An industry career spanning four decades, Michael Muskat, president of Deer Stags and makers of NoSox, knows a hit when he sees one – and how to run with it when opportunity knocks.
Call it destiny, fate, preordained or whatever, but Michael Muskat always knew he’d make a living in the shoe business. And, for 40-plus years and still going strong, he has done exactly that—selling a ton of shoes, primarily men’s styles under the Deer Stags brand. Now with the successful debut of NoSox this spring, a casual hybrid brand, the offering includes women’s and kids’ styles.
That inevitability of a career in footwear stems largely from the fact that Muskat was born into the business. His father and uncles—dating back to post-World War II—served as territory shoe salesmen, selling Jarman and Fortune brands, among others, for General Shoe Corporation (known today as Genesco). As a young child, whenever it was time for the family to hop into the car, Muskat’s father made room by unloading the sample cases while the occasional order pad left behind served as doodling paper for the kids. “I always thought I’d grow up to do the same: get a territory, pack my bags and go out and sell shoes,” he confirms. Muskat did just that beginning in the late ’60s. His family had made the leap into importing with the launch of Dunbar Boot Company, which made its mark as one of the first U.S. importers of cowboy boots. It was under the Dan Post label for Acme Boot Company. That factory was based in Majorca, Spain, and happened to be next to another shoe factory. “My father asked if my brother (Rick) and I would be interested in importing shoes,” he says. “That became Glen Shoe Company, which is basically what we still are today just under a different name and, of course, now importing from China primarily.”
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel.
From a lifestyle standpoint, it’s the Rolling Stones. I am 66 years old and have been following those guys since my 20s, and they’re still doing it and so am I.
Peter Pan. He had a great philosophy on life, which is to stay young.
Not being political but just for his personality, it’d be Bill Clinton.
I always say what I feel, so I’m not quite sure there is anything surprising to know about me.
Sales cure all ills.
I was born and raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and my favorite memories are of coming home from public school and playing in the local playground.
Muskat, who oversees product and marketing while his brother controls the backroom, has experienced his share of sales runs over the years, including a particularly explosive one when the company held the Saturday Night Fever license in the late ’70s. “It didn’t get any hotter than that,” he recalls, noting it included 2- and 4-inch heel shoes for men, which was groundbreaking at the time. “That’s when the men’s fashion craze really exploded. Guys wanted to look like John Travolta and get decked out on Saturday nights. It was fun and the trends changed constantly.” The company later focused on private label manufacturing for leading wholesalers such as Rockport and Nunn Bush during the late ’80s comfort revolution and then renewed its focus on branded business with the acquisition of Deer Stags (hence the name change) in the early ’90s. In addition to Deer Stags, the stable of brands today includes the men’s brands Rockadelic, Detour and Soft Stags as well as the aforementioned and current center of attention, NoSox.
Regarding the latter brand, Muskat believes NoSox has the legs to make a big sales run. All initial signs point to it. For starters, he reports that NoSox’s initial 250 specialty comfort retailers have all re-ordered for fall. “It’s been phenomenal. I haven’t had this good of a feeling in 30 years,” Muskat gushes. He adds, “They are offering ideas about how we can grow the business together. It’s terrific.” To that end, Muskat predicts the sky’s the limit and expects NoSox to grow within its existing account base next year as well as add more specialty independents to its roster. “I would be very disappointed if second-year sales didn’t do three times the volume,” he maintains.
So why does NoSox have that coveted buzz that so many other start-ups fail to garner? As much as everyone would like there to be a fool-proof recipe, Muskat admits you never really know until it’s presented to buyers. They are the ultimate tasters. But there have been some key ingredients that went into the NoSox pot that shouldn’t be overlooked. For starters, Muskat designed the collection on a single oblique last for cost efficiencies as well as creating a signature look. “NoSox is not intended to be a full-line shoe company,” he says. “I want it to be more like Toms, Palladium or Dr. Martens—brands that are all known basically for one item as opposed to, for example, Easy Spirit, which represents eight million different things.”
