Marcia Kilgore wears FitFlops regularly, if not daily. And she most likely would be just as loyal a customer even if she didn’t happen to be the founder and CEO of the wildly popular wellness footwear brand that has sold more than 5 million pairs in just four seasons. The main reason being that Kilgore is definitely one of FitFlop’s target customers: She’s a working mother of two trying to juggle an ever-hectic career, family and social life all while doing her best to be healthy in both mind and body. That includes eating right, exercising regularly and—let’s be completely vain here—doing one’s damnedest to ward off signs of aging any way humanly possible.
It’s a description that encompasses pretty much every woman age 25 and up. And if anyone has a read on this customer’s wants, needs, fears, demands and secret desires, it’s Kilgore—the entrepreneurial dynamo behind the Bliss Spa chain (started in 1996) and the Soap & Glory bath and body products brand (established in 2006). Along the way, Kilgore found time in 2006 to squeeze in the launch of FitFlop footwear, riding the zeitgeist of the wellness craze as the shaping and toning shoe category kicked into explosive-growth mode.
“I knew from my years of working as a beauty therapist that women will try almost anything to help prevent and tackle cellulite as well as try and keep fit,” the London-based entrepreneur says. “Women are even more likely to stick with a leg-toning regimen that only requires a little bit of input on their part.” Kilgore believes that women feel better when they are proactive, and while diet and exercise are no-brainers, there are other means to achieving greater fitness—like wearing a pair of FitFlops regularly. “What we girls—and guys—need is something like a flip-flop, that tones and trims our legs while we run errands—without breaking the bank,” she offers. “We have no free time. We want a workout while we walk.”
The very first FitFlop styles delivered on that exact premise: sandals attractively priced at around $60 retail and conveniently merchandised on self-serve, hanging racks. In a sense, the company combined a Crocs-like merchandising platform with the sophisticated wellness appeal of MBT in wearable styles that became as much a fashion statement as a wellness choice. Kilgore had once again nailed an undiscovered market niche and consumers have responded.
Kilgore says the secret lies in the brand’s patent-pending, Microwobbleboard technology, which is clinically proven to increase the engagement of the wearer’s muscles during every step, helping to tone muscles, improve balance and posture, and relieve foot and joint pain. The Microwobbleboard consists of a biomechanically engineered triple-density midsole construction broken into regions of high, low and mid density. Compared to traditional shoe constructions, the high-density area (located in the heel) is said to absorb up to 22-percent more shock, which alleviates stress on the joints. The low-density section, located through the mid portion of the midsole, creates instability and thus increases leg muscle activation by up to 16 percent. And in the forefoot area, the mid-density area reportedly helps maintain speed, pace and variation.
The Microwobbleboard was created in collaboration between Kilgore and Dr. David Cook and Darren James, biomechanists at London’s South Bank University. Dr. Richard Jones and Dr. Phillip Graham-Smith of Salford University then independently verified the technology’s benefits. In fact, FitFlop went through an extensive R&D process—not unlike the method Kilgore used in developing her beauty care products. “There are so many similarities between the beauty and footwear industries,” she notes. “I had to find my ‘chemist’ [a biomechanist], then I had to find a manufacturer and a designer to make the molds.” Kilgore adds, “We user-trialed, safety-tested and wear-tested the shoes extensively—all the same things you do before launching a face cream.”
Since both Kilgore’s spa and beauty care companies have been highly successful (LMVH acquired a majority stake in Bliss in 1999 for a reported $30 million), logic suggests that following a similar methodology would equate to success for FitFlop. But did Kilgore envision the brand would sell 5 million pairs in just a few short seasons? And let’s remember: during the first few seasons, the growth came from a single silhouette—the brand’s signature thong sandal. Maybe Kilgore’s answer is not all that surprising, considering her business track record: “Frankly, if I know I’ll buy something, then I use the rationale that there must be other women out there like me—ones with the same problems, the same shortage of time and the same crazy schedules—that would buy it, too,” explains the 42-year-old exec.
