Recognizing Excellence in Design and Retail for 2013
Wolverine Worldwide has captured its third straight Plus Award in the prestigious Company of the Year category. For the fourth consecutive year the corporation achieved record financial results, with fiscal 2013 revenues hitting $2.69 billion, up 5.6 percent from 2012. All three of its branded operating groups (Lifestyle, Performance and Heritage) played a part in the increase, with the most significant contributions coming from the Sperry Top-Sider, Saucony, Keds and Merrell brands.
“When you look across our company, which includes 16 brands and multiple distribution channels, we have something for every one of our retailers across America,” remarks Blake Krueger, chairman and CEO. “Our fanatical focus on product innovation is delivering exciting products to our consumers, and we continue to tell compelling marketing stories each season—all while our talented and motivated teams deliver revenue growth and increased profitability across the portfolio.” He adds, “It really comes down to people and being able to provide great customer service for our retail partners, especially in these volatile times.”
For a little perspective of how far Wolverine Worldwide has come, in 1994 the company had just three brands and a presence in 60 countries. Today, it makes 100 million units of footwear annually, and its brands are sold in approximately 200 countries and territories. “Over the years, we’ve learned to add to our portfolio, manage our brands and keep them distinct,” Krueger says. “It’s a complicated business model, but fundamentally we’re a company that depends on communication.” He also points out that Saucony, Sperry Top-Sider, Keds and Stride Rite, which the company acquired from Collective Brands in October 2012, are now “fully integrated and were all put on a single SAP system in less than a year, which is a significant accomplishment that few companies in our industry have been able to pull off.”
Despite a still sluggish retail sector, Krueger notes that Merrell delivered excellent results, Wolverine is still the top work boot brand in the U.S. and Keds had a standout year with double-digit growth. Globally, Wolverine Worldwide now has more than 20 new international distribution contracts for Sperry, Saucony and Keds. Regionally, Krueger believes that Europe is back on track, and Latin America and Asia Pacific will continue to post double-digit gains and become increasingly important for the company’s future growth. “Our 2013 sales beat our plan, but we spent a lot of calories in taking our new brands global,” he remarks.
For fiscal 2014, the company is forecasting top line growth of 3 to 6 percent and is looking at international markets to be a bigger contributor for all brands. “Right now, our four new brands account for less than 10 percent of our collective sales outside the U.S.,” Krueger says, noting that prior to their acquisition 60 percent of all sales were international. “We’re now working to replicate that success globally with the new brands while staying relevant to U.S. consumers.” —Judy Leand
In 2013, it was smooth sailing for Sperry Top-Sider. Back in 1935, the brand introduced the world’s first boat shoe, and today it is tackling new markets and broadening its reach in existing ones by blending performance technologies with modern aesthetics. The introduction of a larger assortment of lightweight styles, together with simplified constructions, richer details and athletic influences, is resonating in domestic and foreign markets alike. In fact, consumer and retailer acceptance of the brand’s extension into the casual lifestyle space continues to be a significant growth driver.
“We’re communicating on our vision to become a global performance and lifestyle brand,” says Craig Reingold, president of Sperry Top-Sider. “Through both product and marketing, we want to emotionally connect with a lifestyle that consumers want to be a part of. Our innovation and design is more about understanding the consumer and creating an emotional product that they love to see.” He adds, “The brand has a real generational appeal—consumers from ages 6 to 60 and beyond love Sperry’s authenticity and what the brand stands for.” Empirical proof of this can be found in the company’s 2013 sales, which increased by double-digits from 2012.
The focus of the 2013 line was to blend the brand’s distinctive DNA with new colors and materials that would resonate with the market. As Reingold notes, “Boat shoes really clicked because we kept them fresh. Also, the extension beyond boat into casuals such as sandals, boots and women’s flats really worked well for us.” He adds that thanks to a cold fourth quarter weather-wise, “Boots and wet-weather product sold through, and I wish we had more!”
Specifically, the Sea Kite Sport Moc was a hit in the performance category, while the Drifter Espadrille and Boat Oxford helped buoy the American Originals collection. Enduring styles such as the Sea Fish thong sandal and Chelton bootie also figured into the equation, and the premium Gold Cup collection stood out in both the performance and casual categories. The main objective was to provide core sailing consumers with something to wear casually, while also developing active performance and sport looks for the growing lifestyle audience. Sperry also made a concerted effort to tie the performance and casual lines together aesthetically at retail.
To complement its footwear business, Sperry launched apparel and an accessories line that includes watches, sunglasses, socks, hats, gloves, scarves and sea bags. The company is also on course to expand its selection of multi-seasonal styles and to further grow the women’s segment. “We see a big opportunity to extend beyond our core sailing and water sports markets to become a global lifestyle brand,” Reingold says. —J.L.
How does a pillar of Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week connect with the everyday woman? “We’re always trying to fill the holes that our customers encounter in their wardrobes—whether it’s a heel you can walk the city in or a sneaker that’s not just for the gym,” says Principal Designer and Co-Chairman Michael Kors. The New York-based designer makes it sound easy, but he brings more than 30 years of experience designing classic American fashion, handbags and footwear to his work—not to mention a charming and likeable disposition that has won women over and become part of the brand’s identity.
