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Richie Liao and Marty Rose

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Approaching its 20th year in business, All Black Footwear has bloomed into a vibrant success story that few could have ever predicted.

Richie Liao and Marty Rose
Richie Liao and Marty Rose

No one saw this coming: the rise of All Black Footwear into a go-to source for edgy, wearable styles currently sold in approximately 300 boutiques across North America that cater to thousands of loyal fans season after season. While still relatively small, the brand is often at the front of big trends, having carved out a niche through innovative materials (like recycled fish skin and lacquered recycled Chinese newspapers) and statement silhouettes that run from dainty ballet flats to bold sawtooth platforms to its latest round sole Mod series. Parent company ACL Footwear, based in Taiwan, and Marty Rose, distribution manager for North America, aren’t consumed with trying to become the biggest brand. Rather, they stay true to All Black Footwear’s indie roots, always pushing the envelope on design. By owning a factory in Taiwan and through sourcing partnerships in Italy, Spain, China, Bangladesh, and Turkey, the company calls its own shots on what, how much, and who they sell. Attractive qualities like independence and flexibility keep the brand’s dance card full.

But 20 years ago, the odds that All Black Footwear would survive a season, never mind amounting to what it is today, seemed infinitesimally small. Picture this: Rose, who had spent the previous 25 years working in the advertising and high-end fashion businesses as a top exec, took on a new industry and set his sights on distributing a start-up brand with a mere handful of accounts in the U.S. What’s more, his ACL Footwear partners barely spoke English. Undeterred, a few team members arrived in New York, samples in tow, to help Rose set up shop at a June FFANY show. Rose, having heard through the grapevine that it was a good venue to introduce a new brand, took the last booth available, which was next to a bathroom. No one wanted it. But Rose saw it differently: “I thought, I’m sure I’ll get a lot of traffic passing by.”

Rose’s assumption was spot-on. His outsider’s approach to an array of brand-building tactics has been, too. That first show was busy. Day one saw orders from boutiques in Chicago, L.A., and New York. Day two was even better. That’s when a buyer came into the booth wearing All Black Footwear shoes that she’d bought at American Rag. She loved the brand. Rose told her he felt sure there were a lot more people like her. The woman happened to work for Anthropologie. She returned later with her team and picked out 15 styles. “It was very serendipitous and exciting that on the second day of our first show we landed a major account,” Rose recalls, adding that Anthropologie called a few months later to reorder. They’ve been a customer ever since.

While Rose didn’t know squat about shoes then, he knew plenty about marketing, brand building, and retail. He saw potential in All Black Footwear despite the enormous odds and industry unknowns staring him in the face. He relied on his strong business sense. For example, he respected American Rag. “They were selective, buying about six of our styles, but had been reordering for about two years,” Rose says. “I thought: American Rag is very cool. If they see a future in this brand, I should see one, too.”

Coming off the high of that first show, Rose told his partners that he wanted to take another booth at FFANY’s upcoming December edition. But it took some convincing. “They initially said one show a year was enough,” Rose says. “I said when a retailer like Anthropologie buys our shoes, sells out, and reorders, that means other retailers will follow their lead.” Rose’s common sense again proved correct. “We had a line of customers waiting outside our booth before we opened on the first day,” he says, noting that the owners’ son, Richie Laio, now president, made that trip and has been a trusted partner ever since. “We got a bunch of orders. It went better than we could have possibly imagined.”

Left to right: Hot News Ballet, Fish Skin Ballet collection, Sequin Ballet styles featured in Oprah magazine, Flatform Sock boot, Side Cord oxford.
Left to right: Hot News Ballet, Fish Skin Ballet collection, Sequin Ballet styles featured in Oprah magazine, Flatform Sock boot, Side Cord oxford.

Off to the Races

All Black Footwear charged out of the gate. “The first couple of years were like a dream come true for an entrepreneur,” Rose recalls, adding that the brand’s trade show schedule quickly expanded to events year-round and nationwide. “We were growing, getting reorders, and then Nordstrom put us in 20 or so doors. We became a pretty big deal and quickly built a nice, solid business.”

In addition to innovative designs and materials, Liao attributes All Black Footwear’s rise to being a reliable partner. “We keep our promises by delivering on-time, and we always stand behind our customers,” he says. “As a factory-based company, we understand the challenges of small-quantity orders, but we rarely turn down requests when someone expresses interest.” Liao adds, “We always strive to make our customers feel like they’re part of our family and working with them to bring their visions to life, even if we just make eight pairs.”

