment that the product will deliver to our high comfort standards,” he says. After all, these standards are what have built the loyal consumer following and new innovations are the reason that Byrne believes the brand will continue to thrive in a competitive marketplace. “Our work is never done,” he says. “The innovative spirit of Clarks and the desire to find new and better ways to offer comfort and style is a core part of the brand’s personality.” —L.F.
FOR THE THIRD consecutive year, Rockport has distinguished itself with a Plus Award in the Men’s Comfort category. Robust sales in the back half of 2014 were fueled by new product introductions, and waterproof footwear boosted sell-through in the fall and early winter. (On a side note: Berkshire Partners and New Balance inked a deal to purchase The Rockport Company from the Adidas Group. The transaction is slated to close later this year and Bob Infantino, a former Rockport executive vice president prior to his 18-year run at Clarks Companies N.A., will be the CEO.)
Rockport’s design highlights this past fall included XCS—a versatile, outdoorsy city to trail collection—along with an expanded grouping of rugged outdoor styles. Additionally, the company took a strong stance with its proprietary Hydro-Shield waterproof technology that was featured in dress and active casual lines. Boots, ranging from moto styles to dressier expressions, were also an integral part of the brand’s seasonal offering. An expansion of the RocSports Lite collection with ActivFlex and Zone Crush, featuring ExoSoft EVA for a smooth, comfy and lightweight ride, rounded out the presentation.
“We continue to focus on the aspect of mobility for all-day wear and we are thinking of the wearing experience in a holistic manner,” says Dave Pompel, Rockport’s vice president of men’s product. “Our balance of comfort and style continues to resonate with consumers.”
Thanks to a cold and snowy winter, boots and waterproof styles energized Rockport’s business. “We offer waterproof in all categories—dress, casual and rugged—and had strong sell-through in all three, proving that waterproof is no longer only applicable in boots,” Pompel says. “Our waterproof dress across all collections continues to perform year-round at retail.” Pompel adds its chukka boots, which began to sell in August, were another bright style in the collection. He expects it will carry through into this spring as consumers look for multi-season use from their purchases.
Overall, Pompel says Rockport’s design mission is to be trend-relevant while always providing a comfort solution across all its categories. “We leverage all of that against our comfort footwear principles,” he says. —J.L.
The company experienced some of the highest sales numbers in its history and its Justin Boots brand earned a Plus Award for Design Excellence in Cowboy Boots. Louis Russo, brand manager, attributes the success to Justin’s ability to stay true to its roots and three core characteristics: Western character, authenticity and craftsmanship. “Justin Boots has built a reputation for authentic, detailed craftsmanship, producing a quality product at a great value,” he says. “This tradition and our deep Western roots resonate well with our consumer, and because of that we’ve been able to keep their trust and respect.”
Every Justin Boots style is made in the United States and features a combination of performance, comfort and style. The Justin Bent Rail collection, in particular, performed best at retail in 2014. The star of the line, a men’s boot with a leather outsole and square toe box, offers the brand’s signature J-Flex Flexible Comfort System insole, a long base block heel and a bold, punchy colored upper. An array of other on-trend details such as distressed leather treatments, intricately stitched designs, pops of color and creative piping illustrates the brand’s commitment to updating its aesthetic without straying from its heritage.
For women, that was realized in a color palette ranging from turquoise to fuchsia with patterns inspired by traditional paisley prints and dream catcher motifs—styles that have been playfully coined, “I’m with the band” boots. “You can see the character in the craftsmanship, the leathers, the stitching—you can almost see the well-worn hands that have been building our boots since 1879,” Russo says.
Justin Boots’ design inspiration often comes from its customers, Russo adds. “That input, alongside our product development team, is truly invaluable,” he says. “We are fully inte- grated into our customer’s lifestyle, and that’s what helps make us the leading brand in the Western footwear category.” —T.D.
LAST YEAR ONE would be hard-pressed to read through the usual crop of monthly fashion glossies and not encounter a Sam Edelman shoe—or two or three. Edelman’s on-trend, built straight from the runway designs attract the attention of fashion editors from Vogue, In Style and Harpers Bazaar, on a monthly basis. As well as the likes of super model Kate Upton who signed on for a third season as the face of the ad campaign.
