It took years to put a man on the moon. And becoming a leader in the highly competitive and crowded outdoor performance and lifestyle markets doesn’t happen overnight either. More often than not it takes years of product innovation, success at retail season after season and building a loyal consumer following along the way. And, unlike a one-off lunar landing, if a brand misses its mark one time too many times it will soon fade into a distant memory.
“An overnight success is extraordinarily rare,” confirms Tom Berry, Tecnica Group’s global vice president of merchandising, marketing and sales. “You first have to find your brand narrative, create what resonates with consumers and develop your supply chain and distribution platform—all aspects that take time and hard work.” Berry adds, “That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now at Tecnica. We are in phase one of what I would imagine is a 10- to 15-year process.”
Fortunately, Berry believes he already possesses the hardest aspects to obtain—the rich heritages that the Tecnica, Dolomite and Moon Boot brands possess. Combined, they represent more than 200 years of brand equity. Specifically, the 53-year-old Tecnica is considered the inventor of the après ski category and is a long-time leader in ski boots. It’s an attractive brand combination of technical and style demanded by consumers that increasingly seek performance in their fashion. Dolomite, Berry says, features an archive of 100 years of Italian sport design just waiting to be tapped and the iconic Moon Boot presents an opportunity to stretch its feel-good familiarity beyond a novelty winter item.“Our biggest challenge is we have too much opportunity,” Berry professes. “It’s like drinking from the fire hose.” Fortunately, for his sake, Tecnica Group is family owned and takes more of a sip-like approach. In fact, since coming on board four years ago, Berry says quarterly profits haven’t been discussed once with Tecnica Group President Giancarlo Zanatta. “It’s not part of the company’s DNA. The talk is always about how can we be better and what legacy are we creating 10 years from now,” he says. The plan is to put each brand in a position of 10 to 20 years of scalable, durable and profitable growth. In the process of meeting that goal, Berry sees himself as a sort of brand chemist. “The word I like to use is alchemy, which involves a mix of equal parts science, emotion, passion, luck and magic,” he says. “It’s about creating the right formula for each brand that unleashes its full potential.”
Specific to Tecnica, Berry says it entails a recipe of innovation and premium product. A big push involves the recent introduction of its oversized Tecnica Rolling System (TRS) trail running technology that goes against the grain of the minimalist shoe movement. It also includes embracing its après roots from a premium, fur-is-good perspective. Overall, he says Tecnica represents a “big change from where the brand was positioned a few years prior, which was more of a commercial offering.” For Moon Boot, it’s a case of expanding its unique and loveable pop art design qualities into a broader product offering. “It’s always been a seasonal classic but, of late, it has fallen into what I would call a novelty, seasonal classic,” he notes. “With Moon Boot’s incredible design DNA, we have the opportunity to make it so much bigger.” Last but not least, Dolomite brims with Italian heritage that Berry is itching to bring to the U.S. market possibly sometime this year. “For starters, its narrower last shape would give us a point of difference on the shelf against all of those American brands,” he says.
Tecnica Group’s focus on footwear represents quite a shift compared with before Berry’s arrival when, he says, the category was viewed as a “nice, adjacent add-on business.” But having witnessed the soft goods successes at The North Face and Salomon, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of Ugg (its classic silhouette an après boot at its core), the company made footwear a strategic growth initiative about four years ago. One of its first hires was Berry, who worked prior at The North Face and Salomon, respectively. At the former, he worked alongside what now reads like a who’s who of outdoor industry All Stars: Steve Rendle, now head of VF Corp.’s outdoor division; Topher Gaylord, now president of Mountain Hardwear; and Mike Egeck, currently at the helm of Eddie Bauer. “I was privileged to be surrounded by some extremely talented people,” he says. “I learned a ton.” Which he applied at Salomon, transforming the brand frokm hard goods-centric into a soft goods leader.
