Ronnie Fieg was born to be in the shoe business.
“When I was younger, other kids wanted to be wrestlers, baseball players, basketball players, movie stars, rappers, singers, doctors, lawyers,” he said. “I wanted to make shoes.”
Fieg started in the stockroom at New York retailer David Z (owned by second cousin David Zaken) 15 years ago. Now the 28-year-old serves as the general buyer and creative director of the chain. He’s made his dream of making shoes come true, too. Since 2006, Fieg has worked with a wide range of athletic, outdoor and brown-shoe brands on limited-edition special makeups.
Thanks to trend-right details and Fieg’s relentless promotion, his collaborative sneakers and boots with Asics, Timberland, New Balance, Sorel, Clarks, Red Wing and more have become some of David Z’s fastest-selling styles online and in-store. And this fall, he’s taking another step forward, with a 10-piece men’s and women’s line with Sebago that, for the first time, will sell beyond David Z.
The styles, part of the Sebago Artisan Collection, have been picked up by Urban Outfitters, Bloomingdale’s, Brooklyn Circus in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ubiq in Philadelphia and, of course, David Z. Retail prices range from $95 to $150.
Here, Fieg discusses what drives his collaborations and why marketing trumps just about all other areas of business.
1. What can we expect to see in your collaboration with Sebago?
RF: It’s really heritage mixed with fashion. There’s a lot of fringe, and I created new uppers with a buckle boat shoe. It’s [taking] the WASP-y traditional boat, tennis, Hamptons [look] and giving it a twist to let the younger generation into that kind of product. It’s giving them a bridge.
2. Will the customer who buys your athletic styles want these brown-shoe looks?
RF: It’s not all the same customers, but there is a no man’s land where both [sneaker wearers and boat-shoe buyers] are meeting. Basically, [the shoes are] for somebody who doesn’t want to wear an everyday brown or black shoe that gets lost. I want to create statement products on classic silhouettes.
3. Is there a common thread in your collaborations with all these brands?
RF: I don’t like to overstep my boundaries for what the company is about. For example, I wouldn’t make a patent leather Red Wing boot. Its heritage does not revolve around fashion colors; its heritage is around materials, construction and craftsmanship. I want my collaboration to bring out the best in a company. I’m not trying to reinvent it. I want to take a company that I respect and make the goods as premium as possible.
4. Does making premium goods mean elevated prices?
RF: My most expensive collaboration was at Red Wing for $250, and I’ve gone as low as $65 for a pair of Asics Ultimate 81s. I don’t want to target a consumer with a product I don’t feel they can buy. That would be mean. There are two ends of the spectrum, and I want to meet in the middle where you are giving quality for a decent price.
5. You spend a lot of time online describing your shoes. Do customers want that much in-depth information about shoes?
RF: One of my goals — other than making and creating quality products — is to educate the consumer as to why they should buy quality products. A nice amount of people want to know. I can’t expect everybody to be as passionate or curious about footwear as I am, but everyone loves shoes.
6. What is your main purpose for being so active online?
RF: When I have a release, it would be very frustrating [if] I couldn’t show the world. So building and expanding my network and the marketing is just as important — if not more important — than the product. Without the public, I can’t sell [anything].
7. Why is marketing so important?
RF: These days a good product doesn’t sell itself. You’ve got to go out there and sell it. Impulse buys no longer exist with my consumer. When they go out and buy something, 50 percent of the population in the U.S. knows what they’re going out to buy because they’ve seen it already.
8. Do you worry that too much advance publicity could make people lose interest when a shoe actually hits?
RF: [Yes], sometimes customers get to the point where they’ve seen a product so much that they feel they had it, wore it and got rid of it already before it even comes out.
9. You are famously controlling about the information and images you release about your shoes. If making sure people see your work is so critical, why not be more open?
RF: I want to present my project the way I envision it. Why should I develop a product and let anyone take a [bad] picture of my shoe and show it to the world? That’s just wrong. I want to control the perception from when I display the product online and show images to when you see the product in your hand. I don’t want you seeing the shoe on a shelf with whack lighting from your camera phone that makes it look mauve or green when it’s brown. The most important thing I’m trying to portray is the quality of the materials and the goods.
10. Has that limited your audience?
RF: Absolutely. And for now it’s OK because I’m still selling out [of the shoes]. It’s a tightrope I’m walking on. The blogs built who I am today. But if I could reverse time and keep the following I have and get rid of all the blogs and go back to impulse buying, where people see the product for the first time in the shop, that would be a dream come true.