Kors’ designs have experienced a revival of sorts in the past year. The company opened 98 additional stores and concessions in 2013, totaling 395 locations. And despite sagging holiday sales nationwide and a government shutdown, the brand still came out on top, reporting a 59 percent revenue increase to $1 billion in the third quarter of fiscal 2014, up from $636.8 million in the third quarter of fiscal 2013.
Driving sales for Kors by Michael Kors was a variety of heels. “Everyone loves a sexy ‘wear-me-out’ heel,” Kors says, noting that single-sole silhouettes, cutout gladiators and caged booties were favorites in 2013. “Just buying them is an instant pick-me-up,” he adds. In the summer, the brand followed up a popular cork collection with studs and metal pieces on heels. “I was also obsessed with Lucite heels for a little while. I love how they make a woman look like she’s floating,” Kors explains.
Going forward, the designer plans to stay focused on “designing and producing the shoes that customers reach for every day.” However, he never rests on his laurels. He’s eager to bring new shapes to the market. For instance, unexpected highlights of the 2013 collections included a range of fashion sneakers with zipper embellishments, animal prints, embossed croc and woven materials that celebrated Kors’ sportswear roots. “We were also really making the move towards chunkier, gutsier sandals and menswear-inspired shapes like oxfords,” he states. For Kors, taking chances is part of the fun. “I think anytime you do more menswear-inspired shoes, there’s a little bit of a risk. The true fashion people will love it, but then there’s everyone else. Luckily, everyone has really jumped on the borrowed-from-the-boys trend.” —Angela Velasquez
Founded in 1953, Saxon Shoes is a family-owned business that has grown to become the largest full-service footwear store in its home state of Virginia. Carrying more than 200 brands for men, women and children, and boasting an experienced sales staff, the retailer is all about customer service. “Our focus is to exceed expectations. We want to ‘wow’ our customers, whether with pleasant conversations, making product suggestions, offering a great selection, or providing expert fit and measurement,” says Gary Weiner, president and CEO. “Our staff and selection drives our business and customer satisfaction.”
This customer-centric approach continues to pay off in a big way. Saxon currently operates two locations: a 26,000-square-foot outlet in Richmond and a 19,000-square-foot store in Fredericksburg. “Customers love our consistency and the types of merchandise we carry,” Weiner notes. “We’re proud of our ability to get product when our customers want it. Unlike the Internet, they can touch the shoes, try them on, buy now and wear now.” Moreover, Saxon’s signature comfort-fit technique ensures that every child is expertly measured, and the fit is then double-checked before a sale is completed. The staff also offers to measure every customer’s foot to ensure the proper length and width, and can accommodate customers that use personal orthotics.
Saxon, which began as a children’s orthopedic footwear specialist, is now in its 61st year of business. “Today, we do more business on a typical Saturday before lunch than my parents [Saxon’s founders] did during their entire first year in business,” says Weiner. “For most companies, 2013 was a trying, tough year due to tremendous government issues and low consumer confidence. Everyone was very promotional. But what really set us apart was our customer service.”
Looking ahead, Weiner is “reservedly optimistic” about this spring following a long, cold winter. “There is some pent-up demand,” he says. “Anytime we have a decent weather day, we have strong sales—45 degrees and some sun would be ideal.” —J.L.
2013 was a big year for The Frye Company. Not only did the oldest continuously operating footwear company in the U.S. turn 150, it also launched a limited-edition collection of boots for men and women that riffed on Jasper Johns’ famous “Flag” painting. The Discovery Channel aired a one-hour documentary shot inside the company’s Wynne, AR, factory. And Rizzoli Publications released a coffee table book of the brand’s most famous fans. Despite the hype, the company’s core values are the same today as they were in 1863. “The quality and craftsmanship is what resonates with consumers. The expectations are very high when people buy product from us, and the product always lives up to expectations because it’s well manufactured,” says Creative Director Michael Petry.
Frye’s history is sewn into every stitch of its shoes and Petry attributes the company’s longevity to its classic yet current designs. A veteran of Prada and Polo Ralph Lauren, Petry takes care not to let the brand devolve into novelty trends. “We are inspired by all things American, whether it’s Hudson River Valley painters, American ingenuity or industrial design,” he explains. Frye’s iconic Campus, Harness and Engineer boots remain pillars of the lineup, with minor tweaks to update them from the era when John Lennon and Jackie Kennedy wore them.
This year Frye plans to continue its long tradition of using master artisans and high-quality American and Italian hides to make the best boots possible. “So long as you stay true to your core values and the things that got you to the 150-year point, the outlook is always bright,” Petry says. —Lyndsay McGregor
Merrell continues to cement its reputation as an innovator of outdoor performance footwear that blends trail blazing technologies with vibrant, youthful style, and 2013 proved to be another banner year for the brand. Although core programs remained in high demand and helped boost corporate sales, the standout grouping was the M-Connect Series, Merrell’s largest concept to date. The shoes—built on different platforms based on end-use—are lightweight, agile and designed to enhance ground connection.
“Each product in the M-Connect Series is informed by the way the body naturally moves, and encourages a closer connection to the trail,” says Martin Dean, Merrell’s vice president of product creation.
A particular highlight within M-Connect was the men’s Proterra Sport low-profile hiking shoe that was designed with Stratafuse, a new technology used in the upper that provides a glove-like fit for lightweight durability and natural movement. For women, a popular choice was the Bare Access zero drop running shoe that offered a barefoot feel by letting the foot land flat, while also incorporating more toe-to-heel cushioning.
