Rockport Looks to Italy for Women’s Push

NEW YORK — The Rockport Co. is rethinking its women’s offerings for spring ’14 with the help of industry veteran Roberta Rossi.

The brand said earlier this year it would push the segment, which accounts for just 30 percent of its overall business, and it recently kicked the plan into high gear with the opening of Rockport Design Studio in Italy, located in the country’s Veneto region.

Rossi worked closely alongside her husband, Luigino Rossi, at Rossimoda SpA and now serves as creative director of Stella Italia — a joint venture between the Rossis and Hong Kong-based footwear producer Stella International. She joins Rockport Design Studio as artistic director, and her duties include managing a stable of talent and developing the new offerings.

Both the aesthetic and the branding of the designed-in-Italy shoes, set to hit retail by the end of February 2014, will emphasize a relaxed, American sensibility blended with a European flair, according to Rockport’s chief marketing officer, Daniel Tschuemperlin.

Like the label’s previous women’s offering, the footwear will be manufactured in China and integrate comfort features based on technology from parent company Adidas.

“Even as a comfort [label], you have to be part of the trends and you have to be part of the fashion industry,” Tschuemperlin said, noting that Rockport’s goal is for women’s and men’s to each represent half of the business.

“Without this, you can’t be a global player of the size you want to be. That’s why we wanted to take this next step in the evolution of the brand,” he added.

Maintaining Rockport’s core DNA and retail prices of $110 to $150, while stepping up the fashion factor, has been a challenge, according to Rossi, whose extensive background includes creating footwear for luxury labels such as Marc Jacobs, Céline and Donna Karan during her stint at Rossimoda. (LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton completed its acquisition of the firm two years ago and Rossi is no longer involved with the company.)

“[Prior to the Rockport partnership], I always worked with very edgy shoes — stilettos and shoes that really pushed the limit of walkability,” she said. “Now I am working with the same head, but in a different way — shoes for traveling, for walking, shoes for a woman with an active life.”

As for controlling costs, key tactics have included extensive material research and keeping production primarily in China.

“It seems like [maintaining price points] would be [difficult], but in the end it is all about getting the lines right,” Rossi added.

“I know how to develop lasts from scratch and I know that makes the difference in the shoes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if the leather is the most expensive or maybe more affordable, the most important thing is the [Italian] eye and taste.”

Tschuemperlin noted that buyers are just beginning to look at the spring ’14 product, but the early response has been favorable.

He added that Rockport will continue to tweak the women’s offerings over the next several seasons, but he is optimistic about the label’s prospects in the category.

“[The opening of Rockport Design Studio in Italy] is quite a visible step into the brand positioning that we want for our [women’s] product, and we know we have a lot of potential,” he said. “With the resources we have in Italy, combined with our American style, it will progress quickly.”