Shearling Brands Are Getting Warmer

Shearling brands are venturing out of their comfort zone.

Recognized for warm, cozy boots, companies now realize they can no longer bank on a single category if they want to grow. To stake a bigger claim in the market, vendors are focusing on building a year-round business by adding styles such as sandals and clogs. Taking a cue from market leader Ugg Australia, labels such as Koolaburra, Ausiie Boots and Lamo are introducing lifestyle collections.

Ausiie Boots, based in Chatsworth, Calif., will launch Ausiie Flips, flip-flops with shearling footbeds, this spring. The sandals are handmade in the U.S. and retail from $220 to $280. “We wanted to fill in the gaps that would take us through the seasons,” said Melissa Tampi, co-founder of Ausiie Boots. “So far, we’ve had a good response. Customers appreciate the quality and craftsmanship.”

Koolaburra, too, has been looking to expand its market reach. The brand first introduced a series of sandals in spring ’10 and followed up with clogs and demi-wedges for spring ’11. “Our focus is not to move out of the shearling category but redefine it,” said Jeff Rawlings, CEO of Koolaburra, in Santa Barbara, Calif. “[Expansion] opens the possibilities for what shearling can be and [differentiates] Koolaburra as a brand. We’re moving the consumer and stretching the category for them.”

However, to get product in front of consumers, Rawlings said he knew retailers would have to first be convinced shearling was viable year-round. “The challenge for us was to get retailers to understand a thin shearling lining could be a nice comfort feature in the warm weather,” he said.

For Lamo’s spring ’11 launch of LA Lifestyle, a collection of casual looks, it included a bootie-style thong lined with shearling. The City of Industry, Calif.-based brand hopes to grab a share of the fashion footwear market with the introduction. “We felt Lamo needed to establish more of a brand identity,” said Martine Fennelly, marketing director. “There are too many [shearling] companies doing the same thing. The growth is in the fashion arena. There’s a new realm of fashion customer in the shearling market looking for more than basic boots.”

And while many shearling brands have successfully made the move into spring footwear, others said the transition is not so easy. When Bearpaw debuted sandals on Zappos.com for spring ’09, the product missed the mark, admitted Randy McKinley, VP of global marketing for the brand. “We weren’t quite true to our DNA,” he said. “There were no touches of shearling. There was no [brand] connection.”

Now, he said, the Citrus, Calif.-based company has learned from its mistakes. Bearpaw is going back to the drawing board for spring ’12, this time reinforcing the shearling connection. “We’re not abandoning it,” said McKinley. “We just need more time to do it [right].”

Emu Australia, which debuted sandals and mocs in 2007, has gained experience with a wider offering, so now the company is seeking to broaden its collection even more. “Sheepskin is such a great material,” said CEO Peter Abbott. “Customers kept asking for other products. They wanted more than boots.”

So far, the move has paid off. Emu said the non-core styles have contributed to more than 20 percent growth for the company to date, with further increases expected going forward.

Koolaburra said it has had success with this spring’s Venus fringed ankle sandal, which has been seen on the likes of Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba.

Retailers including Shag, a boutique in Roslyn, N.Y., have been quick to embrace the new shearling product. Co-owner Ann Corn said that after a strong fall ’10 season with boots from these vendors, she was ready to try the spring looks by Koolaburra and Ausiie. “Our customers feel comfortable with these brands,” she said. “We liked [the sandals] we saw, and it was a plus buying from vendors we already knew.”

Having fashion-right product is critical for brands transitioning out of the core boot category, said manager Stephanie Gomez, owner of Ooh La La in Carlsbad, Calif., which picked up Koolaburra’s sandals for spring ’10. “There was a whole thing happening with fringe [that the brand picked up on],” added Gomez.

And while she admitted that sales were not overwhelming at first, she’s optimistic this spring will be stronger for the brand. “It takes a year for [consumers] to make the connection,” she said.

Keeping a strong shearling tie-in has helped Emu land spring product in independent accounts such as The Step Inn Comfort Shoes in Simi Valley, Calif. After a successful fall ’10 season with Emu’s boots, owner Ewert Chin ordered spring product. “The sandals are nicely styled and have arch support built in,” he said. “Our store is [about] comfort, and we want those types of features. It was something different, so we decided to add it.”

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