10 Questions for Ilse Jacobsen

The next time there’s a downpour, Ilse Jacobsen probably will be puddle jumping in a pair of her signature lace-up rainboots.

The Danish designer, who entered the shoe industry in 1993 with a women’s fashion line, eventually realized she was the most comfortable in a pair of rubber boots. In 1999, she introduced Rub & Rain, a collection of rainboots and rain wear, which quickly caught on in Scandinavia. Today, rain gear accounts for 70 percent of sales at Ilse Jacobsen-Hornbæk, with distribution in more than 20 countries, including branded shops in Scandinavia and Europe.

According to Jacobsen, the decision to create rainboots came when she couldn’t find a pair that combined fashion, function and comfort. “I wanted to design some rubber boots that were trendy and ideal for outdoor activities on both rainy and sunny days,” she said. Since then, Jacobsen has added companion styles for men and kids.

While her upscale rainboots, retailing from $149 for a short version to $179 for a knee-high style, are classics back home, the line only hit the U.S. last fall, with limited distribution. Today, the entire Ilse Jacobsen-Hornbæk collection is distributed by Olympia, Wash.-based Lines of Denmark. The boots will be available this fall in stores that include Arthur Beren in San Francisco; Mario’s in Portland, Ore.; Olive & Bette’s in New York; and Zappos.com.

1. What inspired your love for rainboots?
IJ:
I came up with the idea when I couldn’t find a nice pair of rubber boots that were comfortable to wear, did not smell of plastic and didn’t get my feet wet. My rubber boots are made of 100 percent natural rubber with cotton-fleece lining, making them comfortable to wear year round.

2. You don’t have a fashion background. Has that been a plus or minus?
IJ:
To me, it just means I have been more free in the way I think and design. I don’t feel I’ve had to follow a certain design theory or do it like the book tells you. I design from my heart and listen to what women really want.

3. Who is your target audience?
IJ:
Since the beginning, we’ve been a favorite among more mature women, but younger [ones] have started to realize that our boots are very comfortable, of high quality and do not smell of plastic. Our [key audience] is the 35-plus, independent, fashion-oriented woman. She’s a business [type] who wants to dress smart [at work and on weekends]. In today’s market, the lines are becoming blurred. People from different age groups mix and match expensive with mainstream brands. Nothing’s strictly aimed at a certain age group. It’s more about expressing one’s personality.

4. How have you carved a niche for yourself in the market?
IJ:
My boots are uncomplicated and simple, but still smart. I believe fun prints are fun in the moment, but mine are classic and timeless. You can use them season after season.

5. There are few, if any, designer rainboot collections. Will you be promoting yourself that way in the U.S.?
IJ:
Since the brand is also my name and printed on the boots, it’s almost unavoidable for me not to promote [myself]. It’s natural that people know who’s behind the brand. It makes it more personal and easier to relate to. I made a deliberate choice when I chose the brand name for the company.

6. What is your strategy for launching in the U.S.?
IJ:
When we enter a new market, we start by introducing our Rub & Rain collection. This often gives us the opportunity to build brand recognition, which over time creates a demand for the shoes and the clothes. It seems to be a good recipe. Our other shoe styles blend a relaxed finesse [with a] soft elegance and include sneakers, flat sandals with beautiful pearls and stones, and high heels for evening. It’s closely related to the Scandinavian lifestyle. We are, of course, inspired by current trends. In the future, we expect to see our shoes being sold in more and more shoe boutiques.

7. What’s your leading market, and how big could the U.S. be?
IJ:
The Scandinavian countries are our biggest markets. However, over the past few years, we’ve entered many new international ones. This is something we are consistently pursuing. The U.S. is the country we’ve most recently entered, and we’ve had encouraging interest from boutiques and department stores. Given the positive response to our rubber boots and [rain] coats, I’d say it’s similar to most other markets. Obviously, consumers are more discreet in how they spend their money these days, but the timeless design, features and advantages of our boots fit today’s economy very well. Consumers will spend money when they see long-term value in something.

8. How did you come up with your signature lace-up design?
IJ:
I wanted to design a trendy boot and came up with the laced design that can vary in size around the leg. The laces allow for proper adjustment for a comfortable fit. This is important when you wear the boots all day. This has also proven to be a great idea with the latest trend of wearing pants inside your boots.

9. What styles do women tend to buy from your line?
IJ:
Women are very often impressed by our broad collection, but when buying their first pair, they often choose the classic boot to be on the safe side. But after some time, they often come back to buy more. I see women on the street wearing my boots every day. They wear them for all purposes.

10. Who would you most like to get caught in the rain with?
IJ:
I will make sure that I have a big enough umbrella with me so I can walk with Sean Connery, just because he’s handsome. [Then], Oprah Winfrey because I admire her.

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