“It’s the whimsical nature of the brand along with our ability to translate trends to create wearable styles that cause our designs to stand out in the marketplace,” says Sam Edelman, designer, founder and president for the division of Brown Shoe Company. For 2014, that meant an expanded dress category for spring and a strong menswear-inspired collection for fall. “In addition to the launch of our apparel line,” says Edelman, “2014 was a banner year for the brand.”
In putting together his footwear collections, Edelman gleaned inspiration from the streets of London, Milan, Paris and St. Tropez. He says he was inspired by the women he saw during those travels. “She wants wearable and versatile items,” he notes. Edelman responded with an androgynous menswear-infused offering that included sleek smoking slippers along with bold penny loafers feminized with a block heel. In addition, Edelman introduced a sporty trainer package full of vulcanized slip-on sneakers and fashion-forward lace-ups.
Edelman brings more than 30 years of experience to the design table and has developed some of the most successful shoe collections in the industry. His resume includes stints with Candies, as co-founder of Kenneth Cole, leading Esprit and the launch of Sam & Libby before launching his eponymous brand in 2004. The 2014 collection epitomizes the blending of his seasoned knowledge and his knack for knowing the next hot shoe. Classic d’Orsay pumps live beside studded cage sandals illustrating the brand’s diversity as well as Edelman’s in-depth understanding of what the Sam Girl wants: a simple, streamlined pump for day and a dangerously sexy sandal by night. “Our customer knows she can count on us to offer trend on products each and every season,” Edelman says. —T.D.
FOLLOW THE COBBLESTONE roads of Beacon Hill to Moxie, Boston’s neighborhood shoe boutique. The European vibe of the historic district brings in loyal locals and curious tourists alike and Owner Karen Fabbri makes sure that everyone who visits leaves the store with a smile, whether or not they leave with a bag in hand. This is part of what she credits to Moxie’s 13 years of success (and counting), noting, “The neighborhood feel, the friendliness of the staff, the genuine and down-to-earth experience that customers have here, along with our fun sense of style in the merchandising mix, all contribute to sales and customer loyalty.”
Moxie’s ambience is what Fabbri calls hip feminine—vibrant purple walls, crystal ball chandeliers and an accent wall of backlit cutout circles contribute to the energetic space, which she notes reflects Moxie’s customers. Serving an active set of women in the 25to 60-year-old age range, the shop caters to the fashion
needs of young moms, professionals and empty-nesters who have returned to city life with an array of contemporary American designer offerings. Top-selling brands including Tory Burch, Cynthia Vincent, Delman and Jack Rogers.
The classic styles popular at Moxie reflect Boston’s traditional and somewhat preppy aesthetic, but Fabbri strives to add fresh picks to the mix. “People hit ruts and keep buying what they’re used to, but it’s my job to introduce them to new things and help kick up their style a notch,” she says. Fabbri and her buying partner and store manager, Kaylie Abela, not only fill the space with a carefully curated selection, they also open up Moxie for guest lectures to promote foot and overall fitness, as well as feature diet and style experts on occasion.
Interacting with the community, be it in person or via Moxie’s active social media presence, is at the core of Fabbri’s retail philosophy. The boutique, like any retail business, has seen its share of ups and downs—it got off to a rocky start with its grand opening in early October 2001 just weeks after the 9-11 attacks—and its second location (in Wellesley, MA) opened in 2009 and closed recently. But Fabbri has never lost faith and believes Moxie will remain a Boston fixture in the years ahead. “I feel like you need to be optimistic in this business,” she asserts. “You’d better love the people you talk to every day and the merchandise you surrounded yourself with because, at the end of the day, you’re really doing this for the experience.” —L.F.
VINCE CAMUTO LEFT behind a legacy that will continue to flourish thanks largely to the unshakable foundation he built it upon. The fashion legend, who passed away in late January, was at the forefront of building two footwear empires: Nine West and the Camuto Group. Camuto forever changed the footwear industry with his impeccable business acumen and unmatched style, and 2014 was no exception. His namesake label experienced another outstanding year across a range of styles, including elevated biker boots, sparkling stilettos, effortless courts and bedecked ballet flats with a signature flexible, gripped sole.