According to her research, marketing experts estimate that there are basically five types of consumers in the world. The ability to appeal to just one type amounts to 20 percent of the population. “That’s a lot of people,” Kilgore notes. But, she stresses, the idea must first be deemed beneficial; and from there, execution is key. “If FitFlops were considered ugly—and, believe me, the first prototypes were horrible-looking—we wouldn’t have the same success that we currently have with them.” No matter how good an idea may be, Kilgore is under the firm belief that if the design is unsightly, then the product is simply not going to fly.
Kilgore’s approach is blending wellness attributes with wearable styles. “I see FitFlop as the original innovator in fashionable, functional footwear,” she says. “Other wellness shoes tend to be unattractive aesthetically—more orthotic in appearance.” But, Kilgore muses, “Why do wellness shoes have to look ‘good for you?'” In contrast, she believes FitFlop is forging a new category within wellness footwear: one that combines on-trend styles suitable for a variety of weather and wearing occasions with its unique thigh-toning, foot-flexing, bottom-benefiting biomechanics built in. Or, as Kilgore—also a whiz at creating catchy promotional copy—puts it: “Our shoes are designed to keep you and your wardrobe in shape.”
How were sales this year?
FitFlop has had another amazing year. The [wellness] category is definitely gaining more followers, and our move into closed footwear and also men’s and kids styles has helped us tremendously.
How do you define wellness footwear?
For FitFlop, wellness footwear means shoes that make you feel energized and great while wearing. It’s a shoe that works for you, not against. Specifically, our Microwobbleboard technology is unique and is biomechanically and ergonomically engineered. And while it’s clear from the wealth of wellness footwear now on the market that each brand subscribes to its own technology and design, there are many brands that feature poorly developed technologies and lack scientifically rigorous research, which is what is attracting so much criticism.
Might the hype render the category a passing fad?
The danger, as far as I am concerned, is that brands are proliferating the market with poorly engineered technologies and outrageously unsupported claims. In contrast to rocker-sole shoes, FitFlop footwear is ergonomically engineered to mimic aspects of barefoot walking and emulates a natural heel-to-toe gait. So you don’t have to change the way you walk when wearing our shoes. They don’t make you walk differently—because you shouldn’t walk differently. They just make your leg muscles and glutes engage more while you walk. It’s like a free prize built into your shoes. Who doesn’t want that?
So would you describe FitFlop as a wellness brand or a fashion brand that happens to have wellness attributes?
FitFlop is definitely a wellness brand but with trend-friendly aesthetics built in. That’s why fashionistas are swapping their four-inch heels in favor of FitFlops, because smart women wear our shoes to give themselves a workout while they walk. Julianne Moore and Chelsea Clinton have recently been seen sporting them.
What are you doing to make FitFlop stand out in a crowded field?
If the incredible feedback on our Microwobbleboard technology is anything to go by, then that [itself] should be more than enough to make FitFlop stand out from the crowd. We have thousands of customer testimonials, we are recommended by hundreds of medical professionals, and we are recognized as being beneficial for foot health by the American Podiatric Medical Association. Our wealth of biomechanical and fitness benefits provides that distinction. In addition, I think that—as the original leg- and bottom-toning sandal— FitFlop never conformed to the “wellness” mold as it was.
So FitFlop is really more of a lifestyle brand?
The FitFlop brand captures the zeitgeist. It’s footwear that fits the way we feel. The world has changed, and so has our outlook along with it. We’re in the mood for clothes that work with us. FitFlop delivers multitasking foot fashion that we’ll wear and wear.
The ability to help form tighter buns is, ahem, “butt” one aspect of the brand’s success.
Yes. It’s a combination of convenience, affordability and a product that is appealing to wear with a credible performance promise.
Who exactly is the FitFlop customer? And is that person different from the subject other wellness brands are targeting?
FitFlop is a smart choice for smart women and men who want to feel energetic, more efficient—you workout while you walk—and more ebullient. That includes a mountain of “yummy mummies” wearing our shoes. I’ve also seen them on a lot of young, athletic-looking women with long legs. I also bumped into one woman in Miami who must have been in her 70s wearing a pair while exercise walking with her iPod.
