A Life’s Work

At 30 years deep, Matt Joyce, president of Highline United, makers of Ash, Tracy Reese and Luxury Rebel among other labels, has made a career out of knowing what women really want when it comes to shoes.
By Greg Dutter

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Matt Joyce

Matt Joyce

Matt Joyce is a footwear industry lifer and he wouldn’t have it any other way. His 30 years of career experience spans retail and wholesale, having earned him the equivalent of Master’s degrees in each sector. You simply cannot have worked for more than a decade at Nordstrom—climbing the ranks from the stockroom to a DMM—and then made the crossover to wholesale and not have learned a thing or two about how to survive in this business. All of the schooling, grounded by a priceless retail education where Joyce learned the inner workings of the female mind as it pertains to shoe shopping, have been stored into a memory bank that he readily taps since launching his own company, Highline United, in 2008. It’s as if Joyce has been cramming for his current job for nearly three decades and now, as headmaster, he is reaping the rewards.

“Working at Nordstrom was like getting an MBA at Harvard in selling shoes,” he confirms. “And working at Intershoe, Kenneth Cole, Nine West and Steve Madden gave me an incredible education in wholesale.” But Joyce always wanted to create his own company, so the Highline United launch was only a matter of time. For starters, his extensive experience provides him an edge over number-crunchers. “My retail experience helps guide my design team to say I love this, but I’m missing that. I know where we need balance,” he offers. “And I’m cognizant of how to make shoes look great but where the pricing isn’t so outrageous that consumers can’t afford them.” And then there’s Joyce’s pure passion for shoes, specifically his drive for each style to “exude emotion.” “Shoes need to [do that] because a woman doesn’t need another pair of shoes. She has to want another pair,” he says. “When she looks at a shoe she says to herself, ‘That’s the one. That shoe is telling me something special.’” That’s why Joyce and business partner Franco Cicciola stuck to their original vision in launching Highline. “We always said if we ever start our own company it would be boutique brands that are special in the marketplace,” he describes. “The most important aspect would be how creative they could be at $125 and up.”

What makes Joyce’s career story all the more interesting is that none of it would have probably transpired if he didn’t happen to get a job to help his parents pay for his college expenses. It was 1976 and even though Joyce had earned a scholarship to attend Washington State University, he opted to work for a year first to save for the following year’s expenses. “I went to work as a foreman in a French bakery,” he says. For Joyce, finding work came natural. As a kid he would work on farms near his home in Tacoma, WA. “During the summers I would get on a bus at 6 a.m. to pick strawberries, beans or whatever and come home with money in my pocket,” he says. And the bakery job was no different. It was so good, in fact, that Joyce spent five years working there while attending night and weekend classes. “It was a great experience,” he recalls. “At the age of 18, I learned how to manage people who were much older.”

Joyce was on the verge of going back to school full time when he and his wife found out they were expecting. He needed another job that would allow him to work evenings and weekends while attending school, and that’s when he joined Nordstrom. It was 1981 and Joyce was off and running on his footwear career. “I stocked shelves for a couple of weeks and then I went onto the floor,” he says. “I did that for about a month and then I got into a management position and, a year later, I was promoted to open Nordstrom’s store in San Mateo, CA.” By then, Joyce was a shoe buyer, a task he performed at several other locations including in Seattle and Southern California (South Coast Plaza). In 1990, he became the merchandise manager at Nordstrom’s East Coast debut in Paramus, NJ. For the next five years he managed the buys for several other stores that opened in the area. Then came the move into wholesale to pursue his love of design. “I always loved traveling to Italy and Spain and working with the factories to develop private label collections,” he says. “After almost 15 years working at Nordstrom, it was either in my blood or not.”

Joyce’s first stop was at Intershoe as vice president of sales for Via Spiga where he worked alongside designer Paolo Battachi, the person he credits as one of his biggest influences on the art of footwear design. “He and I would come up with lots of ideas while looking through collections,” Joyce says. “We had a nice rapport.”

Five years later, Joyce moved to Kenneth Cole as vice president of sales of its women’s shoe division. “It was a great experience to learn how he set up his company with its great mix of wholesale and retail,” he says. “It’s a fabulous mousetrap.” Joyce then returned to Via Spiga to launch the VS line for men and women. After the company was sold he made the move to Nine West as a group president of Easy Spirit. “It was a full-on corporate atmosphere,” he says. “But I learned all about sourcing, delivery and marketing.” Deadlines mattered—a lot. “At Via Spiga if we said we were going to be 15 days late on a delivery our retailers would usually respond, no problem,” Joyce offers. “But when selling Easy Spirit to Kohl’s or J.C. Penney it’s a bit of a different response. There was a lot of pressure.”

Joyce then made the move to Steve Madden as president of its women’s division, which presented a different kind of pressure. When asked what that experience was like, in a word, Joyce responds, “Crazy.” He adds, “The guy is 24-7 at all times. He never even thinks about stopping.” But it all stems from Madden’s passion for shoes, which Joyce clearly identifies with. “He is the best reactor in the footwear industry. I think what he has been able to create is unbelievable,” Joyce says, adding his favorite Madden saying: “I’d rather be the fastest second than the first one out.”