Secondly, Muskat says the hybrid design zeros in on a long line of utilitatian fashion hits that span Ugg to Merrell to Toms. They are all versatile, easy-on and -off, with or without socks and suitable in the office or in the park. Interestingly, the whole NoSox concept grew out of a casual conversation Muskat had with a colleague. The two veterans were discussing—lamenting, really—the state of the industry and, specifically, how the athletic business had virtually taken over the entire casual shoe market for the past 30 years. “We were kidding that if anybody could come up with a casual shoe that’s kind of a sneaker but not really a sneaker, yet had all the bells and whistles that stimulate a person to buy an athletic shoe to wear for casual purposes, then they would really be on to something,” Muskat explains. Soon after he got together with his design team and created a collection of shoes that hit on those touchstones, beginning with it being extremely lightweight “NoSox is a great crossover product,” he offers. “It’s a true hybrid, because the side profile looks like an athletic shoe and from the top it looks casual.” As for the name, it’s catchy, apropos and happened to be lying fallow in the company archives. Sometimes, Muskat notes, the shoe business can be serendipitous like that.
Another key ingredient of the NoSox recipe: strictly targeting specialty comfort retailers—those that Muskat believes are the only ones willing and able to introduce new product concepts. And, unlike the Deer Stags tier, can do so at a higher price point (in the case, $60 to $90). Muskat is grateful such buyers still exist, albeit in far fewer overall numbers. He fondly remembers the days when one could call on thousands of such buyers. While ever an optimist who hopes the future will be his favorite era, he considers the ’70s and ’80s to be the golden age for selling shoes. Back then the company’s offices were located on 34th Street in Manhattan, which was ground zero. “You could call on Macy’s and Gimbels in the morning, E.J. Korvette just before lunch, Franklin Simon & Co. after lunch and B. Altman that evening, and you hadn’t even left the block yet!” he exclaims What’s more, Muskat says, there was plenty of room for everybody to hawk their shoes. And the cherry on top: the emphasis was on product and not markdown money requirements and other financial tourniquets that often kill creative aspects of the business. “I’m a product guy,” Muskat professes, noting back then buyers and wholesalers traveled like a band of gypsies as they’d shop the European markets twice a year in search of the next great trends. “We would go out at night together where the main conversation was always about which was the best last, the best pattern, the hottest colors, etc.,” he says. “Today, it’s bottom-line driven. You don’t have as many merchants involved as you did then, and I miss that aspect a lot.”
Ain’t that the truth and Muskat’s frankness is refreshing. And while he has seen it all from an industry perspective, including the shifts in sourcing that read like a whirlwind world tour and the economic challenges that one must weather just to survive, he continues to press on because the opportunity to create that next hot item always exists. That potential windfall never goes away, regardless of the overall economic climate or retail landscape. A hot item, Muskat says, is just that: waiting to explode at retail because the consumers’ need factor coupled with the want can equal the next $100-million idea.
That potential jackpot is what keeps Muskat coming to work each day after all of these years. That and the lifelong musician’s soundproof studio he installed in the offices located in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. He and three co-workers are also band members of the Offshoots (Muskat plays bass), and the group performs monthly gigs around Greenwich Village. For Muskat, the hunger to sell shoes—and to play rock ‘n’ roll—never subsides. “No matter how bad the economy is or how much buyers may be [complaining], brands are able to do it. And we believe we can do it, too,” he confirms. “But you can’t make it happen just because you want it to. The product has to be right.”
Is it true that everyone in this business is potentially one item away from a $100-million idea?
Absolutely. You’ve got to keep throwing things out there until one of them hits. Although today, with the economy and sourcing as challenging as it is, you have to be more deliberate in your thinking. You just can’t go off to the factories, design a line and hope something sticks. You’ve got to offer something that fills an opening that the market will accept. Basically, you know if you do within 10 minutes of the first shoe show you exhibit at.
Did you have a gut feeling with NoSox right away?
When I showed the first samples to my team—many of whom have been in the business a long time—the reaction was confused. They didn’t know if they liked it, but nobody said they didn’t. So I thought maybe I had something. We then went to the Platform show in Las Vegas where set up a major display and we were flooded with buyers and distributors, who wanted to represent the line in Europe and Asia, which we wouldn’t do. We then culled down the line and keyed-in on the retailers we wanted to sell first. It’s been a very carefully planned project for the past year and a half.
Is NoSox hitting on a new niche, or is it taking share from something else?
Everything takes share from something else because there’s X amount of feet and X amount of dollars out there. But you never want to hear buyers say that they are already covered in that. We didn’t hear that with respect to NoSox. People kept saying that the shoes looked cool and unique, that they’re light and feel comfortable, and that they wanted a pair for themselves. It’s truly a fresh concept.
A lot of new brands jump out of the gate only to quickly crash and burn because the growth wasn’t managed properly. How will you avoid such pitfalls regarding NoSox?