Owning a factory, Rose adds, has been a difference maker in keeping All Black Footwear at the forefront of fashion. The brand doesn’t have to sweat huge minimums required by many factories. “We have a lot more flexibility; if we like something, we make it,” he explains, citing the company’s new Mod series as the latest example. “That could have been a gamble if we had to make the usual minimums.” For the record, Rose reports that the collection has sold in very well for this fall. “That’s because it’s very different looking,” he says. “Buyers come to us because they know we’re going to always have something they haven’t seen before.”

Uniqueness, above all, is the leading ingredient in the All Black Footwear recipe. “We’re not ‘just another shoe brand.’ We’re in front and/or create trends,” Rose says, noting that its styles are more affordable than designer labels. The other key ingredient of this brand recipe is to never target a specific age group, income segment, or demographic. “We target a state of mind, a woman who wants something different and likes edgy styling but doesn’t cross the line into risky. That’s how we’ve built the brand,” he says.

The styles that first defined the look were ballet flats. The NYC Ballet (being rejuvenated for the 20th anniversary), Fish Ballet, and Sequin Ballet were huge hits. The latter was featured in Oprah magazine’s Favorite Things list. The innovative materials caught shoppers’ attention, as did the embellishments. “They had more interesting details than had been available before,” Rose says, adding that the follow-up Soft Bow collection, featuring a funky retro heel, became an even bigger success story. “That was one of Anthropologie’s best-selling shoes during those years,” he notes.

Left to right: All Black Footwear’s sales team: Kate Blake, Marty Rose, and Theresa DeCicco; the Tux slip-on.
Left to right: All Black Footwear’s sales team: Kate Blake, Marty Rose, and Theresa DeCicco; the Tux slip-on.

Then came All Black Footwear’s Hot News collection, featuring lacquered recycled newspaper uppers. This breakthrough in materials was the brainchild of Liao’s mother, Colin, who has since passed away. (She also came up with the brand name, which was a nod to the top tier “black label” collections created by various designers.) “Hot News was a huge hit,” Rose says. “Lucky magazine gave us a whole page promoting the collection.”

Hit styles that have followed include the Cowman loafer (2011), Tux slip-on (2014), Amazing Mesh sneaker (2015), and Flatform Shoetie (2017) . The factory does an excellent job expanding such popular styles into broader collections. Hot News, for example, branched out to a kitten heel and pocketbooks. The Cowman evolved into a cut-out style and a lug sole version. Rose is a firm believer that good ideas can have long lifespans. “We just keep introducing fresh treatments, like our Amazing Mesh sneakers; they’re now going on eight years, and the styles keep on selling,” he says.

Kate Blake, owner of Shoo in Milwaukee, WI, and All Black Footwear’s traveling rep, says Amazing Mesh is the brand’s best-selling style in her store. “There was nothing like it in the market when it debuted, and it has become a fan favorite,” she reports, adding that customers often buy multiple pairs. “Not only do they wear it as an everyday, knock-around shoe, but it also works well for traveling, paired with a cute dress, and looks good with sweatpants.” The Side Core oxford, Flatform shoetie, and Tux slip-on have also been Shoo hits, according to Blake. “The Side Cord is different from everything else out there,” she says. “We’re on our fourth year carrying it.” Shoo will also reintroduce the Tux, a dressier sneaker with a pointed toe, this summer because bows and sneakers are so on-trend. Overall, she says All Black Footwear, which Shoo began carrying in 2007, ranks as one of the most important in the store’s mix of approximately 50 brands. “All Black has always been a little edgy and different, and it’s a great price point,” she says. “My customers have come to love the brand for its uniqueness.”

The Road Less Traveled

All Black Footwear’s uniqueness extends to its approach to daily business. It just doesn’t operate the way other brands do. That has a lot to do with Rose’s early outsider status—he didn’t know any better. But there’s also a strong streak of independence running through him. He does things for the good of the brand and its many independent retailers. That means saying no, if necessary, even if it results in less revenue overall.

Hence the decision to steer clear of major department stores. Rose says working with them became a “ridiculous” numbers game involving markdown money, returns, renting tables, timing of sales, etc. “We’d deliver shoes in August, and they’d want to put them on sale in early November. That’s completely unfair to my boutique customers who have the right to try and make full margin at holiday time.” Similar hassles led to dropping Amazon. “It was great when their business model allowed you to protect prices, but those days are long gone,” Rose says. “We’re a good boutique brand along with select mid-sized dealers like Anthropologie, Free People, and Von Maur. We’re better off with those types of customers than fighting over dollars and cents with the others.”

