Convert Brings Eco-Friendly Looks to Berkeley

As the head buyer for San Francisco-based Villians for 13 years, Randy Brewer had selling stylish footwear down cold. But in 2009, he upped the ante with his own store, Convert, focused on sourcing great-looking product with an eco-friendly story.

“I’ve always been into environmental issues, and I thought it would be nice to get some of the brands I knew to do something a little more world-friendly, to leave a little less of a footprint,” he said.

He took his first steps with a pop-up shop in Berkeley, Calif. The store, which sold primarily apparel, was named Convert to reflect his mission to get manufacturers and shoppers alike to help transform the way fashion is made and purchased.

Last spring, Brewer opened a permanent location in an 1,800-sq.-ft. space on the city’s upscale Fourth Street. Created with the help of the interior designer who worked on Brewer’s home, Convert was intended to have a homey feel, with a faux hearth by the door, self-designed floating wood and metal racks for the merchandise, and mirrors and seating sourced from flea markets. “I wanted it to be comfortable so customers can feel at home, can feel like they want to hang out,” he said.

Brewer’s criterion for the brands he chooses is a simple one: They must do something on the product level. “It needs to be something tangible for the customer,” he said. “They don’t have to be completely eco-friendly,” he said. “But they need to be going in the right direction.”

Imposing that standard has gotten easier with each season, Brewer said.

Currently, the store stocks a variety of styles that include vegan looks from Palladium; recyclable Tyvek shoes from philanthropic brand Civic Duty; handcrafted styles by NoShuz and men’s and women’s items from Toms Shoes, which was the store’s first shoe account. It also offers Native, and recycles the brand’s all-EVA shoes in-store and returns them to the company to be reprocessed.

“Convert is one of our strongest supporters and biggest accounts on the West Coast,” said Sameer Walia, West Coast sales rep for The Foundation, which represents Native. “[Randy] has done a great job with getting behind the brand. [And given his history], he gives a lot of credibility to the brands he carries in the store.”

Convert also has earned attention for its partnership with Jeffrey Campbell. The shoe brand — a longtime partner with Villains — created vegan versions of some of its most popular styles that are sold exclusively at the store under the Jeffrey Campbell for Convert label. The first group of five styles, which swapped leather linings for canvas ones and were done in deadstock fabrics as well as woven TPU, delivered last September. The partnership has continued with new styles each season.

And while the project wasn’t always easy for the brand, the extension has been a good one for Jeffrey Campbell, said the firm’s sales and logistics head, Sharon Blackburn. “We weren’t even sure it was possible, but we threw it out to the factories and it worked well,” she said.

Indeed, Convert has reaped the benefits. Overall, the response to its shoe selection has been so good that the category represents more than 25 percent of the store’s sales (for 2011, Convert’s revenues are up more than 40 percent over last year, and now reach more than $1 million annually). Brewer originally estimated footwear would account for 10 percent of total sales.

As a result of the rapid growth, this spring Brewer plans to open Convert Shoes, a standalone shop just for footwear, also on Fourth Street.

Such success, he said, has been a welcome surprise and a shot in the arm to a more than two-decade-long career in retailing.

“It’s been eye-opening,” he said. “The passion comes back.”

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