Our job is to report on the ever-changing and exciting business of making and selling shoes. For nearly a quarter of a century, Footwear Plus has showcased the latest styles, brands and trends (beautifully, I might add). We’ve reported on new retail strategies, formats and consumer shopping habits. We’ve updated you on breakthrough innovations in comfort, performance and design; emerging categories; and macro economic and fashion trends as well as their trickle-down effects on the shoe business. Arguably most important of all, we’ve provided an in-depth forum for the insights, inspirations and passions of the talented people who make all the aforementioned coverage possible.
It’s why I look forward to writing the Q&A in each issue. Gaining the perspective of executives—many with decades of experience—provides me with invaluable industry insight. I can’t tell you how many articles have arisen from these interviews. Sometimes casual asides are the impetus for much larger features. To a journalist, Q&A interviews are like shaking a story tree of great ideas. Then there’s the people aspect; the discussions are truly enjoyable. Invariably, I fail to stick to the questions I’ve written down ahead of time. It’s a winding discovery path that crosses over hometowns, alma maters and career trajectories and always leads to a glimpse of the future.
The biographical information I glean from our Proust-like sidebars never ceases to intrigue me. You can learn a lot about someone from what they’re reading. Are they novel buffs or fans of the latest marketing guru’s bestseller? The answer can often provide important clues about their approach to business. Does the interviewee hail from a small town or a fashion capital? The locale is sometimes a predictor of the pace at which they like to manage their business. What’s their favorite guilty pleasure? (Sweets, generally.) Who’s inspiring them now? (It’s almost always someone from outside our industry.) Who’s their most coveted dinner guest? (Usually someone who will make them laugh.) The answers provide a window to their psyche—to who they are and often to the type of brand they are building.
This month’s Q&A (p. 24) with Jon Caplan, CEO of Genesco Branded Group, makers of Johnston & Murphy and the just re-launched Trask—is no exception. The industry veteran hails from the small town of Athens, TN. He received his MBA from Vanderbilt University and is currently reading Big In China. His parents ran an independent apparel shop back in the day, and Caplan recalls acting as a sort of store mascot growing up. He loved talking with customers, sales reps and employees. That background may well have shaped his perspective on the current state of retail and what the future might hold. Caplan’s take on the dress shoe revival, how Johnston & Murphy is seizing the opportunity and what’s behind the rebirth of Trask (it’s in step with what he describes as an Americana fashion renaissance) are definitely worth the read.
This month’s retail profile of Sole Desire (p. 50), the 12-store California comfort chain run by Danny and Dave Astobiza, is another intriguing read. It’s as much about the blocking and tackling involved in successful retailing as it is a great human interest story about how two brothers who never expected to take over the family business are now in deep and loving it. Of particular note is the brothers’ willingness to break with convention while remaining fiercely determined to keep their parents’ legacy alive. It’s business, but it’s also personal for the Astobizas. Our mini retail profiles in What’s Selling (p. 56) are two more terrific examples of the strong family factor that runs though our industry. Just Our Shoes in New Jersey and Birkenstock Midtown in California are true mom-and-pop operations. Despite daily doom-and-gloom reporting of the tier’s impending extinction, they’re doing what it takes to adapt and survive. Their formula for success? A unique selection, top-notch service and the human touch. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy formula to replicate. That’s because such retailing expertise takes years to hone. These proprietors know their longtime customers by name and curate extensively to offer exactly what they want. They’re also economically and emotionally invested in the towns where their customers reside. In an age of globalization, that’s an impressive—and enviable—level of customer connection.
Having reported on the footwear industry for approximately two decades now, I’ve had the pleasure of writing hundreds of these biographies. The insights, histories, triumphs, mistakes and strategies each source shares enlightens and inspires our readers as they write their own career stories. Everybody’s arc is unique, though we are all part of this industry’s broader narrative. Our latest issue offers another fascinating chapter. Enjoy.