Berry says it’s largely a matter of executing a similar battle plan for Tecnica, which he appears ideally suited for taking into account his U.S. Army Rangers pedigree. “Being a Ranger provided me with expert leadership, teambuilding and operational skills,” he says. And while Berry didn’t see any combat (He was stationed for a time in Hawaii where he proudly notes “another Pearl Harbor didn’t happen under my watch.”), his military experience dovetailed into his becoming a strategic business consultant for medical companies where he learned how major corporations think, plan and execute. It was a chance meeting with an outdoor industry executive that led to a job at The North Face and his eventual path to Tecnica. Berry admits that he couldn’t have written a career script like this in his wildest dreams. Nonetheless, he views the Tecnica opportunity as a dream come true. “Original après brand, original Moon Boot and Dolomite’s 100 years of outdoor heritage… these are not perishable qualities,” he offers. “If you are original, authentic and have a great brand platform, that allows you to be patient, but also very successful.” Beyond that, Berry relishes a good fight. “I love [Sylvester Stallone’s] role in Rocky—the up-and-coming challenger,” he says. “We have so many different ways to win the fight.”
You introduced Tecnica’s oversized TRS design in the middle of the minimalist craze. Was there ever an “Oh, crap” moment?
A lot of people were laughing at us at the time as we definitely went the other way when the entire market was going minimal. But I don’t think we doubted ourselves for a minute. The minimalist thing seemed interesting but overdone. We also had to be true to ourselves and authentic to what the brand represents, and we knew that our TRS platform delivered. We partnered with a company that conducts many of the Italian Olympic teams’ testing regarding their biomechanics and kinesiology to verify that our oversized and rolling technology would benefit runners. We then went into the mountains and had elite athletes run 130 kilometers in the shoes, giving us tons of data points that also proved the concept performs. Soon afterward, I attended several ultra-endurance races where I noticed, literally out of the 600 people who started a race, not one was wearing minimalist shoes. But 30 percent-plus of the runners were wearing an oversized solution, either ours or one from our design partner, Hoka. For that type of athlete, our technology is a vastly superior solution.
Where are you at with retailers understanding TRS?
The job of convincing retailers about understanding the technology and its merits is largely done. But we are still working through some wrinkles regarding mostly cosmetic details. It’s an ongoing process where the burden is on us to continually improve the product. You need the whole package: cosmetics, price, fit and performance.
Is TRS the opposite of minimalism?
Our design provides the benefits of natural motion but also provides the stability, protection and cushioning of an oversized design concept. Those are aspects that I think the consumer is going to demand more of going forward. And while I think minimalism has long-term viability as a training tool, I believe it’s a niche category. That wave that we saw was more a fad and I just don’t think you will see the commercial success it enjoyed over the last several seasons. That’s why we like our position.
Who is the TRS customer?
An oversized platform covers two consumer groups. The first consists of ultra racers competing, for example, in the Tor de Geants, which is a big race we sponsor in northwest Italy each year, where athletes run 330 kilometers over the highest peaks and endure crazy elevation gains. The protection and cushioning that our oversized platform offers more than makes up for the fact that it weighs a little more than a minimal shoe. The incredible shock absorption translates into improved athletic performance for these runners. Another set of consumers are those coming back from an injury or they’re slightly older and seek footwear that is going to make it easier on their body while running or hiking. The lags on our technology platform are really long. It’s similar to how oversized tennis rackets, skis and mountain bikes revolutionized their respective sports. The mountain bike—with its oversized and low-pressure tires—is probably the most direct analogy to TRS. That design breakthrough opened up a bunch of terrain to riders that they never thought possible. And it’s not a fad; it has become a dominant fixture in the marketplace because it delivered a viable technology.
Moving on to Moon Boot—what phase is the brand in now?
We decided to reposition and re-launch Moon Boot as a standalone brand, which was a process that started three seasons ago. It involves a new global distribution strategy targeting higher-end, tastemaker shops and playing in some of the larger format specialty stores like Nordstrom and Harrods. We have also taken what was admittedly a core silhouette that was very niche and novelty by definition and expanded it into much more accessible everyday product. The Duvet, for example, has had a lot of pick up this season, and we will launch the Monaco in our Avenues collection for next season, which had great response at the recent FFANY show. The Duvet is a slimmed down version that features left and right sizes, unlike the original model. That makes it more acceptable to consumers seeking to wear a shoe 80 days a year as opposed to perhaps eight days. To that end, we are trying to expand beyond our mainly resort distribution and into cities.