“A leading design trend for the season was a product’s relation to the body and ability to function effortlessly with the consumer. From Google Glass to body-mapped compression gear, consumers want intuitive products that fit naturally into the rhythms of their lives,” explains Dean. “With this inspiration, the M-Connect series of shoes was built to become second-nature to the consumer’s experience on the trail.” Through minimal, flexible and lightweight designs, Dean says Merrell provides consumers a purpose to unplug, get outside and connect with each other and the outdoors. “Future designs will draw even more inspiration from the outdoors and the motivation that nature gives back to outdoor enthusiasts everywhere,” he adds.
At retail, M-Connect exemplified the convergence of outdoor and athletic design influences that still dominate the marketplace, and allowed retailers and consumers to see an entire collection of performance shoes that had a singular design concept. “Each product in the series was developed with the right level of cushioning, stability and flexibility, allowing for a more connected fit and feel. Together, the collection speaks to the benefit of getting outside and performing in the outdoors,” says Dean. He adds that going forward hiking and trail running will continue to be a large focus for the brand. “We are committed to innovating and elevating Merrell creative product to lead the way through fresh solutions that attract a younger generation to the outdoors,” Dean says. —J.L.
Three is a magic number for luxury retailer Nordstrom. Its third-quarter sales rose 3 percent to almost $3 billion. It plans to open three new full-scale stores in 2014. And it’s taken home the Plus Award recognizing Excellence in Retail in the National Chain category for the third year in a row. Scott Meden, executive vice president and GMM, says it all comes down to offering customers a great experience. “We try to keep our focus on the customer and serve them in the way they want,” he explains. “We try to stay in step with the customer by offering compelling product that’s relevant and fashionable.”
Despite a difficult economy, the Seattle-based department store chain has performed well by expanding its online presence, by catering to cost-conscious consumers through its Rack division and by investing in such new markets as Manhattan and Canada. (The company currently has 117 full-line stores spread across 35 states and plans to open the first of six Canadian locations in 2014.) “Last year in shoes, boots and short booties were a hit with customers,” Meden says, noting that Ugg sales in particular remained strong.
“Each year our goal is to improve the customer experience. We aim for perfection, but service is an imperfect science, so we continue to renew that goal,” he says. “Speed, convenience, e-commerce and personalization are becoming more important to how the customer views good service. We continue to be guided by the needs of our customers and do our best to respond.” —L.M.
When it comes to service, Dansko is always ready to go the extra distance. The company, which became 100 percent employee-owned in 2012, operates a 200,000-square-foot distribution center located near its corporate offices in West Grove, PA. Within those walls are a number of technologies and systems that help the customer service team respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of its clientele. The brand’s ultimate objective isn’t just to supply product, but to become a true retail partner. “Our retail partnerships are of the highest importance,” says COO Mimi Curry. “Every touch point in the operational process is designed to meet the needs of customers, from product ordering and speed of fulfillment to thorough and timely interactions with the customer service team.” she adds, “We may not be the only brand our retailers partner with, but we aim to be their favorite.”
The company credits its LEED Gold certified distribution center, which opened in November 2012, with revolutionizing the business. “It has upped the ante for us by providing a better quality of life for staff and better efficiency of operations to improve customer satisfaction, while minimizing our environmental footprint,” Curry explains. “A comprehensive Enterprise Resource Planning system, semi-customized by our IT team, streamlines inventory and order processes, getting the product out the door more quickly. Kiva, a state-of-the-art mobile robotics system, complements our staff by storing and bringing goods to workstations, thereby reducing the amount of walking required by order pullers. An innovative Warehouse Control conveyor and sorting system reduces the physical handling of goods by staff as well.” As an added benefit, the facility uses renewable solar and wind energy for its electric power.
Since opening the distribution center, Dansko has reduced order turnaround time from between five and seven business days to one to two business days, allowing the company to quickly and accurately ship some of the highest volumes in its history. “The distribution center works to fulfill Dansko’s pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line,’ which values People, Planet and Profit,” Curry says. “It is our goal to be everyone’s favorite footwear brand—from our consumers to our vendors to our retail partners,” Curry says. Thus, customer service spans all touch points, from a consumer’s first interaction with the brand back to the orders from retailers. “That also involves sales associate training and a strong retail support program, including generous co-op marketing and a best-in-class in-store display program,” Curry notes. “We believe cultivating relationships with our retailers results in shared success.” —J.L.
What makes online shoppers feel comfortable enough to pay for a product without even trying it on? They need to know the product will arrive intact, undamaged and true to the description. They need a reliable return policy—free, preferably. And, finally, they need helpful customer support in case things don’t go according to plan. That winning combination has earned Zappos the Plus Award for Excellence in Online Retail three years in a row. And now the Amazon-owned subsidiary has added a Plus Award for Customer Service to its list of accolades.
The Zappos recipe for success includes a massive assortment of brands, a 100-percent-satisfaction-guaranteed return policy and free shipping both ways. But when it comes to service, the secret ingredient is simple: answering the telephone.
Instead of staffing its call centers with third-party reps based overseas and reading from a script, Zappos uses its own employees. And they’re available to answer customer questions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—no matter what it takes. In fact, in 2012 a service rep spent 10 hours talking on the phone with a client who ended up buying one pair of Ugg boots. Another time an employee actually went to a rival store to get a specific pair of shoes for a woman staying at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas when Zappos ran out of stock. The company goes above and beyond to “deliver happiness,” and its wholesale partners agree.
