Comfort Brands Interpret Minimalism

Inspired by the growing minimalist trend in the athletic and outdoor arenas, comfort vendors are offering their own takes on the category.

But unlike performance-focused brands such as Vibram FiveFingers, Nike Free and New Balance Minimus, barefoot-inspired comfort looks are more lifestyle-driven. The shoes have a bit more bulk underfoot than athletic styles and boast comfort as the main attribute. The trend has led to a string of debuts this year and next.

Londonderry, N.H.-based Ecco will launch its Biom Lite collection of lifestyle looks that includes skimmers and sandals for spring ’12. The line rounds out the brand’s performance looks that were introduced into the running category in 2009.

“[Biom Lite is] more of a brown shoe [for a] comfort customer,” said Felix Zahn, product manager for North America. “If you go to good comfort retailers, you don’t find big amounts of minimalist product. The competition is not big yet in these channels.”

Dr. Scholl’s soft launched its Free Step collection of minimalist looks for spring ’11. And based on the positive reaction to the offering, the collection has been expanded for fall with 15 SKUs for women and four for men. While Free Step is made on a flexible, lightweight construction, the shoes still incorporate the St. Louis-based brand’s proprietary insole with massaging gel. “We’re not trying to compete with [core athletic brands],” said Maureen McCann, VP of wholesale marketing for Dr. Scholl’s. “We use barefoot as an umbrella. We take an idea and [interpret it] for the Dr. Scholl’s consumer in a more relaxed, sport-casual way.”

Clarks, too, is not intimidated by the growing competition. “A comfort brand can go up against the big athletic brands,” said Geoff Pedder, business unit director for Upper Newton Falls, Mass.-based sub-brand Privo, which is debuting its Freeform collection for women this fall. “The minimalist movement is not only about barefoot running, it’s also about interpreting the concept into everyday comfortable walking shoes.”

Freeform translates the barefoot trend with styles that have a slight lift at the heel. “Minimalist and barefoot have certain connotations,” said Pedder. “[Freeform is] not totally barefoot. It’s a nod to the minimal trend, but as a comfort vendor, we need the shoes to be both comfortable and wearable.” And, he added, Freeform uses leather uppers with pops of color. “We’ve made them into casuals for our consumer.”

New York-based Jambu debuted its Bare Feet collection for spring ’11, with three styles for women on lightweight, flexible outsoles. And, predicts David Jonah, GM of Jambu, these lifestyle interpretations will have more longevity than their performance counterparts.

“They’re built for lifestyle [wear],” he said. “They’re cute and comfortable.”

As a result, comfort vendors are focusing distribution in the independent channels where their customers already shop. And so far, retailers said, the reaction has been good.

At Tops for Shoes in Asheville, N.C., owner Alex Carr said the majority of his customer base is buying minimalist footwear for its style rather than athletic attributes, including shoes from non-core brands.

“[Comfort] shoes have been so bulky,” said Carr, who offers FiveFingers and Merrell in the store’s athletic section, and Jambu’s Bare Feet collection in its lifestyle area. This spring, he will round out the comfort assortment with styles from Clarks and Earth. “[Customers] like the slimmer, more feminine treatment. It’s less about the athletic aspect. It’s more of a casual, lifestyle feel.”

Janice Abernathy, co-owner of Abbadabba in Atlanta, introduced the minimalist category in spring ’11 and has already found a niche for brands such as Jambu. Soccer moms, for example, may want the barefoot experience, but shy away from the performance look of FiveFingers. But customers who have embraced the barefoot movement become easy sales targets.

“Our experience has been that women who have FiveFingers are much easier to sell on a more fashionable shoe,” Abernathy explained. “[Comfort brands] offer [these consumers] a way to embrace the technology without being so far out there.”

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