How far can Moon Boot’s DNA be stretched?
Moon Boot has so many iconic aspects to its design—a particular band, font, heel shape, lacing and flat sole profile—but as long as we respect enough of those cues I think we can be very successful. One of our earlier mistakes was going too natural in materials and earth tones in the palette. The brand DNA is about bright colors, synthetics and shine rather than a bohemian vernacular. We didn’t follow our brand narrative. Our consumer is a glam lady. She’s looking for something that wows her. You’ll see a lot more of the pop art direction going forward.
Moon Boot, like Ugg, is well loved for a particular silhouette. What is it that people love so much about that silhouette?
First off, people really love the brand’s point of view. We are the definitive, ’70s glam, pop art brand. It screams fun. It’s like a snow day for your feet. I’ve been associated with bigger brands, but never associated with one that people fundamentally adore and makes them smile. If you can make people smile, it’s almost that simple at times. Also, there’s really nothing else like it on the market. That’s why I love the story of how Giancarlo Zanatta visited New York more than 40 years ago and, while sitting in Penn Station, he saw a billboard that celebrated the lunar landing and was so taken by the emotion in that photo that he returned to Italy and sketched what would become the original Moon Boot. His father and brother told him that it would never work. But he believed in it so much that he designed it anyway. It then went from zero to 100 miles an hour in popularity. The shape was so unique, but the materials were also wildly divergent. Using colored nylons in the pre-sneaker era? There was no Nike at that point to reference. Giancarlo was the first to make that leap. And what I’m finding now more than ever is that consumers crave authenticity and originality. Moon Boot has those qualities in spades. I don’t care if you are the highest end fashion brand out of Paris doing a version of this boot; it’s still a knockoff. There is only one original Moon Boot.
Just no Moon Boot flip-flops any time soon, right?
Absolutely not. The most successful brands understand their brand narratives and stick to them. And that’s our company’s philosophy: we approach the business foundationally. We start small and we won’t accelerate the sell-in until we have demonstrated sell-through. We want to know the formula works first. At least there can be no other original Moon Boot. No one else has a 40-year story complete with photos of celebrities wearing the brand. No one else is featured in the Louvre as one of the 100 most important design objects of the 20th century. We are the only piece of footwear in the collection. All of that gives us an incredibly defensible territory. The same goes for Dolomite. There is only one other Italian outdoor brand with more than 100 years of heritage, but it isn’t currently being distributed. Consumers are connecting more with brands that possess a true story. Brand is the most important aspect today because design and technology are so easily transferable. If you can’t win with brand, you are not going to win.
Do you see similarities with Ugg in terms of Moon Boot’s brand traits?
For sure. Both are very particular silhouettes—you can pick either out on a consumer’s foot from 40 meters away. Both are easy on-off and fun to wear. And both are oversized silhouettes that enhance the female form. The boots make legs look longer and skinnier. Last but not least, both scream fashion. A woman putting on a pair of Moon Boots is provocative. And that’s what fashion is at the end of the day. If you’re not noticed, you are not in fashion. You’re just wearing shoes.
Is this a good industry climate to be reintroducing these brands?
It’s a great time to be doing it. The world needs another trend, and I believe our brands offer obvious potential for retailers to hitch their wagons. Specifically, several macro trends favor us. With respect to Tecnica’s après product, which is primarily fur-based, the old narrative was fur is bad, plastics are good. But with consumers becoming more knowledgeable about food supply chains, they are coming to understand that ethically harvested fur is an organic, sustainable solution and has a lot of advantages over petrol-based chemical ones. Fur also offers great performance benefits and looks great.
Might outdoor be a macro lifestyle trend in footwear?
I would agree. Outdoor brands will probably benefit from a move back to colors and khakis. And I believe Tecnica and Dolomite will benefit further. Put simply: there are a lot of dogs chewing on the same bone, but we come at it from a different place. We are not afraid, for example, of our European design aesthetic. It’s not just another scoop of vanilla.