“The team at Zappos lives up to all the rave we read about its culture and practices,” says Sperry Top-Sider’s Senior Marketing Manager Dave Mesicek. “Everyone at Zappos creates fun and a little weirdness, which makes working together a fantastic experience,” he adds.
Kitty Bolinger, executive vice president of sales at Dansko, echoes this sentiment. “Zappos has a huge wealth of industry talent in one place working to develop and manage all aspects of its business,” she says, adding that the company’s unique corporate culture keeps employees motivated and engaged, the effects of which are obvious in its stellar customer service. “Zappos has configured its entire organization around customer service and continues to exceed expectations,” says Marcio Coura, president of Havaianas U.S.A. According to Mesicek, that’s the main reason consumers continue to buy from Zappos. “They truly do ‘wow’ with every transaction and with their broad selection—and that goes a long way in our hyper-competitive market.” —L.M.
Hunter Boot has good reason to sing in the rain. The British brand received the nod for design excellence in Rain Boots for the second time in three years. What’s more, with a fortified management team and a fashion week presence for its new clothing line, the 158-year-old company is forecast to take the international market by storm.
Known for its sturdy, no-nonsense wellies and beloved by festivalgoers, fashionistas and
the British royal family alike (it carries two royal warrants), Hunter combines heritage with trendy design. “The team understands how to continuously update the product, which continues to make it a status product,” states Danny Wasserman, co-owner of Tip Top Shoes and Tip Top Kids in New York.
Take 2013’s iteration of the Balmoral range, for example. The collection epitomizes Hunter’s fashion-meets-function approach to practical footwear. The men’s Bamboo Carbon Boot, a traditional knee-high, features charcoal fleece lining that absorbs odor, wicks away moisture and regulates temperature. Meanwhile, the Lady Neoprene marries classic brand details with a warm Neoprene lining, cushioned insoles and a multi-directional tread. “The look and quality is what sets Hunter apart from other rain boot brands,” notes Joe Gradia, co-owner of Hawley Lane Shoes in Norwalk, CT, adding that his store gets a number of calls regarding the line on a daily basis.
But the winds are changing and 2014 spells major brand overhaul. While the company is firmly rooted in the countryside, its appetite for expansion and growth is undeniable. A slew of high-profile recruits last year included Alasdhair Willis as creative director; Niall Sloane, former senior womenswear designer at Burberry, as global design director; and Fabrizio Stroppa, previously of Mulberry, as commercial and sales director. Hunter Original, the company’s first foray into clothing, recently debuted with a runway presentation at London Fashion Week, and the brand will open its first brick-and-mortar store in London in July, with plans for others in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. —L.M.
Wolverine has won the Plus Award for Design Excellence in Work Boots 14 times in the past 15 years, an unprecedented feat. These stellar results underscore the brand’s ongoing commitment to combining innovative technologies with modern aesthetics to serve the exacting needs of the work market. In fact, Wolverine Brand President Todd Yates notes that in 2013, Wolverine’s work boot sales logged a single-digit increase, helping to boost the brand’s market share, despite the fact that the overall work boot market declined.
“We launched some new technologies, updated existing ones and brought the styling up-to-date,” Yates says. “This combination of technology and materials resonated with consumers. You can launch the greatest technology in the world, but if the boot doesn’t look good, consumers won’t respond.”
Design initiatives last year included the introduction of EPX anti-fatigue technology that brings comfort closer to the foot, refinement of its patented ICS (Individual Comfort System) adjustable comfort innovation and the addition of cushioning and energy return to its time-tested skid-resistant DuraShocks platform. Roger Huard, vice president of product development, explains that because comfort and protection are so critical in this category, the brand designs boots from the inside out. “We want to bring comfort closer to the foot, and our approach is to build the boot around that. In addition, we talk with consumers, refine the designs and do a lot of field testing,” he says.
Standout models in 2013 included the Mansard, a lightweight boot for roofers featuring an ergonomic toe cap that reduces wear on the upper when the user is doing work that requires a lot of kneeling. And the Tarmac, which offers a reflective midsole to improve the safety of those who work in low-light conditions. Yates notes that the Tarmac was a sleeper hit at retail. A third style, the Axel, incorporates Wolverine’s ICS technology that allows wearers to customize the comfort by adjusting a gel disc in the boot’s heel to one of four settings. “Our inspiration is to make the fundamentals better by looking in areas where we can do something different with flexibility, comfort and weight,” Yates explains. “We’re trying to make work boots as comfortable as sneakers, so we’ll keep pushing the envelope.” —J.L.
Today Earthies fits so effortlessly into women’s wardrobes and onto store shelves that it’s easy to forget that when the line debuted in 2011, its objective was to bring a new approach to the comfort business. “We were creating our own space by offering a product that would deliver a higher degree of sophistication to the consumer than what was available in traditional comfort footwear,” recalls Angelo Romero, executive vice president and chief product designer. Flash forward to 2013 and the brand that made a mark by blending on-trend silhouettes with an exclusive contoured footbed (recently revamped to feature a more flexible forepart) is now ready to implement more novel designs into its collections. The shift in design approach grew out of feedback from Earthies’ retail partners, Romero notes.