While 2014 may go down as a year that saw many grasping at what trends to commit to, as mixed signals and unpredictable weather played havoc on traditional businesses, Camuto tapped into his famous sixth sense and predicted the rise of the transitional bootie. With an emphasis on seasonless boots, the line excelled. Fusing the formal with the casual, a bevy of jet black and rich brown leather ankle boots were adorned with metallic buckles, chains, toe caps and zippers. The collection, spanning moto boots to spikey stiletto booties, garnered the attention of fashion editors, celebrities and the everyday woman looking for a chic shoe at a great price point that Camuto has always focused on delivering. Beyond boots, highlights from the collection included python textured pumps and lace-up stilettoes. The Vince Camuto woman sought sophistication with an edge, and Camuto delivered with styles that took her from day to night and through snow and rain.
Camuto himself may be gone, but the Camuto Group is committed to carrying on his legacy. The company’s ambitious threeto fiveyear plan includes opening 100 additional stores across the United States. It’s a strategy that worked well for Nine West back in the day. To say, however, the company won’t miss a beat without the man at the helm is an understatement of epic proportions. Camuto simply can’t be replaced. Nonetheless, women around the world can rest assured that his commitment to creating beautiful, wearable shoes has been instilled in the brand’s DNA. Expect plenty of beautiful Vince Camuto shoes in the seasons ahead. —T.D.
UGG AUSTRALIA, A brand that’s been making its iconic shearling boots for nearly 40 years, continued to stay at the tip of the fashion spear in 2014. Sure, a cold winter helped fuel demand, but that was only one aspect that made Ugg the most searched item—for a third consecutive year—on Cyber Monday. “We are first and foremost dedicated to maintaining the emotional connection between our product and our consumer,” says Connie Rishwain, president of Ugg Australia, noting that every style affords the same level of distinct comfort. “They evoke a sensation that feels like nothing else,” she adds. That unique combination of comfort paired with innovative new materials and fashion-forward silhouettes kept the brand relevant in 2014.
In particular, Ugg Australia diversified its product offering while remaining true to its comfort lifestyle DNA. The brand’s most recent ad campaign with the tagline “This is Ugg” featured tastemaker Langely Fox Hemingway (at right) and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and included items from its men’s, women’s and kids’ collections as well as home products like blankets, pillows and rugs. The campaign aimed to establish Ugg as a year-round lifestyle brand. “There is something in this collection for everyone,” Rishwain says.
Though the Classic Short boot remains the brand’s best-seller, the Fall ’14 collection introduced consumers to a bevy of new styles, including the Simmens, a trans-seasonal boot with a wool blend shaft and decorative double buckle details and the Chancery, a tall boot that speaks to the cityloving style savant equipped with bomber jacket Twinface sheepskin and a short stacked heel. “The product team was inspired by stories that made
an impression on their lives,” Rishwain offers. Realized in an oxblood rich color scheme, the collection boasts a range of materials spanning tailored plaids to chunky sweater knits as well as extravagant extras like bold buckles, chic zippers and edgy rivets. “Each detail is unique and intends to help tell the story,” she says.
Beyond the details, Rishwain says Ugg’s design ethos is a blend of style and function. “Our research shows that consumers have a strong desire for fashion to coexist with function,” she says. That ranges from unexpected waterproof styles to stacked heel booties that allow wearers to trudge through snow, but look stylish in the process. “We produced a multi-functional collection that can take our consumer from day to night seamlessly,” Rishwain says. —T.D.
IN THE HYPER-COMPETITIVE outdoor performance footwear market it can be tough to stand apart from the competition, but The North Face, a division of VF Corp.’s Outdoor and Action Sports coalition, made significant headway on the footwear front in 2014. A particular design highlight was the Ultra Series, a collection of lightweight, technical styles with a modern, athleticinspired aesthetic.