Fast-forward a few years and it’s 2008 when Joyce and Cicciola decided to launch that company they always talked about. The result is Highline United, which now includes a mix of owned brands (Ash, United Nude and Luxury Rebel) and licensed ones (Tracy Reese, Jean-Michel Cazabat and Elie Tahari). After a challenging start thanks to launching at the height of the financial collapse, Joyce says the company has gained its footing and is growing nicely. “We are developing the businesses we have and are always looking for new opportunities,” he says. “There’s opportunity for growth from within and from outside.”

But, remember, none of this ever would have happened if Joyce didn’t decide to help his parents pay for college. Life can be kind of funny that way.

When you first started at Nordstrom did you have any inclination you’d still be in this business 30 years later?
None at all. When my wife and I found out we were expecting I thought I had to make a career of something, so I said to myself, “let me see what I can do here” (laughs).

It was the gold standard in terms of learning how to buy and sell shoes.
I always tell people that if I have learned anything, I’ve learned it at Nordstrom. I learned every aspect of the business: how to sell to a customer, how to manage salespeople and run a floor, how to merchandise and how to buy shoes. To be exposed to all of that made a huge difference in my career.

Exactly how did you sell a shoe at Nordstrom back then?
They ingrained into you to always take care of the customer. You invited them to sit down, to take their shoes off and then you measured both feet with a Brannock device. We tried to make it as pleasant an experience as possible. And never did you once come out of the backroom with less than four styles, including what she asked for as well as what she might need, gleaned from your conversation with her about how her day was going.

Is that a lost art or, at least, a dying one?
It’s a dying one. In those days, it was a different world. Women would shop with their friends and it became an outing. I mean, customers could smoke cigarettes in the shoe department. We’d light them and then move the ashtray over while we went into the back room and pulled some shoes. Today, customers can’t do that and they don’t want to take that much time shopping. The difference now is the art of selling is basically running to get what the customer wants because she found it on display. She is not really worthy of “selling” the other way.

How were you able to master the art of buying?
First off, that first shoe you ever buy is your first mistake. That was kind of our mantra at Nordstrom. You learned by failing. The reps would come in and put all their styles on the table and I would have my salespeople pick what they liked because they were on the frontlines every day. You and your salespeople were all in it together and everyone took an ownership in the process, which is a huge difference compared to today where someone is doing the buying from an office that is thousands of miles away from the stores.

Is that leading more to misses or generic buys?
Both. You end up walking more customers because there are huge differences in buying for downtown Seattle or Walnut Creek in Northern California or the Westside of Los Angeles compared with South Coast Plaza. And now that person is also buying for Chicago and Miami—those are just two totally different customers. But this is the road everyone has pretty much chosen to go down. All of those smaller department store chains are gone. And customers demand that pricing be the key issue. If we went back to selling shoes based on the pricing we worked on it wouldn’t work. There are a lot less shoes in the back room than there were 15 years ago.

What makes Highline United unique compared with other companies?
First off, our showroom is set up in a penthouse in (Manhattan’s) Chelsea neighborhood. We use the kitchen as part of the office space and the living room, dining room and bedrooms are individual brand showrooms. Every collection has its own little boutique feel. It’s not bright lights and slat walls where you sit down at a table and have three or four people presenting shoes to you. In my past experiences, there’d be all of these people asking, “What do you think?” And you didn’t want to piss them off. It’s just not a comfortable scenario. In contrast, our customers are greeted, offered a cup of coffee and we chat a bit about how they are doing. Then my salesperson shows them our lines. We want them to truly understand what we are doing in terms of the product and the label and how it can work into their business.

What was launching the company at the height of the financial collapse like?
I was scared to death. We put everything into the company and everybody’s open-to-buy pretty much went away. But in the same respect, when the economy is tough it opens up opportunities. You have to have great product because the customer is not coming into your showroom looking for the same things that they were before. Buyers weren’t just looking for a different label. That’s why I knew it would open doors for us—our unique products. After all of these years of being in the shoe business, you learn how to move yourself into positions to make sure your line builders and designers are putting out the best products as possible.

When did you begin to feel that Highline would weather the economic climate?
Within the last 18 months we felt we were in a good place and had positioned our brands with the right partners. I think we are in a calm period right now, which is great. But you never know what might happen around the corner—what may happen this fall. Is the weather going to be cold, or is it going to be like last winter? That type of uncertainty is always there. Also, what’s happening with trends like Toms in juniors and Ugg—do they continue? If they falter, then that opens up many options. And if boots are tough again, you better be ready to have shoes on the floor.

Is there a particular one of your brands doing well right now?
Our biggest growth is with Ash, as sneakers are all the rage right now. Ash also has a fabulous boot and bootie business and is doing well with flats and sandals. When we took over the label it was an independent-based business. But we have since gotten Ash into Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s and Saks—places that are very appealing for all of our customers. Our Luxury Rebel business is also doing very well. In fact, our retail business across the board is good for all of our lines.