This past year the brand visited with retailers across the country to gather information and identify opportunities. And Romero says retailers didn’t hold back. “They were excited to communicate what they felt was right and where we could improve,” he explains. With that feedback, the company rolled up its sleeves and went to work. Traditional ballerinas expanded into new toe shapes. Low, wearable heels were developed for sandals and transitional styles, and materials and soles were streamlined. And by working more closely than ever to market, the Earthies product development team was able to tap into the demand for trendy pumps in summer colors and fall loafers and oxfords. “I believe the consumer looks to our product because they no longer have to compromise,” Romero says. “They don’t have to choose between feeling good and looking good.”
The market responded enthusiastically to Earthies’ collections, and in some cases the brand has been hard-pressed to meet reorder demand for bestsellers, Romero says. In-demand styles included the Bindi flat with lace-like cutouts, Casella peep-toe wedge and the Bello multi-strap flat sandal. “The sourcing team had to be very creative attending those reorders,” Romero says. “But those are good problems to have. It shows that our strategy is correct and that there is a lot of potential with the brand.” —A.V.
Clunky clodhoppers from brands like Birkenstock might be enjoying a renaissance on the runway, but at geek-chic Shoe Market in Brooklyn, NY, it’s business as usual. You will never find stilettos here. Instead, owners Dana Schwister and Erika Vala pride themselves on offering styles that are as functional as they are comfortable, and top sellers include clogs from Swedish Hasbeens, Sven and Dansko. But it’s an unwavering commitment to customer service that’s kept the register ringing since the 500-square-foot boutique opened its doors in 2007.
“In the shoe business, every bit of personal attention counts,” Vala says. “We try our best to help our customers get their needs met, even when this means special-ordering shoes or suggesting other options.” One step the retailer took last year to step up service was to revamp its existing in-store return policy (store credit within 10 days of purchase) to include a 24-hour cash-back policy. “That way customers can bring the shoes home and try them on, sleep on it and bring them back the next day for a full refund if they change their mind,” she says, noting that she believes this new policy will calm customers when they are debating a purchase. “We all know how it feels to be on the fence and to want to take our shoes home and try them with some of our own clothes before we commit.”
And while last year’s overall sales were a little slower than in 2012, and 2014 has yet to show any major movement, the men’s side of the business is up. Vala deems this encouraging. “I like to think positive and blame the biting cold weather,” she says. “We should see a big pickup when spring hits New York City. We all look forward to that.” —L.M.
Cole Haan began 2013 on a new foot when the company was acquired in February by Apax Partners, a global private equity firm, from Nike Inc. And the nearly century-old brand hasn’t missed a step since. Keenly aware of men becoming increasingly sophisticated and educated in their buying power, TJ Papp, senior director of men’s footwear merchandising, says Cole Haan set out to make collections that combined the brand’s history of classic design and craftsmanship with a modern edge. “Our value proposition is the elegant collision of tradition and modernity pulled through the filter of engineering and innovation. We are laser focused on providing the best price/value relationship in all our footwear, at every price point,” Papp explains.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that bestsellers were styles that married beautifully crafted details on silhouettes including wingtips, penny loafers and slip-ons with the flexibility, lightweight and comfort for which Cole Haan has become famous. The brand’s iconic driving moccasin program led the way with buttery soft suede in seasonal colors like cobalt and aqua, while the Great Jones saddle shoe blended traditional design with sporty pops of color. On the more adventurous fashion end, Cole Haan introduced brogues and lace-up boots in camouflage prints, sleek wingtips in deep hues of green, navy and oxblood and neutral chukka boots topped off with color-contrasting soles. Boots—both constructed and deconstructed—were highlights, too, becoming investment pieces in men’s wardrobes.
The year also marked the return of the classic plain-toe oxford, which was a fresh alternative to the previous season’s obsession with over-the-top, colorful brogues. It was also a reminder of Cole Haan’s timeless aesthetic. With that foundation of cool classics and signature investments, Papp sees the brand carrying on its tradition of well-crafted stylish footwear. “Cole Haan will continue to become famous for the shoes people live in and can’t live without,” he says. We have a long history of innovation and we’re at our best when we push boundaries in the footwear industry.” —A.V.
The shoes sold at Bus Stop—spanning pskaufman twisted classics to lacquered styles from Melissa — are far from basic. Nonetheless, Elena Brennan, owner of the Philadelphia-based boutique, says much of the store’s success is owed to a stripped down, “back-to-basics” buying and selling approach. “We make sure we are madly in love with every piece in the shop; that every item is comfortable and walkable and that we continually strive to bring the unusual and the fresh,” she explains. In the store’s seventh year, Brennan says she has stuck with this simple formula and refuses to just “buy what sells” because it works. “We buy what we are excited about, and that shows in our interactions with our customers,” she offers.
Voted “Best Shoes” by Philadelphia Magazine and recommended in The New York Times feature, “36 Hours in Philadelphia,” Brennan keeps the 1,100 square-foot shop warm with a gallery-like atmosphere to showcase each shoe and tell the story behind them. “We like a clean and simple, but also personalized and intimate environment for our customers,” she says, adding that the good vibe fits with her city. “Philly is a very happy town with lots of happy people,” Brennan says, believing that friendly camaraderie keeps customers coming back for more.
