NEW YORK — After keeping a low profile in 2009, Marc Fisher Footwear is kicking off the new year with a bang.
In the last month alone, the company has signed an exclusive footwear agreement with model-turned-businesswoman Ivanka Trump and expanded the G by Guess juniors’ concept to wholesale, a pair of moves that company founder Marc Fisher anticipates will be a major boon to the 5-year-old business.
“There are a lot of balls in the air, so that’s a good thing,” Fisher said during a joint interview with company President Susan Itzkowitz. “We’re in our infancy, but we have such a great opportunity to grow [our] businesses, and that’s what we’re focusing on. … We’re going to sell a lot more shoes.”
The line with Trump, targeted at working women in their 20s and 30s looking for accessibly priced fashion footwear, will bow for spring ’11. The 28-year-old real estate scion, who also has a namesake jewelry collection, told Footwear News she tapped the firm to build the collection because of its deep expertise.
“Some [retailer friends] said they were best in their class,” Trump said. “From the inception, it just felt easy and right. … [Marc] has an incredible capacity for information and a great eye for detail.”
In addition, the firm, which owns the Sigerson Morrison and Marc Fisher brands and licenses footwear with Guess and Unisa, is forging ahead with a number of other major initiatives this year. Topping the agenda is growth across the Guess portfolio.
At last week’s FFANY show, Fisher and Itzkowitz unveiled the $39-to-$89 G by Guess collection — previously sold only at Guess shops — to outside retailers.
The duo now plans to launch a sport classification for fall ’10 and grow the Guess name overseas.
“There’s such a great opportunity with Guess, that’s really where so much of our focus is,” said Fisher, noting that the projects could help double business over the next 30 months.
Here, the pair weighs in on their game plan for 2010, lessons learned in the down economy and the importance of staying true to strategy.
FN: Clearly, 2009 was a rough year for the industry. How did you adapt to the new economic realities?
MF: [The last year] was very challenging, and we did a lot of things [to adjust]. First and foremost, we stayed focused on our business and figured out how to maximize each opportunity. We took advantage of the business climate, particularly in China, to maximize key items, which we were able to reorder in a timely way. We kept our focus on product, on newness and delivering trend items to the customer because we knew that was going to convince her to part with her dollars. We invested further in our product development team [and] refocused on the price-value relationships since value became such an important component of every sales transaction. We became more efficient, better at managing our inventories and worked within a leaner organization. It was a tough year, but we came out stronger as a result of it.
FN: What are your expectations for this year?
SI: We are cautiously optimistic. I don’t think we’re going to throw out a number. Business was better [in 2009] than we anticipated based on what was going on. Despite everything that went on [last] year, we had a really good season at Guess. We had great product, and that coupled with the consistency of the brand image and the marketing behind [it], so we had a really good fall season. But like everyone else, we’re happy that it’s 2010.
FN: Marc, did you pick up any tips from your father (Nine West co-founder Jerome Fisher) on how to combat the economic crisis?
MF: When the crisis started, my father said, “Marc, whatever you do, don’t cheapen your product. Whatever you do, whatever you want to change, whatever you are thinking, stay true to your belief in quality.” And I am telling you, I heard that every day. It was the best advice anyone could have given me because [there’s] that temptation to think you’ll do more business if you lower your prices. We stood for what we believed, and that’s the lesson my father has taught me [after] working with him for 35 years: Stand up for what you believe in and fight for it.
FN: How did that advice play into your strategy?
MF: Our shoes on the floor today look better than they have ever looked. We lowered some price points, [and] we focused in on key items. [But] we didn’t lessen our quality. We strive to make our quality better, and [that’s] how we separate ourselves from other people. It has taken a lot of discipline.
SI: In all our brands, we have looked at price points and made some good decisions and adjustments in terms of what to do with prices. In the Guess brand we have some key items that have very good prices and that we are very pleased with. In the Belle by Sigerson Morrison line, we’ve really kept the designer elements and repositioned the price points because we think now, at $195 to $250, those have an opportunity to appeal to many more consumers.
FN: You started off the year by announcing a licensing deal with Ivanka Trump. How did the marriage come about?
SI: It was somewhat serendipitous. She was looking to do a shoe line and a couple of people had mentioned our company to her. Simultaneously, Marc and I were walking down Madison Avenue and happened to look at her jewelry store. We started talking about who she is and how fabulous she seems. We set up a meeting and put a deal together within two weeks. Our visions were one in the same, [and] we thought we could accomplish something really great together.
FN: How do expect the line to fit in with the firm’s roster of brands?
MF: It really brings a totally different standpoint to what we already do. It complements the mix of brands we have and doesn’t conflict with anything [we do]. That was the real appealing part. A lot of [twentysomething] girls in New York feel like they can’t shop for shoes because everything they want is too expensive. When you’re 27 or 28, and you’re working and then going out, you don’t want to go home and change. You want to dress so you can be 24/7, and you want footwear that can have that versatility. That’s something that’s really a goal of mine as part of this collection.
SI: We have the opportunity to do shoes that are elegant, on-the-go and can take you from day to night, while at the same time are very versatile and practical. The interesting part about Ivanka is that she really wants [women her age] to be able to buy her shoes and wear her shoes. She’s not looking for the customer who spends $700.
FN: Is that what makes her a good celebrity partner?
SI: She’s a different kind of celebrity. As opposed to being a singer or an actress who is popular today and not popular tomorrow, she is really a businesswoman first. She is driven, runs a huge company and has a lot of ideas to do more and be successful. She’s a great role model to a lot of women and is really doing something.