Rose fights for what he believes is best for his customers, no matter their order size. “I made a decision early on to protect my customers, and that means, for example, not selling everyone in the same area or not selling the same styles to them,” he says. Recently, it meant losing a multi-store chain over a single store account. When the chain opened a store steps from the existing Florida account, Rose wouldn’t budge on the store’s demand for brand exclusivity, even though it had regional exclusivity in about nine other locations. “I refused and they dropped us,” he says. “We might have made more money in the short-term, but if I caved, it would have hurt our reputation.”

All Black Footwear’s DTC site operates with the needs of its retailers in mind, as well. First, prices on the site are higher than those it instructs retailers to charge. Second, the site doesn’t feature a new season’s entire collection; it carries about half, along with some classics. “We make sure the only way for people to get the other styles is by shopping in those boutiques,” Rose says.

While fewer big accounts might be a lighter lift logistically, Rose sees the multitudes of smaller accounts as an overall advantage. There’s strength in 300 customers and the business is better insulated as opposed to, say, a quarter of total sales leaving in one fell swoop. “Boutiques tend to reorder and hold onto their inventory—even during the pandemic,” he says. “It’s a solid, reliable business model. Plus, they’re a pleasure to do business with.”

One such customer is Two Sole Sisters in Boulder, CO. Co-owner Laurel Tate says All Black Footwear was one of the first brands added to its mix when the store opened 16 years ago. “We’ve included the brand in every single buy since,” she reports. “All Black Footwear brings fashion, creativity, character, and, most of all, style—all at a price that doesn’t scare off customers.” Tate says, “You’d be hard-pressed to find another brand that looks like it. The materials, color combinations, and fabrications are incomparable; it’s such fun to see new collections each season.” Another brand attribute, Tate notes, is versatility. “We’re able to purchase sandals, sneakers, boots, and flats from one brand, and know that the fit and construction will be dialed in across the board,” she says, adding that All Black Footwear has been integral to the store’s survival. “I think back on those early styles, like the pastel fish skin Mary Jane and peep-toe satin flat with whimsical baubles that was playful yet incredibly wearable, that made both an economic and emotional impact on our business. I’m grateful to them for helping us create a unique sales floor that keeps our customers coming back year after year.”

Elena Brennan, owner of Bus Stop in Philadelphia, has also been a customer since opening her doors in 2007. Popular styles over the years have included mesh sneakers, oxfords with chunky lug soles, and any style made with its recycled fish skin—all of which feature top-notch craftsmanship. “Each season, All Black offers a wide array of fresh designs that are on-trend,” Brennan says. “You’re really spoiled on choice.” In fact, Brennan and Rose took the relationship to the next level, in 2015, with a collab agreement that’s ongoing. It began with oxfords and expanded to sandals, ankle boots, and sneakers. Not only is it a creative outlet for Brennan, it provides much-desired exclusivity. “I love color blocking and mixing different leather textures that my customers can spot a mile away,” she says, adding, “My All Black x Bus Stop designs have performed beyond my wildest expectations and have been an integral part to my overall business.”

The Road Ahead

Where does All Black Footwear go from here? Rose sees growth potential, both within in its existing account base and through the addition of select new partners. But, he notes, growth isn’t the end-all, be-all. All Black Footwear’s wallflower qualities have served it well for years, and the company has no desire to get caught up in a popularity contest now. “We’ve never wanted to be a huge deal,” Rose says. “We want to be a great brand that we can still control. Even though we’re in all the places I think we should be, we’re still not a mainstream brand, and that’s perfectly fine with us.”

Laio says the future for All Black Footwear is hard to predict. The market is always changing, and the competition is formidable. But the brand will not alter its DNA. It will “continue to adapt, innovate, and strive for excellence,” he says. “I’m confident that with our dedication and commitment, we’ll continue to grow in the North American market.”

In the meantime, All Black Footwear remains a labor of love for both Liao and Rose. “We’ve always been confident in our abilities, but what has motivated us all these years is our customers’ appreciation,” Liao says. “Season by season, their feedback and smiles of approval encourages us to keep innovating.”

On that note, Rose can’t wait to present All Black Footwear’s latest styles, led by an expanded Mod collection and a new sneaker group. “I had no idea I was going to have this much fun, that this would be a constant creative challenge, and I’d work with so many great entrepreneurs and positive thinkers,” Rose says. “I’m blessed.” •

True Colors

How a man named Rose guided All Black Footwear to a gold standard fashion brand in North America.