Bus Stop customers span art lovers, international travelers, a steady stream of New Yorkers and, of late, an increasing number of men thanks to an expanded selection this past year. To meet their electic tastes, Brennan’s roster of boutique labels includes a mix of international designers like Esska from her native United Kingdom, Spanish brand P. Monjo and the American collaboration Wolverine 1000 Mile by Samantha Pleet. She often shops curated shows like Capsule and Liberty. “Sometimes designers find me, or a customer or other designer will suggest a brand,” she says. “That’s the thing I like about the shoe industry: everyone likes one another and helps one another.”
That feeling of brotherly love extends to the store’s locale, located on the historic Fabric Row, which is chock-full of emerging boutiques and independent designers. Throughout the year, retailers in the nabe collaborate on events like holiday strolls and shopping parties to generate sales as well as promote new businesses in the area. Brennan carries on a conversation with customers by encouraging them to Instagram their purchases and shopping experience with the #busstopboutique hashtag and runs promotions through social media. “When I post something new on Facebook or Instagram people will reach out to me to see if it is in stock,” Brennan says. “If a woman sees a shoe that she wants, she’s not going to forget about it until it is hers.” —A.V.
In 2013, Vans surf footwear rode a wave of popularity in the men’s, women’s and kids’ categories. Besides utilizing new dying and washing techniques, including an ombré dye process, the VF Corp.-owned brand focused on staying true to its Southern California roots by mixing heritage looks with fresh, modern styling. Interesting collaborations with both artisans and athletes also played a strong role in generating excitement among consumers and retailers.
“When we started working on the 2013 collections, we spent some time in the Basque Country. The European surf scene was a source of inspiration, with its mix of a casual beach attitude with European sophistication,” says Lindsay White, designer. “Another key inspiration for the collections was the surf traveler/bohemian lifestyle. There were some interesting vintage pieces we found that inspired our use of woven stripe materials and handcrafted-looking details. And, as always, we found inspiration in our brand’s history, looking to vintage Vans prints and old U.S.A.-made styles.”
On the product front, White notes that the Mohikan moccasin, which ended up spawning two additional styles, “was an instant winner with our surf ladies,” offering a beachy, bohemian lifestyle vibe. For men, the Nexpa sandal collection was a standout. “Not only is it super comfortable, but the entire bottom unit also features Plus Foam technology with an innovative closed-loop process, which is fully recyclable and creates no waste,” she notes. “It’s something that is pretty new in the footwear world and we were excited to introduce it to our consumer.”
The Krochet Kids collection—a collaboration with the non-profit Krochet Kids International organization that teaches sewing and weaving skills to women in impoverished countries and provides jobs—was a highlight. “Krochet Kids recently started a program in Peru. The hand-loom knit fabrics are beautiful,” says White. “We were lucky enough to get to work with some of these Peruvian ladies to create a three-style collection for 2013.”
Overall, White attributes Vans’ success in the surf category to the brand’s rich heritage and Off The Wall spirit that gets translated to the footwear. “The product stands out,” she says. “By utilizing 48 years of heritage we can tell real stories that mean something to our consumers and retailers.” —J.L.
Using its men’s and women’s lines for inspiration, Skechers raised the bar for its children’s collections in 2013. “We started realizing success on the right of the size scale,” shares Skechers President Michael Greenberg. “We are offering an increasing number of styles with technical features and benefits mirroring our adult lines—and the child and parent are responding favorably.” The results speak for themselves: Strong demand for the expanded kids’ collection helped drive double-digit increases in net sales in the brand’s domestic wholesale business in Q3. What’s more, the SoCal-based company received the nod for Design Excellence in the kids’ category for the second time.
From mini-me versions of popular performance product to kid-friendly styles like light-up Twinkle Toes and Bella Ballerinas with sparkly “spinning” sneakers, the word that best sums up Skechers’ 2013 kids’ collections is variety. “We offer so many options for so many different needs,” Greenberg notes, adding that the brand always keeps the end user in mind. “Skechers does not view its children’s business as an afterthought. It’s an opportunity to capture consumers at an early age and hold onto them throughout their lifetime.”
Color is equally important, and a kaleidoscope of bright, vibrant hues helped move merchandise last year. What does the future hold? There’s more innovation ahead, Greenberg promises. “We want to create products so irresistible to consumers that they feel an immediate need to purchase.” —L.M.
It’s not easy to break into a category dominated by such heavy hitters as Nike, Adidas and New Balance. But Skechers is doing just that. In 2013, the brand launched both GOrun 3, featuring a new four-way stretch upper material, and GOMeb Speed, a signature line for Skechers endorser and Olympic marathoner Meb Keflezighi. So far so good. Demand for the brand’s running collection helped spur a 20 percent growth in net sales during last year’s third quarter.
“2013 really was a breakout year for us in the Skechers Performance Division,” says Rick Higgins, vice president of merchandising and marketing. “As a new division, we don’t have a history that forces us to do things a certain way. We can try new things and see what runners think.
“The year kicked off with our second GOrun TV ad during the Super Bowl and that set the tone for the remainder of the year,” he adds. Grassroots efforts were also key. For instance, Skechers participated in 12 Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons last year and acted as the key footwear and apparel sponsor for the Houston Marathon.