“These were styles that were built to meet the demands of athletes who prefer lighter weight, higher-performing shoes but were frustrated by the lack of protection available in more minimal footwear,” says Brian Moore, vice president of footwear. “While still being considerably lighter than most conventional outdoor shoes, our hiker, trail runner and trainer didn’t skimp on features and provided best-in-class technologies like Gore-Tex, Vibram, Cradle Guide, Pebax plates, Ultra Airmesh and Flashdry.”
Moore credits senior designer, Bertrand Racine, for developing the strong and more progressive visual language that was introduced on the Ultra Guide model the year before. The North Face then utilized that language across a spectrum of products spanning the primary outdoor activities, which became the Ultra Series. “[Models in the Ultra Series] are built with a much more modern and refined sensibility than you would normally see in traditional outdoor shoes,” Moore says. “Stitched, heavy leathers and suedes were replaced with high-performance synthetics that were welded to increase durability and reduce weight. The result was a more modern take on what a hiker, trail runner and mountain athletic trainer could look like.”
The line’s unique look and construction method helped it stand out on the shoe wall, and the design consistency across the collection made it more recognizable to the customer. Moore adds, “We stayed away from traditional browns and beiges and incorporated colors that were more progressive and in line with the way our apparel looks in the market, featuring iconic colors like black, silver and The North Face red.”
The incorporation of functional details that also provide a unique aesthetic— many of which were first used in the brand’s high-end Verto mountaineering line—were key inspirations in the design process. Principle among these was a support structure that keeps the midfoot in place using welded TPU instead of layers of leather. “This has since been dubbed the ‘geo’ and while functional in its intent, it has resulted in a very consistent and more modern look across the [Ultra Series] collection,” Moore says.
The success of the brand’s products certainly had a positive effect on the bottom line in 2014 and has been recognized in the press—the brand scored a Gear of the Year award for its Ultra Trail from Outside and Runner’s World gave the style a Best Debut nod. “Our footwear business has seen double-digit growth yearover-year,” Moore confirms, adding that the hiking segment has also been a standout. “Our technical outdoor business has spiked since the introduction of the Ultra Series in Spring ’14 and we have since incorporated that design language in other styles including high-volume hikers in our Storm collection and in the relaunch of our Hedgehog series, which will hit the market this spring.” —J.L.
IN 2014, SOREL, the Columbia Sportswear-owned subsidiary, hit its stride with a line that fused function with style. The fresh looks (led by its Medina II bootie), innovative materials, performance technologies and versatile silhouettes blended outdoor heritage with fashion-forward designs that clicked at retail. That and last winter’s super-cold weather helped spike 40 percent growth in Sorel’s fourth quarter sales to $92.1 million. (Fiscal year 2014 sales increased to $166.2 million.)
According to Erin Sander, Sorel’s global product director, the Fall ’14 collection featured premium boots that amplified equestrian and western wear trends with varying boot heights, a variety of patterned uppers, and the use of textiles and chunky knits. The collection offered consumers versatile fashion options as well as protection and style. “We continue to see our consumers craving functional and stylish footwear that transitions effortlessly from outdoor to fashion,” she says.
The aforementioned Medina II, a bold and puddle-proof ankle rain bootie, fits that crossover definition to a T. “Industrial-inspired metal hardware and a gold metal sleeve riveted on the heel and a removable full-grain leather gaiter make this a more functional, avant-garde alternative to other rain boots on the market,” she says. Other highlights in the women’s collection in 2014 included the Joan of Arctic Wedge Mid, a sassy city boot on a comfy wedge platform; the Slimshortie western-inspired short boot; and the Tivoli II ankleheight winter boot that offers style in a versatile, slim silhouette. Sander reports that the Joan of Arctic Wedge collection “is already becoming a classic and leading inspiration in our Fall ’15 line.” On the men’s side, Sander cites Sorel’s Caribou XT boot that incorporates Columbia’s proprietary Omni-Heat technology, a waterand wind-resistant textile upper and a waterproof, vulcanized rubber outsole as a standout.
