10 Questions for Dansko’s Ann Dittrich

Dansko is striking a balance between the old and the new.

As the iconic clog maker marks its 20th anniversary this year, it’s keeping the closed-back clog a cornerstone of the brand, while also heading in new fashion directions. Now under the creative direction of Ann Dittrich (above), Dansko launched the Berkeley collection of tailored styles for fall ’10 and will debut the Caneel Bay series of dress sandals next spring. And the company could soon expand into even more market segments.

“We haven’t found a category of footwear that we can’t adapt to work with our [DNA],” said Dittrich. “Maybe ballet flats, but I won’t even rule them out.”

Dansko’s product offering has earned it a diverse following that includes consumers young to old. Next up: kids. This fall, the company aims to attract a new audience through the reintroduced children’s line, focused on its signature stapled clogs.

The brand also has successfully taken its comfort message global and is now sold in countries that include Korea, Israel and Greece, with freestanding stores in China and Japan. For the West Grove, Pa.-based company, which was founded by husband-and-wife team Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup, this adds up to double-digit sales increases in 2009, with a repeat performance expected again this year.

Here, Dittrich weighs in on current trends, going after the men’s market and the company’s return to kids’ clogs.

1. How is Dansko taking advantage of the current clog trend?
AD: We don’t like to think of clogs as a fashion look or a trend. For us, it’s a lifestyle choice. We recognize that clogs are hot on the runways and at retail [right now], and, of course, we’re making the best of its place in the sun. We’ve expanded the offerings of specialty materials and colors in our basic Professional and added the Rio, a wood-bottom, higher-heeled silhouette with a younger attitude. Both have proven to be very popular, with sales of our Rio collection way above forecast. We’re coming off [our] most successful spring season and bringing in more new customers than ever.

2. What are the challenges of working with a clog silhouette?
AD: It’s more of an asset than a challenge. We have terrific architecture in our clogs. The footbed is contoured for the highest level of support, and our rocker bottoms make walking smooth and fluid.

3. Do consumers tend to favor wood or unit bottoms?
AD: That’s a tricky one. If asked, people will often say they prefer the wood bottoms for their authenticity, green-friendly attributes, or just for looks. But when it comes down to it, we’ve sold millions of pairs of shoes on molded outsoles and we don’t have any plans to change to wood bottoms on our core collections. The reality is that molded soles offer more energy return and are longer-wearing than wood bottoms. We have both types of soles in our line now, and there’s a market for both.

4. How does the brand manage to attract both young and more mature customers?
AD: We have a style that really can’t be pinpointed to young or mature customers. The Dansko girl is independent, confident and often quirky, attributes that have nothing to do with age.

5. Do “real men” wear clogs?
AD: You bet. While our men’s business is a small fraction [of the entire business], it’s growing quickly. We have a new collection debuting this fall called Walden, based on clog DNA but featuring a more casual and less clog-like look. It’s been very well received, and we have plans to expand our men’s collections in the next 12 months.

6. How are modern comfort features and technologies incorporated into the iconic clog style?
AD: We continually investigate improved technology, whether it’s a simple thing like a memory foam footbed or [something] more impactful like eco-friendly molded outsoles. We’ve expanded our construction base to include lightweight stitch-to-sole and vulcanized. It won’t replace our tried-and-true stapled clogs, but it will offer more diversity to our customers. You won’t find gimmicky or trendy features in our shoes.

7. Are duty and health-care workers wearing Dansko after hours too?
AD: We’ve conducted studies that show that more than 80 percent of our customers wear Danskos both on and off the job.

8. Why jump back into the children’s market this fall?
AD: Kids need comfort and support, too, and our playful styling appeals to them. We have an adorable collection of stapled clogs for girls, and for spring ’11, we’ll introduce Vesta, a vulcanized shoe. We see the stapled clogs as being perfect for school or dress occasions, while the vulcanized Vesta will be more of an after-school, run-around-the-playground sort of shoe.

9. What’s your approach to designing for the global market?
AD: We don’t really change our look and personality for foreign markets. The Dansko lifestyle is our reason for being, and it’s globally relevant. While they’re typically thought of as European comfort, our shoes are actually incredibly popular in Asia. We’ve had freestanding Dansko stores in China for more than two years, and we recently opened our first freestanding store in Japan.

10. Is your green-certified company headquarters reflected in manufacturing and product?

AD: A day doesn’t go by in which we don’t address sustainability. [Founders] Peter and Mandy are passionate about reducing the impact on the environment, and we’ll continue to improve our manufacturing and product. We’re working with solvent-free leathers, recycled foams and cushioning, and we’re constantly researching new, greener technologies. Our goal is to reduce our footprint more each year through innovation and smart business practices.

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