How has a brand best known for its accessibly priced footwear managed to develop performance-based products that appeal to retailers and runners alike? The answer is simple: comfort. “The shoes need to feel like they’re an extension of you,” says Higgins. “We believe the shoe should be doing less rather than more. That informs our design and material choices as well as the outsoles. In today’s market we are seeing the benefits of using newer processes that enable us to create lighter-weight footwear, and the consumer has gravitated to it.”
Looking ahead, the brand will ramp up marketing this year with a new digital campaign in partnership with Google and several TV spots with Keflezighi, who recently re-signed with Skechers through 2016. Higgins is pleased to have such a solid starting block. “With several new product innovations and marketing campaigns, we’re encouraged to build on our growth,” he says. —L.M.
Durango, a division of Rocky Brands, kicked things up a notch in 2013: Sales jumped 40 percent over 2012, and the brand took home the Plus Award for Design Excellence in Cowboy Boots. But rest assured, Durango is no mere flash in the pan. With classic Americana and equestrian-inspired styles stomping down the Fall ’14 runways, Rocky Brands CEO David Sharp is confident Durango will continue its climb this year. “The brand has great style details, and it also has a great deal of comfort built in, which sets the boots apart during the buying process,” he says, taking care to mention that Durango also offers great value in a market in which prices are all over the map.
Several styles stood out for the brand last year, including some designed especially for the members and alumni of the National FFA Organization (also known as Future Farmers of America), and a hot pink Lady Rebel benefitting the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Patient Assistance, which supports breast cancer patients. “Those really hit home with consumers,” Sharp says. Meanwhile, the Crush collection, which amplifies Durango’s country roots with its elaborate embroidery and metallic embellishments, continued to perform well at retail. Sharp says he’s encouraged by the acceptance of the fashion-driven City collection by customers outside the cowboy boot market. “We really examined trends in the Western market and trends in fashion and tried to marry the two to come up with collections that were not only desirable, but conveyed Durango brand DNA,” he says.
For 2014, expect further growth from Durango in its women’s collections, as the brand’s emergence from a Western staple into a lifestyle label continues. “In a nutshell, our teams will not only dive deep into industry data, but will also go and work in a store or on a jobsite and hold consumer focus groups to really glean information on what is needed and desired within their market,” Sharp concludes. —L.M.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what today’s Keds girl is all about: She clearly lives a positive life and loves all things cute and colorful. Just look at last year’s offerings. Filled with adorable kicks in look-at-me hues and prints, not to mention collaborations with Kate Spade New York and Taylor Swift, the 2013 collections hit high notes with the brand’s target audience of 13- to 24-year-old women. And 2014 is shaping up to build on last year’s success.
“Retailers, consumers and editors all responded exceptionally well to the launch of our Taylor Swift partnership, and we were fortunate to see that translate into strong sales,” says Stephanie Brocoum, vice president of marketing, noting that the response to the revamped Champion sneaker in particular blew the company away. “Surrounded by our fresh new color palette and our fun take on prints, the classic Champion resonated even more with girls than we could have imagined.”
The collaboration with Swift has been critical to the 98-year-old brand’s recent success. Keds tapped the songstress for a multi-year partnership back in 2012, which kicked off with a special-edition pair of red Champion lace-ups in honor of her “Red” album release, and that has since evolved into a larger lineup. But it’s not just about the shoes: The singer’s latest campaign for Keds delivers a strong social message to the brand’s young female target audience. Titled “Million Brave Acts,” it’s focused on inspiring bravery and self-confidence in girls around the country. It all ties back to Keds’ newly founded Brave Life Project, which has partnered with the Girls Leadership Institute to offer educational and leadership programs for young women. As Brocoum puts it: “Taylor is a style icon and role model for her fans, and she perfectly captures the optimistic, empowered spirit of Keds.” —L.M.
For the second consecutive year, Rockport has come out on top in the Men’s Comfort category. The primary reason, according to Bob Mullaney, president of Rockport Americas, is that the brand continues to excel and is now more commercially viable. “We are designing around how we can make our consumers’ lives better,” he says. “Every day has to start with how we can help our customers do more and live better, and our approach is to make shoes that perform better in peoples’ everyday lives.” He adds, “We’re no longer searching for what we need to do; now we have to execute against our plans.”
In 2013, Rockport brought its comfort technology into the walking category via the TruWalkZero collection that features lightweight construction, softness and flexibility. The brand also added to its RocSports Lite line that boasts lightweight, athletic constructions as well as flexible and durable outsoles. The company claims that RocSports Lite models weigh less than average running shoes. Both assortments incorporate Adiprene by Adidas heel cushioning technology. Rockport’s Essential Details waterproof men’s dress shoes also experienced resounding success in key accounts last year, which prompted the brand to expand the line for 2014.
Mullaney notes that from 2012 to 2013, Rockport had strong double-digit growth and he expects the momentum to continue. “We posted our second straight year of growth and the brand is strong and stable,” he reports. “We’re now focusing more on the U.S. consumer and have delivered more viable concepts while keeping the promise of comfort and technology.” Specifically, Rockport has broadened its last size and has added roomier toe boxes and beefier bottoms to better coincide with U.S. consumer demands. “[These design changes] are resonating in the U.S. and also work in the broader market by creating commercial options on a global scale,” Mullaney explains. Looking ahead, he reveals that Rockport will tap into its rugged casual heritage and “soon be back embracing the outdoor classification.” —J.L.
