Last spring, when the ravages of the economic meltdown were in full force, it was hard to imagine that any industry player would emerge unscathed and intact, much less worthy of an award. It actually became a running joke among the editors during the first half of 2009. What would we do if no one made the cut?
Just when all hope was lost, a few winners began to emerge.
Sometime this summer, past the mid-point in one of the most difficult years on record, the mood shifted a tiny bit and a handful of players that were beating the odds started to make some serious noise. They stood out because they were so rare. They stood out because they successfully beat back every challenge and then some.
While some could argue that most of the industry deserves an award for making it through the tumultuous and unpredictable year that is soon to draw to a merciful close, these 15 FNAA honorees had the skill, daring, discipline and tenacity to reach a place that few thought possible just a few short months ago: the winner’s circle.
When the final list was vetted, it was clear the names that made it had produced more than just sales and interesting product. They had made a powerful statement about survival. Every one of the 2009 FNAA winners — chosen by the editors of FN — pushed the envelop just enough to turn the most difficult year in recent memory into a happy memory. Quite a feat.
Here’s a look at the talented players that made headlines this year:
PERSON OF THE YEAR Quite simply, no one came close. In a year that saw many executives run for cover, Tony Hsieh took the high road. He spent much of 2009 happily touting the uniqueness of the Zappos.com culture and the success of the e-tailer, while the brick-and-mortar world imploded around him. When he found himself at the center of the biggest story of the year, the merger with Amazon.com, the rest of the world knew what we have known all along: Smart, progressive and creative, Hsieh marches to his own drum and he rarely misses a beat.
COMPANY OF THE YEAR They’ve been to the rodeo before. When Steven Madden Ltd. won Company of the Year in 2001 and 2006, it was operating in very different times. In a wildly uneven 2009, the firm scored by amping up a formula that continues to light a fire at retail. Delivering a wide assortment of trend-right product at the right price pushed them into rarified air this year, no small accomplishment even for a company that has triumphed over big odds before.
DESIGNER OF THE YEAR This guy has it all. Charming, prolific, creative and business-savvy, Guiseppe Zanotti is probably the hardest-working designer in the shoe business. This year, in what was a bloodbath at the top of the luxury market, Mr. Zanotti adjusted to the trying times by stepping up his personal dedication to his customer, creating memorable shoes and showing the world that the best luxury footwear would always find a home. With him at the helm, it always will.
RETAILER OF THE YEAR Well, I’m torn here. While the editors of FN felt strongly about Kohl’s consistent footwear initiatives and some interesting and creative collaborations, we are disappointed by the tight-lipped chain’s lack of enthusiasm for its Retailer of the Year win. I can’t imagine any company being deluged with awards this year, so I wonder if it’s time for Kohl’s to rethink its “no comment, no involvement” policy regarding industry honors. I would love to know what they really think, but then again, they would have to tell me …
E-TAILER OF THE YEAR Everything Gilt Groupe touched turned to gold in 2009. An ingenious and deceptively simple concept led the innovative e-tailer to higher sales and more visibility in one of retail’s worst years. While footwear is only a part of the success story, the buzz and immediacy the company creates serves a valuable lesson for the rest of the industry. They’ve got a winning system that seems to click in good times and bad.
MARKETER OF THE YEAR Nobody has learned to harness the power of celebrity marketing better than Iconix Brand Group Inc. In a year when many struggled for any marketing hook that would work, the multibranded powerhouse found both the hooks and the right stars for its eclectic collection of brands. And under the leadership of Neil Cole, almost every marketing move it made generated news. Now that’s buzz.
BRANDS OF THE YEAR Two powerful labels cleaned up in 2009. Sam Edelman’s return to the footwear forefront is a testament to his long history and great talent for hitting trends at just the right moment. And while Sperry Top-Sider has owned the nautical category for a long time, clever updating and interesting collaborations put the brand ahead of the fleet in a tough year.
LAUNCHES OF THE YEAR Who would be crazy enough to launch a line in such a difficult economy? Shoe people. Interestingly, three big debuts proved the skeptics wrong. Skechers dominated with Shape-Ups, a global success story that extends the company’s winning track record. Florsheim by Duckie Brown added a jolt of life to an established company, and Tabitha Simmons took the fashion world by storm with cool shoes, strong buzz and instant fashion cred.
VIVIAN INFANTINO EMERGING TALENT We always like to anoint the next hot design name. This year, Alexandre Birman gets the spotlight. He is a talent with industry roots and a deep appreciation for shoemaking, experience that will set him apart from the rest.
HALL OF FAME FN pays homage to three fascinating careers. John Shanley will always be remembered for his fair and accurate assessment of the market and his deep understanding of the business. Matt Serra retires from Foot Locker having accomplished many big things, most notably turning the chain into the preeminent athletic retailer and playing a key role in defining the business today. The exuberant George Malkemus has nurtured the outsized talent of Manolo Blahnik since the very early days in the U.S., helping manage what has turned into one of the most revered and iconic brands in fashion. All three own a very special place in the footwear history book.