Sorel’s momentum looks to continue into this year as retailers embrace the brand and expand shelf space. Sorel could also benefit from another record-cold winter for the eastern third of the country, which helped clean out boot inventories and may inspire consumers to prepare themselves to battle the elements—in style—when next winter arrives. —J.L.
WHEN KEDS LAUNCHED a collaboration in 2013 with pop sensation Taylor Swift—both being talismans of All-American style—one might have expected the partnership to be a hit. The seven-time Grammy winning, multi-platinum singer/songwriter looked right at home in the brand’s Braveheart
campaign wearing a polka-dot dress paired with Keds’ classic Champion kicks. Everything she touches seems to turn to gold and the debut collab was no exception. The Keds x Taylor Swift collection for 2014 picked up right where the debut left off, and even exceeded expectations. “We had a phenomenal year,” reports Holly Curtis, director of design at Keds, “We were able to reach the entire globe with
our product and message, and sales really reflected those efforts.”
The Fall ’14 collection featured 17 iconic Champion styles re-imagined in an array of quirky prints and bold-colored solids. Highlights included herringbone bow prints and poppy Daisy seersucker styles. The traditional patterns were reinvented in fresh ways that looked simultaneously modern and classic—much like the singer who designed them. “As a heritage brand we are constantly striving to strike a balance between authenticity and having a modern point-of-view,” Curtis explains, citing the denim and chambray styles as being emblematic of the brand’s mission to push the creative limits while remaining true to its roots. Curtis adds that the collection was born out of a desire to turn everyday classics into something really special. And partnering with Swift is also a way to acknowledge the brand’s connection to leading American women through the course of its 99-year history. “Keds celebrated Taylor’s place in the brand’s history of being loved by leading ladies alongside Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy,” she says. “We really see Taylor as an icon of classic American style.”
The collab is not only skin, or in this case, canvas deep. Of course, the product must look great in order to sell, but Keds is hoping that Swift, being such a superb role model, rubs off on both the brand and young women. “We love how she can inspire us and our consumers to be comfortable in our own skin and just put ourselves out there,” Curtis say. She credits Swift’s fearlessness for having pushed the collection to being truly unique with its bevy of bright colors and original prints. “These are shoes that don’t put you in a box, they can be styled lots of different ways so that you can really own your own look.” —T.D.
FOR FOUR YEARS running Zappos has taken home the Plus Award for Retail Excellence in the Online category. The retailer has pretty much set the tier’s gold standard and its name has become as synonymous with online shoe retailing as Kleenex has to tissues.
Jeff Espersen, general manager of footwear, attributes Zappos’s success to the company’s grounding in customer service. “We’re always thinking about the customer and how we can better serve them,” he affirms. “We’re a service company.”
A large portion of that service commitment centers around Zappos’s renowned call center, where a team of representatives is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to assist shoppers with their needs. Unlike many other online companies that use overseas-based thirdparty reps, the Zappos team is U.S.-based and committed to making shopping as seamless as possible. That means no stilted scripts that must be followed. Service is given on an individual, as-needed basis that Espersen says helps build relationships with customers. The approach has resulted in everything from an infamous 10-hour-long service call that ended with the sale of a single pair of Ugg boots to a representative sending shoes to a customer via a competitor to flowers and condolences sent from the Zappos team delivered to a funeral that a customer was buying proper shoes to attend.
This care extends to Zappos’ wholesale partners, as well. Esperson reports that the retailer is very cognizant of treating its vendors well, picking them up from the airport, ferrying them wherever they might need to go afterward and helping them set up their presentations. The genuine approach to relationships makes for a positive experience with whoever comes into contact with the company. “We believe it’s the simple things that people remember,” Espersen offers. “We’re always trying to get better, whether that’s in service, in our brand offering or in making it simple for the customer to find what they need.”
The desire to streamline the site led to the implementation of a regular price level on Zappos in 2014. No longer offering sale or clearance items helped clear away clutter that often distracted customers from finding what they were looking to buy. “It can be overwhelming because there’s just so much out there,” Espersen says of the streamlined makeover. “The regular price strategy allows us to show the product we want and helps customers find what they want sooner.” —L.F.