For sure, the world doesn’t need another earth-toned hiking boot.
So many brands attack that same space and the result, too often, is the same silhouette represented 10 to 15 times on a shoe wall. And while a retailer might argue it’s the silhouette that sells the most, I counter with my supermarket analogy where the item that sells the most is milk but you normally see only four brands represented in the case. But there are 20 aisles of other categories featuring many more brands. Carrying 40 milk vendors doesn’t mean you will sell incrementally more milk, rather you will just split your sales between those vendors. In contrast, the smart merchant buys milk narrow and deep, and then buys a mix of prosciutto, hot sauces, syrups, cereals, etc. My point being that merchants should be more sophisticated in their assortments. Otherwise, it undermines the fundamental retail proposition, because the consumer is not going to feel the need to come into a store if all it’s carrying is 31 flavors of vanilla.
Is this lack of assortment one of the biggest problems involving retail right now?
It’s the biggest problem on the footwear wall. Smart retailers understand that you carry some products more for marketing reasons where they don’t expect to sell a lot, but it validates their store with their customers. And there are some products that are basics, but they don’t need to go too broad because they can service that customer more efficiently by carrying deeper. Then there are some products that are fishing expeditions where that retailer needs to put a couple of lines in the water and see what bites. Frankly, we are all fisherman. We all put stuff out there, and the voice I trust most, at the end of the day, is the consumer’s.
The lack of a dominant trend of late has retailers a bit hesitant, no?
I think retailers like stars, which is similar to Hollywood in that they like star-driven vehicles because they know what they are getting. It’s a lot more difficult to manage retail if there’s not a dominant trend. To your point, there doesn’t appear to be enough must-buys out there right now. And then look at the average consumer and how many more pairs of shoes are in their closet versus their parents at that same age. It’s probably four times the amount and, for the average man, he probably doesn’t need to buy another pair any time in the next few years. So when there is no clear fashion trend that makes something a must-buy, business can slow overall. But that’s the burden on manufacturers: to create products, generate consumer interest and partner with retailers to generate those must-buy stories.
While the overall footwear sales pie may be somewhat stagnant, it still presents enormous opportunity to do well.
And that’s just in the States. The Moon Boot, for example, hardly exists in Japan. You can imagine the Japanese design sensibility is perfect for that brand. That alone is an incredible 10- to 20-year opportunity.
What is Tecnica Group’s biggest challenge right now?
It’s an execution play more than anything. With three great opportunities, if we execute [well] I expect we will have great success. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but if we connect the dots we can create a great picture. Other big challenges, which are industry-wide, involve the Internet and dynamic pricing. I think we are in a period of real disruption right now. If you look what’s happened in home electronics and music industries—it’s absolutely frightening.
What might all of this mean for the footwear industry?
For starters, I predict there will soon be a couple of major companies that will cease to sell third party online dealers in an effort to regain control of their brands. They will only sell direct at the MSRP. This era of dynamic pricing has opened a Pandora’s box. The consumer’s ability to shop nationally on their smart phones from wherever they are pretty much makes everyone a competitor and, given the legislation and regulation of this country, you really can’t control price unless you control distribution. It also begs questions about the whole wholesale-retail markup structure. We are living in a world that has yet to acknowledge that the entire business ecosystem has changed yet the markup system hasn’t changed in a meaningful way. I think some fascinating things are going to be happening over the next decade on that front as well.
Yet I don’t envision a world where shoes are obsolete.
I agree and, as a father with three kids to put through college, that’s a good thing. The lo-fi of the footwear industry is exactly what protects it.
What do you love about your job?
The 30,000-foot answer is working with a great team of people. I think that makes all the difference in the world. My 15,000-foot answer is the creative process, because I love the fact that, on a daily basis, I get to invent the future. And my 5,000-foot answer is I get a ton of free socks. I love the concept of the “game day” sock. On all my big days, I open the drawer, take off the wrapper and break out a fresh pair. It gives me such a boost.