Espinola set out to accommodate the changes in her pregnant friends’ feet by founding Boston-based Casa Couture, a line of luxe comfort shoes for mothers-to-be that launched this year. Built around a patented four-way-release construction, the collection of contemporary flats and pumps provides a customized fit by expanding in length and width, allowing for foot swelling and even modest growth.
The entrepreneur started with a shoemaking course at Moda Pelle in Italy and then enrolled in classes at the Jewish Community Council in New York. “I wanted to learn everything about the process and what makes something different from the inside out,” she said.
While the brand began as maternity footwear, it has resonated with comfort stores as well. “The response from luxe retailers was more significant than maternity stores,” said Espinola, who has shifted distribution to include mainstream channels.
Casa Couture, selling for $295 to $375, will launch at wholesale for fall ’12, with such accounts as Amazon.com, Shoebuy.com, The Shoe Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Cuoio in Boston. (The line debuted on its e-commerce site last spring.) And Espinola is already working on a companion mid-tier collection for fall ’13 that will retail for $175. The company will introduce a comfort-focused range of children’s dress shoes, priced from $40 to $60, at the same time.
Here, Espinola talks about spreading the word of Casa Couture, her plans for brand expansion and why 2 1/2 inches is the ideal heel height for women.
How do you communicate your brand’s unique features to consumers accustomed to traditional cushioning and arch supports?
CE: Our challenge will be educating our customers that simple cushioning and arch supports aren’t sufficient when they don’t have average-shaped feet or their shoes are too tight from swelling. We developed an online video to convey this message on our Facebook page. We’re also planning to partner with obstetricians and podiatrists who [can] recommend our product to [patients] and help us gain wider acceptance.
What other challenges have you faced as a start-up?
CE: My biggest challenges have been being able to secure production and establish a supply chain. For example, finding a factory willing to work with an up-and-coming brand is a challenge for every new designer. We were fortunate to find a factory in Italy that believes in us and our potential to become a long-term partner. Aside from that, what helped get us off the ground is that I learned the craft of shoemaking from the inside out. In Italy, I received valuable experience designing a collection, and training under cobblers in New York gave me the expertise to build a really solid shoe.
In today’s economy, are retailers willing to take risks on newcomers?
CE: The luxury comfort segment took a hit during the recession, but in fall ’11 we saw newcomers like Ron White and Yeardley Smith [enter] the space. What we’ve heard from retailers is we’re filling a void in their product mixes by offering an innovative concept fused into a high-fashion shoe. This helps them attract a younger, fashionable clientele and differentiates them from the larger stores carrying traditional comfort brands. We will rely heavily on independents to provide direct consumer feedback and ideas on emerging trends.
To stay true to your comfort mission, is there a heel height that’s off limits?
CE: We’ve learned that every woman has her own perfect heel height, depending on the structure of her feet. For example, the size of the sinus tarsi [the natural recess where the foot connects to the leg] varies from person to person. This determines how much your ankle can move, and your ideal heel height. By nature, high heels throw your body weight to the ball of the foot, so we plan to remain true to the 2 1/2-inch height recommendation we’ve received. High heels can help women feel sexy and confident, but if they’re walking on cobblestones or trekking across town, a 3- or 4-inch spike heel will have women hobbling and looking pretty ridiculous.
Are you counting on your adult customers to buy your children’s line for their kids?
CE: We expect that our customer, who’s already invested in the expandable shoe technology, will see the natural extension of the line to their kids’ shoes. However, we plan to market it independently to kids’ retailers under a different label. We’re also exploring the possibility of licensing to one of the more established kids’ shoe manufacturers.