Dr. Martens didn’t have to look far for a collaboration partner who could put a modern spin on its archive of legendary footwear. Part of the new class of supermodels, British model Agyness Deyn became the face of Dr. Martens in 2012, starring in the brand’s advertising campaigns. It was a natural fit for the rebellious heritage brand and model turned fashion icon known for her free spirited, androgynous look.
Deyn, who broke onto the fashion scene in 2007 sharing the cover of American Vogue with the likes of Coco Rocha, Chanel Iman and Jessica Stam, retired from the runway in 2012 and soon delved into design, asking Dr. Martens if she could collaborate on some clothes and shoes. The result is a long-standing collaboration that has reached consumers beyond the brand’s core of young rockers and punkers yet is still undoubtedly British. Touching on Anglocentric themes, ranging from mod houndstooth and herringbone patterns to whimsical teapot motifs, the collaboration is a true mash-up of Deyn influences and Dr. Martens’ style hallmarks, and spans footwear, handbags and women’s apparel.
In 2013, Deyn mixed things up by bringing 16-year-old British model, Grace Booth, into the scene as her muse and star of the fall campaign. She also looked to Tokyo’s colorful Harajuku subculture for inspiration. Highlights blended Dr. Martens’ signature leather-welted constructions with classic desert boot silhouettes, two-tone lace up shoes and two-tone Mary Jane heeled sandals accented with oversized bows and textured patterns. —A.V.
At a time in which a growing number of footwear brands are taking steps to usher in a new era of domestic manufacturing, the Vintage Shoe Company already boasts a 125-year American shoemaking heritage. The brand, which bases its designs on original 19th and early 20th century styles from parent company H.H. Brown Shoe Company, handcrafts all of its products domestically. In 2013, the footwear hit a chord with retailers and consumers who responded to the line’s authentic look and feel, high-end materials, rich finishes, and quality construction and workmanship. Despite a difficult economy, price-sensitive shoppers proved that they were willing to invest in American-made products, provided they were well-made and of high quality.
“The Walk-Over Vintage Collection is a celebration of patterns we’ve been making in our Walk-Over factory in [Martinsburg], Pennsylvania, for well over 100 years,” says Tom McClaskie, president and creative director of H.H. Brown’s Born Group. “The Vintage Collection is innovative in its use of materials and finishes that bring a contemporary point of view to archival styles that have stood the test of time. Seasonally, we develop new styles and also present our core styles in leathers that are on-trend for the season. Pastel suedes and beautiful deconstructed penny loafers were a few highlights from the 2013 collections.”
McClaskie cites a variety of factors that helped to differentiate the brand from its competitors in 2013. “The use of mixed media, for instance, combined rich suede with leather and brought life to the timeless styles,” he says, noting that the ability in general to offer truly vintage-looking shoes that are, in actuality, brand new as a strong selling point. “We burnish and tumble our boots to break them in while in production, which achieves not only a beautiful look, but provides the wearer with that perfect worn-in feeling that is unique to our brand,” McClaskie offers. To this end, the brand introduced an all-weather Vibram outsole and new suede colors, such as sage green and distressed cork, into the collection. Highlights in the line included the Atlas boot, the Derek chukka and the Judson oxford.
“Having a brand that is made in the U.S.A. is certainly a selling point for our men’s footwear collections,” McClaskie says. “It’s something that both retailers and consumers look for in terms of quality and overall brand experience.” —J.L.
For a brand that has carved a niche in women’s fashion footwear (and handbags, accessories, men’s, children’s…) by pinpointing up-and-coming silhouettes, embellishments and materials with almost clairvoyant precision, and even more impressively, getting them onto store shelves while the look is piping hot, 2013 was uniquely familiar territory for Steve Madden.
Founded in 1990 during the height of grunge fashion, Creative Director Steve Madden says the brand revisited the era with many of the edgy, rock-infused, tough girl styles it began with. “We are known at Steve Madden for our combat boots. Our customers know that we do them well with excellent attention to detail and they have come to expect that from us. So we deliver,” he says, adding, “There was a ’90s feel to the collections that we love.” The bestselling cap-toe combats were refreshed in dark olive green, denim blue and distressed whites and creams and left fuss-free. After seasons of studs and hardware, Madden says consumers were drawn to “good, solid, high quality leathers.”
Simple single-sole pumps updated in vivid colors spanning cobalt blue to golden yellow, two-piece flats, menswear-inspired oxfords and gladiator sandals added an au courant fashion pop to collections. “High platform pumps continued to be very strong for us, too, which was a nice surprise,” Madden adds. And a nine-style collection in collaboration with The Blonde Salad’s Chiara Ferragni made an impression with the fashion week crowd when the style blogger donned the peep toe booties, Lucite sandals and cuffed single-sole stilettos to shows. The brand also tapped the exuberant and daring styling of singer Keyshia Cole for a collaboration of gold gladiator stilettos, leopard print platforms and multi-color printed pumps.
With fiscal year 2013 net sales reported at $1.314 billion, a 7.1 percent increase from 2012, and wholesale net sales increasing 6.6 percent to $1.104 billion from the year before, Steve Madden looks to keep this momentum going with new collaborations including a second edition with Cole and a new partnership with Peace Love Shea blogger Shea Marie. And if this year’s grunge revival taught Madden anything it’s to never give up on an oldie but goodie. As Madden puts it, “We’ll rework and update really successful styles that people love.” —A.V.