It started with a handshake and, early on, plenty of hand gestures to work though the language barrier. Yet the relationship between Marty Rose and Taiwan-based ACL Footwear overcame the obstacles to become a leading fashion brand in North America. Rose saw enormous market white space early on, and the design team has been coloring it in ever since with unique styles. Along the way, there have been vivid “moments in time” that provided valuable learning experiences. Below are a few highlights,

Gray Area: Rose had risen to the top of the apparel marketing ranks over a 25-year career when one day his world turned dark. He was informed by Warnaco Group’s new owners that he was overqualified, overcompensated, and (implied) overaged. Rose, though, had no intention of retiring. After going on a bunch of interviews with big-name apparel companies and hearing repeatedly that he was overqualified, he reached out to his former Taiwan distributor for Calvin Klein. They discussed a possible Kenneth Cole deal that led to an introduction with ACL Footwear about making shoes for the brand. When that deal fell through, Rose and ACL Footwear agreed on a distribution deal for its recently launched All Black Footwear brand. Rose would handle branding, marketing, sales, and customer service, while ACL Footwear would provide all the shoe expertise. Deal!

Seeing Red: Knockoffs are a fact of life in this biz. Still, no one likes being a victim. Case in point: the time Rose discovered All Black Footwear’s ballet flats were being copied. A well-known industry figure invited Rose to lunch and told him to bring a handful of best-selling styles. The exec bought a few ballet styles for his stores. Rose thought it would be great exposure for a young brand. That is until he checked out the display in New York only to discover that All Black Footwear’s logo had been swapped out for that brand’s. An upset Rose called and threatened to take the inventory from the store. But he had no grounds because the purchase agreement didn’t state that the shoes had to be sold as All Black Footwear. It was a hard lesson that he never forgot: Always protect the brand.

Rose Matters: Rose has been with All Black Footwear  in North America from day one. He’s a steady presence coupled with an unwavering passion for product. Yet he doesn’t consider himself a shoe salesman. “I think of myself as a brand builder who happens to sell shoes,” he says. Rose considers the distinction an advantage. “I’m more futuristic.” He credits Calvin Klein for the wisdom. “He always looked into the future when creating his collections,” Rose says. “He wasn’t satisfied with what he had today; he was looking for what was going to happen next, or what he could create to happen next.” That’s Rose’s thought process: Look beyond what’s there. “I don’t think that process ever gets old,” he says. “Women will always need shoes, but they’re always looking for something different.”

Gold Standard: Rose is one-of-a-kind. “Marty has a great heart and is a hard worker!” says ACL Footwear President Richie Liao, adding, “Marty’s deep understanding of the market has led to the success of All Black. Moreover, he is family.” Travel rep Kate Blake offers similar praise. “Marty has a great reputation in the industry. He has taught me a lot about branding and marketing, and I always value his insights on product,” she says. “Plus, he takes customer service very seriously and always makes sure our retailers know we’re genuine partners.”

Just ask a couple of those retailers. “I could sing Marty’s praises for days,” effuses Laurel Tate, co-owner of Two Sole Sisters in Boulder, CO. “He’s as kind as he’s whip smart. Marty and I often geek-out over construction and fit. You’ll often find us digging deep in our shoe conversations.” Tate looks for the sparkle in Rose’ eye—that’s when he’s really jazzed about a particular new style. “Seeing him continue to be excited about working is a joy in itself,” she adds. “Plus, Marty has fantastic personal style, always looking sharp sporting a gingham button down and bucks!”

Elena Brennan, owner of Bus Stop in Philadelphia, is equally complimentary. “Marty’s passion for the brand brings a lot more to the table than other execs,” she says. “He really cares about the partnerships he has formed with each of his clients. He’s just not selling shoes; he keeps up with the trends and contributes to the designs. Over the past 17 years, we’ve become family. He’s always excited to show me the new collections and is eager for my feedback. We work so well as a team.”

Greener Pastures: Rose has no plans to stop doing what he loves. His father lived to 101 and his grandfather to 95. “If I take good care of myself, there’s a very good chance I could be doing this another 10 years without any issues,” Rose says, adding that his wife doesn’t believe he’s the retiring kind. “I’ve been told that I should work as long as I feel healthy, and that’s how I feel.” That said, Rose is dialing back the workload where he can. He joined a golf club and is trying to perfect his “pathetic game,” which he wouldn’t have devoted time to when he was younger. Fewer trade shows also lessen the travel burden. “I don’t have to drag myself around the country as much as I used to, and on the last day of this FFANY show I’ll be attending my grandson’s high school graduation,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done that when I was younger. Live and learn.”

The June 2024 Issue

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