Overall, FitFlop has an ubiquitous appeal and—not to sound weird or new age-y—I think it’s because they’re right for the body and they have the right energy. By that I mean, as soon as you put them on, they make you stand up straight. And because they allow the bones in your feet to move more freely and naturally, you don’t feel as restricted. Your legs are not as tired, swollen or stiff, so you have all that transfer of good energy. You stand up tall, you connect with the ground with every aspect of your foot’s plantar surface and you look other human beings in the eyes. There’s no baggage. Call it “freedom of feet.” When you wear a pair of FitFlops, you realize nothing else makes you feel that good—short of narcotics, probably, but I am not an expert there. So the obvious urge is to put them on again and again, and then maybe pick up a couple of other colors and styles. It’s pretty simple: The design is just simply great for the body.
Are you still involved in the design process?
You bet. I am involved in every aspect of the design and development process and simply won’t launch a shoe until we get it right. For example, we have been working on covered footwear for a long time but couldn’t get it right until now. The FF Supertone sneaker is a couple of years in the making, and worth the wait.
What are some other highlights of your Spring ’11 collection?
In our fourth full spring/summer season, we are proud to present our newest collection through a wider-angle lens of “total well-being.” While our original FitFlop sandals’ promise of firming, tightening and toning still applies, the Microwobbleboard offers a plethora of unexpected fringe benefits as well. It doesn’t just firm leg muscles. It can make you feel better throughout the body, relieve a variety of aches and pains, and give you superhero levels of energy, according to feedback from thousands of our wearers. Taking that into account, we now have expanded our collection to include styles for men, women and children to suit any weather, including feel-good flip-flops, sandals, sneakers and slides.
You are a master at building tremendous buzz for your brands. Any advice you can share in this department?
When you are communicating any type of message, first sit back and objectively ask yourself, “So what?” If you can’t answer that question about your own idea, campaign or key message in one or two sentences, it’s not a good enough idea. You have to be really clear and—whatever the idea is—it has to have a [unique selling point] that is easy to identify, easy to explain and remarkable—in other words, interesting enough for someone to actually remark on. If you can’t tick off all of those boxes, you have to go back to the drawing board.
In addition, creating a brand personality is key. For example, we have thousands of Facebook fans, and we devote a lot of energy to interacting with them and encouraging their feedback.
Would you describe yourself now as a footwear fanatic?
You bet! If you happen to pass me on my daily Tube commute to work, don’t be offended if I don’t look you in the eye. Right now, it’s all about feet first for me.
Where do you see FitFlop in three years?
We are looking to develop a full range of footwear while maintaining classic styles that will endure. I’d like to think that in 10 years, people will be proud to wear some of our original styles.
What might be your next entrepreneurial endeavor? Another footwear brand, perhaps?
If I told you, I might have to kill you.
What keeps you going into work each day, when many others in your fortunate shoes would have gone on permanent vacation a long time ago?
I believe that you choose where you go, and with that choice comes sacrifice. If you make one choice, you sacrifice the ones you didn’t choose and you have to be OK with that. Along those lines, things don’t happen to you, rather you decide what you let happen. It’s a very self-empowering way to look at life. If you think about your choices as being synonymous with sacrifice—whether it involves business or personal matters—you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself. I often refer to this as the “deathbed test.” When confronted with a decision, ask yourself: When I’m on my deathbed, what will I look back and wish I would have done? That’s when answers become pretty obvious.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the fact that FitFlop footwear is genuinely changing people’s lives for the better. People have written to me saying that they have suffered from Morton’s neuroma [a condition that affects one of the nerves that run between the metatarsal bones of the foot], plantar fasciitis and neuropathy, to name a few ailments, but since wearing FitFlop they are now able to walk again pain-free. I actually feel a big responsibility—a sense of, “I need to help these people.” And now that we know that our shoes really can make a difference with respect to so many muscular-skeletal conditions, the aim is to try and make our shoes available to all. I’m working on it. Because life is short, so do what you love and success will follow. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll be happy every day in trying.
Spoken like a true entrepreneur.
I’ve always worked for myself, except for odd part-time jobs as a teenager. When I reached the grand old age of 19, I had figured out that I didn’t want to follow anyone else’s rules. So I haven’t ever really been on the corporate ladder, per se. I prefer to provide the ladder for other people to climb. —Greg Dutter