Everything has a life span, but look at how long Birkenstock has gone on. And I say this in a loving way; it’s an ugly sandal that started out with a granola customer and then it became fashionable and it since has largely gone back to its original customer base. Yet it is still a huge business worldwide. Same for Converse All-Star—it lives, it dies and now it’s huge again. Dr. Martens is another example. It’s all a matter of the product and the company behind it that keeps it relevant. Along those lines, our spring collection virtually sold out as retailers re-ordered throughout the season as we are a total fulfillment house.
NoSox looks to be another in a long line of popular utilitarian styles. Merrell’s Jungle Moc being one example.
Absolutely. But just claiming it offers all of those utilitarian benefits doesn’t preclude the fact that it still has to stand by itself. It’s interesting that you mentioned Merrell. The brand was doing a tremendous amount of business overseas just before it introduced the Jungle Moc to the U.S. And during one of my European shopping trips I brought a pair of Jungle Mocs to review with our design team as we are always looking how we might interpret unique shoes in our Deer Stags line. My brother just laughed that shoe off the table and said, “Next.” To his defense, it didn’t make any sense on the one hand—a men’s sneaker clog—but, on the other hand, it made all the sense in the world. It’s very strange, but you don’t know what makes a winner until it’s a winner. Similarly, you don’t know why certain brand names resonate and others don’t.
Are you fortunate just to have one great run in this business?
Well, you can’t survive this business long-term with only one great run. A good run comes every four to five years; that’s normally the timeline for getting another hot shoe. Now to succeed like Toms, FitFlops or Crocs, for example, all of the elements have to fall into place at the right time. But you can’t control all of the elements. Right now, the independent retailer is the only tier with an appetite to test new products. Whereas at the Deer Stags end of the retail spectrum, they don’t have an appetite to test anything.
How would you describe Deer Stags’ niche in the marketplace?
First off, Deer Stags is the heart and soul of our business, which it has been for the last 20 or so years. I look at it as commodity footwear for men, as we are positioned in the lower mid-tier like in Burlington Coat Factory and Sears. We make shoes that men have to have. The guy needs a quality pair of shoes for work. It’s foot covering, but it’s fashionable and functional. You often see guys wearing their Deer Stags with jeans as well. Moreover, the Deer Stags customer—what used to represent the middle class—doesn’t have the luxury of buying many pairs of shoes today. My customer is often working two jobs and his wife is working, as well. If anybody is going to get a second pair of shoes, it’s going to be the wife or the kids first.
Have Deer Stags sales been good this year?
We’ve had better years, but it certainly wasn’t a bad year. I attribute a lot of our success of late to our position in the marketplace and where the economy stands. Some of the top brands in our tier, like Rockport, might be priced at $80 or $90 and Deer Stags is at $40 to $50. If the economy is good, the guy who couldn’t afford anything buys our shoes. And if the economy tanks, the guy that doesn’t want to spend $80 comes down to buy our shoes. We are pulling from both of those bases as the economy is sort of in the middle.
How hard is it to appeal to a customer with a finite amount of disposable income? Can you blow them away with product?
You can and we do. Our packaging and product is as good as a $200-brand presentation. When that customer leaves with a pair of Deer Stags he feels like he is buying an authentic brand. We also have a terrific customer service department and we are very interactive on social media. We believe our customer is proud of that purchase and loyal to our brand.
Has the recent influx of color into men’s footwear reached Deer Stags?
It doesn’t really play with us. My guy [wears] black, black, black and sometimes brown. He doesn’t have the income to change his shoes because he changed the colors of his clothes.
So how do you grow Deer Stags, or is more a case of maintaining that base?
We’re always trying to grow. One way is by getting more SKUs into our existing accounts, and that could be by adding some seasonal product. For example, Deer Stags does a great slipper business. And we are always trying to sell those we don’t sell yet. But let’s not kid ourselves, the number of buyers today in that tier has been reduced by 80 percent than what it was in the ’70s.
A pessimist might say those odds aren’t worth it. What makes you keep battling?
Because we’ve got a profitable business filled with people who come to work every day and I feel a responsibility to them to keep this thing going. And it’s going well. For example, we are looking at other markets, like with NoSox. That’s how you grow.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your business right now?
First of all, we have to sell to more retailers. We have to grow our business. If we want NoSox to be a $100-million brand we obviously can’t only sell to 250 retailers; we have to get up into the thousands. So that’s one challenge, taking into account the high cost of putting salespeople on the road. Then there’s the design challenge in that you’ve got to keep your product at a level so the consumer wants to keep buying it. And the third challenge is sourcing, which is the hardest aspect for anybody in the shoe business today, and that’s regardless of it being men’s, women’s or kids’ product or what tier it’s sold in. Sourcing has become an absolute nightmare over the last three years.
