Gentle Souls Gets Aggressive on Growth

Change is afoot at Gentle Souls.

The fashion comfort brand, a division of New York-based Kenneth Cole Productions Inc., has a new management team and designer tasked with giving the label a more modern point of view, starting in spring ’14.

Acquired by Kenneth Cole in 2006 and relaunched the following year, Gentle Souls has historically attracted women ages 45 to 60, according to Roberto Zamarra, who oversees the line as president of women’s better branded footwear and handbags at the firm. But with an updated collection that focuses on more trend-driven silhouettes, colors and materials — all while staying true to Gentle Souls’ comfort heritage — Zamarra said he expects to win over a new group of consumers and retailers.

“We wanted to create some elasticity of the brand,” said the executive. “We don’t think we will turn anyone off with trendier looks. When you stand still as a brand, you lose your [relevance]. Even older consumers are now buying cool labels.”

For spring, key items include the Make or Break, a knee-high gladiator sandal; and the Eureka, a huarache-inspired style. In addition, a higher-end capsule collection of more directional shoes has been added, retailing for $250 to $300, compared with the core collection sold for $195 to $250.

And while the new Gentle Souls look represents a departure from the past, Zamarra emphasized the brand is being careful not to alienate its loyal customer base. To that end, it will continue to offer core, best-selling styles such as the Gaby ballet flat, the peep-toe Lily Moon and the Break My Heart gladiator sandal. Comfort, a brand cornerstone, also will be a priority. Signature features such as deerskin linings and Poron and flaxseed footbeds will remain a part of all product.

“Leading with fashion is critical, but comfort validates [the brand],” said Zamarra. “There are millions of smoking slippers like ours [in the market], but we think we will win. A lady puts ours on and can enjoy wearing it all day long.”

Going forward, Gentle Souls will take advantage of the connection to its parent company. According to Zamarra, all product and marketing materials will be co-branded with the Kenneth Cole name — a move that should help it fit better in Kenneth Cole stores, where it will bow for spring. “There’s a close synergy between [the two brands],” said Zamarra, noting that Gentle Souls’ designer works closely with the Kenneth Cole team on color and material stories each season. “It won’t look like Gentle Souls just landed in Kenneth Cole stores.”

The label’s new direction has resonated with retailers. Traditionally sold to comfort-focused independents such as Harry’s Shoes in New York, as well as select Nordstrom stores, Gentle Souls now will be available at Neimanmarcus.com, Bloomingdale’s, Urban Outfitters and Free People, all of which came on board for spring ’14.

Alex Carr, owner of Tops for Shoes in Asheville, N.C., was drawn to the Gentle Souls changes. “I bought more SKUs than ever before,” he said. “I like to go back to things but with an update. My customer wants funky looks but with comfort.” Included in his spring buy was the Lily Garden T-strap (an update to the Lily Moon instep-strap style) and skimmers such as the Gretchen and Bay Braid.

At Piazza Della Sole in Upper Montclair, N.J., owner Camille Kessler challenges her customers with trend-right looks, while focusing on a balance between fashion and comfort. She has carried Gentle Souls for eight years. “It has an edgy, New York look to it, but is wearable for all ages. If a line is too trendy, it doesn’t work for me,” said Kessler, who will continue to offer some of the brand’s tried-and-true styles such as the Break My Heart gladiator, which has been reworked in metallic for spring ’14, as well as the It’s So Fun, a flat on a low wedge updated in a novel multicolor material.

The full Gentle Souls line soon will be showcased in the brand’s first standalone store, set to bow in San Francisco in the spring. Additional locations could be added down the road.

And mirroring the path of the Kenneth Cole label, Zamarra said Gentle Souls could even expand to include apparel and accessories. “We’re in a casual lifestyle moment,” he said. “It could [eventually] be a lifestyle brand.”