Where does United Nude fit into the mix?
Their design concept is totally different from anything else we offer. Rem D Koolhaas (designer) has taken his architectural background and put it into constructions for footwear that are very distinct. You can tell if a customer is wearing United Nude from a mile away.

Which brand has the most growth potential?
The biggest growth potentials are with Ash and Luxury Rebel. Our Ash business in comparison to how it has permeated the European market is nothing. So we definitely have huge potential for similar success here. Having said that, there are ways to take a business from $0 to $100 million by providing display tables in every department store, paying for markdowns for X brand to allow the store to clean up its inventory, and then putting your shoes in. That’s a great way to do it if you have the capital and wherewithal, but we do business a little differently. We seed the product in the key stores—where it needs to be. And by having Ash in Bergdorf’s and in Neiman’s catalog, for example, other customers become intrigued and sell to nice independents and start building a solid business. And I should note that our lines are not in the department store where they are banging them out every day at 30 to 40 percent off. We keep ourselves in a position where they’re going to be sold at regular prices. Our independent partners can feel comfortable to carry us for a season and not worry that the department store down the street is putting everything on sale.

What’s the difference between a Tracy Reese and United Nude a customer?
Tracy Reece is a woman who goes into her closet each morning and really thinks about what she’s going to wear. She plans each outfit—it’s this dress, this bag and these shoes. In contrast, the woman that buys United Nude may put on a cool little black dress and then it’s all about the shoes. She wants people to say, “Woah, where did you get those?”

Do you wear one brand hat one day and then another the next?
I wear all hats every day. It’s a lot to attend to, but I equate it to being a merchandise manager and buying for multiple stores. I had 14 buyers working for me at one time. We’d attend shows, pick shoes and assort for each door. Our Paramus store could carry the entire collection, but when it came to Freehold, NJ, it couldn’t because it didn’t have the budget or the customer base to support the whole buy. You had to choose what shoes you thought would do well. It’s pretty much the same philosophy here—trying to decide what’s best for Tracy Reese, Luxury Rebel, Ash, etc.

What’s your prediction on boot sales for this fall?
We’re about ready to start shipping and I’m wondering, “Geez, do I really want to?” There is always a cycle of every four to five years where boots are just on a rampage and then it calms down. It’s one of the reasons why I think booties will be the strength of the category this season. It’s going to come down to constructions where wedge boots and booties will be the push. Basic boots will probably not be as big because women have three or four pairs in their closets right now. It’s also one of the reasons why we are seeing shoes perform extremely well this spring, particularly those with color, materials and details. If you go back to last spring, there wasn’t much freshness in the stores with regard to shoes. I think that helped bring in the updates for this spring.

Are buyers hedging bets on this fall primarily due to last year’s warm winter?
I think pretty much everyone is hesitant about what’s going to happen this fall. I don’t think many are looking for increases over the last fall and, if they are, they’re minimal ones. The economy is not that great. And it being an election year doesn’t help because that’s never that good for business. The issue comes down to having a shoe, boot or bootie that is going to exude emotion. So when that woman does walk into a store she stops and says, “Wow. I want to buy something that makes myself feel better today.” That’s it.

Do you have any advice for retailers?
I think the best thing retailers can do is think closely whom their customer is and to look closely at products. While there are a lot of retailers that just buy labels because of status, there are those that can see something that’s amazing and not even blink an eye at what the label is. I believe product is king. That’s how I was bred into the business: Always buy the best item at the best value for the consumer. The same rules apply today: Know who your customer is, go into the marketplace with open eyes and try and have that same emotion that the designers put into the product when you look at shoes. That same emotion has to come out onto your sales floor. Along those lines, I would try at least every season to work in a few new brands to keep customers excited because they get tired quickly. Your best customers shop your store at least twice a month, so if you don’t have freshness, new ideas and concepts, then it becomes stale. They’ll go down the street and see if there is something else.

Is there a perfect shoe?
Paolo Battachi used to say the last, heel, construction and pattern would all move in the same direction. Now is there a perfect shoe that appeals to everyone? Nah. Perhaps there was once—it was a Roman sandal. But if there was one today we would have little to do.

Thankfully, there’s still plenty to choose from.
Yes. Walking into a shoe department for women can be a very fun experience because she can try on a bunch of styles with little concern. But if she shops for a swimsuit, it can be one of the most excruciating experiences. Now it’s about her entire body. That’s why women are so enamored with shoes. A new pair of shoes can make a woman feel fantastic.

What do you love most about your job?
What I love most is that every day is a new experience in that I get to work on different projects and concepts. It keeps me really in tune with what’s going on in the shoes business. And I love the diversity and the elastics of the business. I also think the people in the industry are great. I love walking around a trade show and seeing people I haven’t seen in years. I have a great rapport with many of them. Our industry has a great camaraderie.

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