Are you planning to move it out of China?
Not at the moment. We are fortunate to have several factories that we have dealt with for years and NoSox is riding the tails of Deer Stags, in this regard. We give them a hell of a lot of volume each year and they believe in us. But anybody that says they are not driven by price is a fool. So as long as I can keep my prices in line, I will stay. But if it goes up to a certain point, then I’m going to have to start moving production elsewhere, which I’ve done since I started Glen Shoe Company. It has gone from Majorca, Spain, to mainland Spain to Italy to Brazil to Taiwan, back to Brazil and to China. Now we are moving deeper into China, because the biggest part of Deer Stags involves synthetic materials and there is really nowhere else in the world right now that you can make shoes at the quality for that price. But I even bought shoes out of Pakistan until about two years ago when the State Department showed me where the bombs were going off and we decided to source from somewhere else. As far as leather shoes, there’s talk about it moving to Italy, India and Vietnam. We’ll see.
Might production move to the United States more as well?
I hear a lot about bringing production back to America. In fact, the drummer in my band recently sent out an email that requested everyone to stop buying anything that was not made in the U.S. When I explained to him that our band is primarily financed by Chinese people making Deer Stags, he reconsidered (laughs). The fact is our first big item back in the ’70s was the Jazz oxford, which we produced in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. We made hundreds of thousands of pairs. And we would be thrilled making shoes in those factories again, but EPA regulations helped put a stop to that coupled with the fact that Americans no longer wanted to work in shoe factories. So they closed as did ones in North Carolina and Arkansas that we also used to source out of. Now if you’re willing to pay a minimum of $150 for a pair, I think I could swing making shoes in this country again. But if you want to pay $29.99, I don’t know how we are going to be able to make them here.
What do you think has been your best survival trait and enabled you to stay in business all of these years?
We’ve always been on top of our market. With respect to Deer Stags, we really know who our consumer is. We have had an ongoing love affair with them. From the day the Internet started, we have been reaching out to them. In return, we have a very strong, loyal consumer base that loves our products. We are also safe. Thus, we haven’t been hit like a lot of the brands on the fringe. For example, we are not hurt by a warm winter or a cold summer because we are not seasonal. We are a 12-months-a-year business. Again, we are in the commodity footwear business, and I say that with pride because there is always a need for a commodity.
It sounds simple enough, but it’s not that easy.
It’s not. Nothing is easy. Except for playing a three-chord blues song, perhaps.
Would you say Deer Stags is better off than it was four years ago?
For starters, my 401K is a lot better than it was four years ago, as is everybody’s in the company. And we haven’t let people go during this time, which I feel terrific about. In addition, I believe we are much better off because NoSox is looking like it’s going to explode. Given the current economic conditions and the general mentality of retailers, we’re very fortunate to have a brand sizzling the way it is.
How would you describe the consumer’s overall mindset right now?
The fact is too many consumers still don’t have a job. Once they get one and start to feel good about themselves again, then they will want to shop more and look good as well as have a good time again. Right now, the mentality is: How do I pay my bills? When that’s the overriding factor, fashion takes a back seat, except at the higher end because they still have the discretionary income.
Might this recession be building a pent-up demand that will unleash like it did following the austerity of the ’40s and ’50s?
That’s normally the way it goes. I’m of the baby boomer generation where our parents lived through WWII and didn’t want to talk about such depressing matters. Although they did tell us to finish our supper because there are starving children in Europe… Today it’s Africa. The bigger point being that we were always told how lucky we were, yet we were nothing but lower middle class. But we felt very good about life and we were always optimistic. Then we became yuppies and the disco era hit and we blatantly went off the bean and the you-know-what hit the fan. It’s a cycle. And it will come around again. Once people have money again, I expect that they’ll become as arrogant as past generations.
What do you love about your job?
Coming to work every day with the people who are here. I work with friends and family. The best part about working in a family business is seeing someone you love and care about succeed. That’s a really good feeling.
Along those lines, what’s the best lesson you ever learned from your father about how to succeed in this business?
Number 1: Listen first and then look for the opportunity. Don’t talk too much until you know what you want to say. Number 2: Go out and sell because orders cure all ills. When you have orders you can get factories to make the goods and banks to give loans. You can be in business. Without orders, you have nothing. And that’s the mantra of this company: Go out and sell, sell, sell.