“We’re seeking out more [niche labels] to offer unique product to our customers,” said Lisa Park, DMM for women’s shoes at Barneys New York, which added several such lines for spring ’13, including Allagiulia, a Rome-based brand that focuses on handmade Italian friulana shoes — part Venetian slippers, part espadrilles.
Allagiulia designer Giulia Campeol founded the line three years ago when she identified a place in the market for her look. “It was a tradition for my mother and me to go to Venice and buy this kind of slipper,” Campeol said of the gondolier styles upon which her label is based. “I also wanted to make the Italian market understand the importance of made-in-Italy.”
Indeed, many designers have created brands based on limited silhouettes and specialized aesthetics, with the intention of easing into the market and later expanding. Others do it out of sheer passion for a certain look. Still, some see a hole in the market where a shoe with a special, exclusive quality might provide an advantage on the sales floor. But no matter the impetus, surviving as a little player in a big market can be a complicated affair.
“I owe my success to starting really focused and direct,” said Matthew Chevallard, whose 8-year-old Miami-based label, Del Toro, began by offering velvet smoking slippers that were picked up by select Barneys, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue locations, as well as independents. He now is branching out with other silhouettes and accessories.
Among the advantages of starting small, Chevallard added, was the ability to create a strong brand identity from the get-go. “You’re a lot more focused and you’re catering to an exact demographic. You can slowly broaden that, but you are doing it only on a sustainable level as opposed to just throwing 50 different styles out there.”
The strategy also helped Charles Philip Shanghai garner more than 220 international accounts in just three years. “We are very committed to the shapes we show,” designer and co-founder Charles Philip said of his smoking slipper-inspired silhouette, which comes in a variety of prints and materials. The label debuted men’s looks last year and plans to expand into four more constructions for fall ’13. “The fact that we stuck to [one silhouette] for the first five seasons really identified us, and [retailers] appreciated that.”
Like Allagiula’s Campeol, Ancient Greek Sandals co-founder Christina Martini honors her heritage with leather footwear based on a ubiquitous Greek shoe style, as well as the country’s art and mythology. Her singular vision earned her accounts on four continents and the ability to expand into men’s and kids’ for spring ’13. “If you specialize in something, you have a better chance at succeeding,” Martini said.
According to Park of Barneys, choosing a small-scale brand hinges on exclusivity. “[We look for] something unique or unexpected, whether it’s a fabrication, colorway or twist on a classic silhouette,” Park said. “The ability to customize for our store is also a huge benefit.”
She noted that, for spring ’13, Barneys added Allagiulia for its fresh take on the season’s sought-after slippers and moccasins, and also picked up Flamingos, a collection of sneaker-like espadrilles from France, and sneakers from Penelope Chilvers.
Independent retailers — long champions of the little guy — often put an even heavier emphasis on niche brands, and they are relying on them even more now to stay competitive in a market dominated by majors with giant shoe floors. “In a city like Los Angeles, where you can find so many brands everywhere, it’s nice that we have a lot of small lines,” said Kristen Lee, creative director and head buyer at Ten Over Six. “People actually come to us for [niche labels].” She listed Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, handcrafted moccasin maker Manimal and Dieppa Restrepo, a collection of unisex English-inspired oxfords and loafers, as hard-to-find names that draw in customers.
Haus of Price, Degen and Gold Dot are among the small labels that give Portland, Ore.-based Solestruck a leg up, said Ty McBride, brand and creative director for the boutique. “We curate a selection of very interesting, emerging, indie brands [and] work carefully to place those alongside our selections from more mainstream brands to present an overall selection that is interesting to the end consumer,” he said.
Still, McBride added, the challenges that come with buying from a smaller label can be numerous. “Making shoes isn’t easy, so oftentimes there are setbacks or adventures [in production and delivery] you have to face with new and small brands. … Those items also [tend to] sell out, and that is part of the game with these limited-edition brands.”
The labels themselves also face difficulties at the outset. These include everything from the obvious — finding factories willing to manufacture smaller orders, getting the product in front of prominent buyers and running a business with a tiny team — to more concealed issues.
“Being a small footwear label, it is really hard to compete with larger brands, especially in an industry where fast-fashion is so popular and retailers can [copy] the same styles you are making for $15 at wholesale,” said James Price, founder and designer of Los Angeles-based Haus of Price, which offers platform booties, wedges and heels covered in candy-colored sparkly gems. “Retailers can go to huge factories, give them a picture of your style and order 10,000 pairs.”
Nichole Dimitras, whose L.A. label Luxury Jones specializes in recycling vintage Western boots into heavily embellished booties, said that problem has become so serious for her that she has shied away from collaborations with larger retailers, even the ones she has worked with in the past. “I’m not even going to trade shows this year because [of that issue],” she said. “As a small-time designer, I basically have no recourse whatsoever against big corporations that steal my ideas.”
Even so, Luxury Jones is pressing on, garnering more wholesale accounts in the U.S., Asia and the Middle East, and adding a handbag line for fall ’13, though it intends to remain specialized.
Price said he also expects big rewards from limiting growth. Fall ’13 features just nine styles, but he is creating brand awareness through smart collaborations, including his line of jewel-encrusted eyewear for Sunglass Hut, which hits stores for spring ’13. And he plans to reach a wider audience in spring ’14 with a second small label, Gemini, that will include more everyday looks in leather and wood, sans jewels.
“It has definitely been a struggle, but I’m passionate [about keeping my product specialized],” Price said. “Fashion right now is at one of the best levels ever. People are taking risks in their style, and when you are doing something more niche, everyone in that kind of cool group is going to be really excited about your brand.”