Since its 2006 launch, the Brazilian footwear brand has made its mark in the women’s market with its collection of low-key, sophisticated designs at accessible prices. And for spring ’09, Corso Como is looking to broaden its reach in an unexpected way: knockoffs.
Not to worry, though. Instead of drawing inspiration from the designer set, the brand is taking a page from its own style book and introducing Ciao Bella, a collection of lower-priced, China-made versions of past best-selling Corso Como styles. They will retail for $69 to $95, compared with the core collection at $98 to $179.
The move gives Corso Como a foothold in two key price tiers — a particular advantage at a time when consumers are spending less.
“A friend called me about a year ago and said that Target made a knockoff of our [trademark] ballerina and that it was completely sold out,” said Max Harrell, president of Corso Como. “I was actually flattered because I knew we had arrived since Target was knocking us off. But I thought, ‘If everyone else was knocking me off, why don’t I knock myself off?’ We decided to take some of the existing Corso Como lasts and make some shoes in China.”
Based in Campo Bom, Brazil, Corso Como was launched by Carlos Kray in fall ’06 and is under the umbrella of his 12-year-old private-label footwear firm, Strada, whose clients have included Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch.
“The private-label business presents a lot of challenges in terms of organization,” Kray said about the decision to diversify with a branded offering. “We’ve really developed a [solid] global footwear sourcing structure with two production sites in Asia and Brazil, so [we thought] we could bring the right high-value product into the marketplace at the right time at a very competitive price.”
Kray’s first move was to hire Harrell, who was charged with Corso Como’s launch in the U.S. Prior to joining the company in 2005, Harrell worked for such brands as Esprit, Rocket Dog and Skechers. According to Kray, Harrell was given “free rein” to shape the Corso Como product and brand image. And Harrell said he had a clear set of priorities from the beginning. “We had to make these shoes comfortable,” he said. “But when you make a comfortable shoe, it looks like a comfortable shoe. And traditionally, those kinds of shoes just don’t look feminine. I wanted beautiful shoes that happened to be comfortable.” To that end, he said, a pair of gel pads are built into each shoe and stitched into the leather sole, enhancing the shoes’ flexibility and comfort.
In creating the initial collection, Harrell, who works closely with Corso Como’s design director, Selmar Pereira, kept the silhouettes simple and stuck to muted leathers. The brand’s boots, ballet flats, mini wedges and sandals have a distinct, handcrafted aesthetic and steer clear of market-dictated trends. To make the shoes recognizable in the crowded women’s category, a small rhinestone is set into every sole. “I knew women would love the shoes but would immediately forget the name Corso Como,” Harrell said. “But they remember the rhinestone.”
With no marketing budget to speak of, Harrell and his team opted for a grassroots approach to promote the line. According to Harrell, the idea was to get Corso Como shoes on the feet of as many fashion-savvy women as possible. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Angelina Jolie to a cool-looking waitress Harrell met while dining has been sent a pair of the brand’s shoes. “The best way to start something is through word of mouth,” said Harrell, who estimates that about 2,000 pairs have been given out to date. “It can affect everything and trumps anything we could have done [using more traditional marketing methods].”
When it came time to launch in fall ’06, Corso Como opted for an unconventional tactic, rolling out just one style with one exclusive retail partner. Fred Marsh of Sacco Shoes in New York, who had known Kray for several years through Kray’s private-label business, decided to stock the boot style in his five Manhattan stores.
“It was a terrific boot, and we’ve been buying from the collection ever since. Corso Como immediately added to our business,” Marsh said. “[Carlos and I] know each other and trust each other, so it was a natural [partnership].” In fact, Marsh is such a believer in the brand that he is preparing to roll out Corso Como shop-in-shops in all his doors this fall.
Since its debut, Corso Como has quickly added to its roster of retailers. The brand is carried in nearly 900 stores in the States, including Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Anthropologie, Piperlime.com and select Nordstrom doors. In addition, the company is looking to open a freestanding Corso Como store in New York within the next six to 12 months.
“[Corso Como] has been a great resource for us,” said Jennifer Gosselin, VP of merchandising for Piperlime.com. “Value for us doesn’t just mean a low price point — it means great quality and great trend on fashion product, and Corso Como fits what [we] are looking for. It is definitely one of our strongest brands within the bridge category.”
Meanwhile, the new Ciao Bella line will target a different set of retailers. “We are aiming at the stores that don’t sell shoes for $150,” Harrell explained, noting that Macy’s is among the retailers that have picked up the collection. “And since the [Ciao Bella] designs will be available a year after [the original Corso Comos], the line is more for the customers who are not as cutting edge and for the retailers that only sell collections priced under $100.”
But for now, Corso Como is busy with the fall ’08 introduction of a small men’s collection, which is slated to retail from $255 to $295. While the addition of men’s will broaden the brand’s appeal, Harrell said the company does not expect the category to grow into a significant piece of its business. “We really made it so that I’ll have some great Corso Como shoes to wear, too,” he joked.