FN: One of your key projects for 2010 is taking the G by Guess concept to wholesale. Why did you make that move?
MF: We really thought there was a need for another strong player in the juniors’ market. We had shoes in [G by Guess stores] for a few years, and the idea is to expand on that and really give [juniors] their own devoted line. We’ll have a whole line for them to pick from, as we do with Guess. As [Guess] expands its concept, we can really stand with them. It would be different product, different price points and a different consumer.
SI: And that’s by design. It opens up a whole new world for us as a company.
FN: You’ve been working with Guess since you launched your firm five years ago. What is that relationship like?
MF: We have a fabulous working relationship with the Marcianos and all their people, from their brand people to retailer buyers, their licensing team and their international team. We inspire each other. When we’re together, it’s like this incredible energy, and with that energy we want to jump over to the next building and climb it. They are very involved, and that helps us to grow this brand in many different directions. We proved that a great retailer in clothing and accessories and a great shoe company [can] work together and accomplish something incredible.
SI: We have a great shoe business within their retail stores, and we have a great shoe business through our wholesale channels, and that doesn’t happen often.
FN: It’s been about three years since you bought Sigerson Morrison. How has it evolved since it was added to the Marc Fisher mix?
SI: Kari Sigerson and Miranda Morrison never cease to amaze us with the great designs they come up with. We have really expanded our customer base there. It’s not just the downtown girl anymore. Now that we have a store uptown and are in all the major department stores, we’re seeing an additional customer be attracted to the footwear.
FN: What is the growth strategy for Sigerson Morrison?
SI: We see our business starting to develop internationally, in Belle by Sigerson Morrison especially. We are really encouraged about the opportunity that exists for Belle [after] looking at how we did in all of 2009 and the reaction to the first collection of 2010. It is great design at great price points and something different from what you can get from other lines.
MF: Belle is a real achievement [as the hippest and best product out of China]. I went into the Belle store [in Palm Beach, Fla.,] with my dad, for example, and he picked up the shoes and said, “I can’t believe you made these shoes where you made them. I can’t believe they look the way they look [and] feel the way they feel. I can’t believe the price.” He was in shock and awe. He’s my best person to bring in, put a shoe in his hand and ask what he thinks. [And] he thinks [we have a real] opportunity here.
FN: You’ve also been working closely with Macy’s, the exclusive retail account for the Marc Fisher line. What are the plans for expanding that relationship?
SI: We have a great partnership with Macy’s, and we’ve continued to aggressively grow business with them. They have been very supportive, and we’ve grown the business based on the number of SKUs and the amount of floor space we have [in about 600 Macy’s doors]. We’re [also] looking to open [shop-in-shops] within those 600 doors, like the one in Herald Square.
FN: Have you considered wholesaling Marc Fisher to other accounts?
SI: We’re all very happy at this point with Marc Fisher and Macy’s. We are, [however], starting the business internationally. We are in Mexico, Canada, some places in the Middle East, and we’re looking at Asia and Central America. We’re also looking at other classifications, such as handbags and an assortment of other product lines.
FN: More high-end brands have been making the move to Asia in recent years. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in Chinese manufacturing?
MF: Two years ago, there were very few people making shoes in China that retailed for more than $100. Today, you have a lot of brands that are selling shoes between $100 and $400 out of China. That is a dramatic shift and was probably accelerated by the crisis 18 months ago. But there are a lot of other things that have changed in China [recently]. The materials are made next door, rather than having to be imported from somewhere else, [and] they are much quicker to market today. Seven years ago, it took 120 days to get anything out of China; today you can make shoes in 30 days.
FN: Are people less inclined to have the China versus Italy debate because of all these changes?
MF: That debate is over. China’s product is as good as any other product made anywhere around the world. I’m not saying China’s product is as good as shoes [priced] at $1,000 a pair, but our product [for the cost] is the best product in the world. Women today [don’t] walk into a store and say, “I want to spend $200 on a pair of shoes, and I’m not going to buy those shoes if it says ‘made in China.’”
FN: What are your thoughts on the acquisitions environment right now?
MF: There will be more of it. These things ebb and flow, and once it starts, you’re going to see some real change in the next 36 months.
FN: Are you eyeing additional acquisitions?
MF: We’re really focused right now on growing what we have. … It seems like enough.
FN: Will it ever get to the point where just a handful of large firms dominate?
SI: I hope not. I don’t think that’s healthy for the business. Small firms have an opportunity to do things big firms can’t.
FN: Websites such as Facebook and Twitter have made an impact on marketing plans. Are you tapping into social media?
MF: We’re looking for different ways to reach the customer, whether it’s online, in stores, events and bloggers. We need to find ways to dial in directly to the consumer, and that’s what we’re looking at this year.
SI: We need to roll with the times, and it’s very important to have the direct dialogue with the consumer so we can understand what she likes, what she wants, what she needs.
FN: The Fisher family has been in footwear for nearly 100 years. How does that influence the way other people in the industry view your business?
MF: We’re one of the few families in America who has done that. We have four generations. It’s amazing, and it’s definitely in the bloodline. I don’t know how my son, [26-year-old Adam], picked this up. I know how I picked it up, and everything that my father did with me was exactly what I didn’t do with my son. I said, “Nope, I’m not going to do that,” and he still got into it. So there you go. It’s got to be in the DNA, and that [makes other vendors and retailers] view us as a company with incredible integrity and honesty. They realize we’re not here for the short term; we’re serious shoe people. We really stay pure to what we know.