5 Questions for Beautifeel’s Anya Bar-Nahor

Beautifeel began bridging the dress and comfort worlds 25 years ago — before it was de rigueur.

The concept translated well and resulted in a loyal group of customers in the U.S. and its home base of Israel, and allowed the brand to expand into Australia, Russia and Canada. In addition to operating six freestanding stores in Israel, the label boasts another four in Australia.

“From the beginning, Beautifeel was dressy comfort,” said Anya Bar-Nahor, VP of product development for the family-owned business founded by her husband, Ami Bar-Nahor. “When we were doing 70-millimeter heels 10 years ago, no one had them. Slowly, more [brands] offered fashionable comfort [looks], and now the market understands us better.”

While Beautifeel has maintained its position in the category, the collection recently has taken on a more feminine point of view with the introduction of sleeker silhouettes and trend-driven designs. The line is composed of everything from pretty pumps to sexy knee-high boots, retailing from $250 to $350.

At one time, the Bar-Nahors considered moving production from Israel to China to lower prices. Instead, they decided to trade up in both quality and design. As a result, upscale fashion-comfort retailers such as Stanley Eisenman in Fort Worth, Texas, and Gus Mayer based in Birmingham, Ala., are now on board.

Today, the U.S. market represents 30 percent of Beautifeel’s business, with distribution in 500 doors. Last year, sales in the States increased 12 percent over 2012, with spring ’14 orders up 26 percent year-over-year. “We’re selling to 95 percent of the comfort stores that can sell our price point,” said Ami Bar-Nahor. “Now we’re going to the fashion market, but it’s been a challenge because [those] retailers don’t know us.”

Anya Bar-Nahor is up to the task, though, noting the company is in talks with the Japanese department store chain Takashimaya. “We have to know who we are,” she explained. “You can’t be everything [to everyone], but we’re getting better every season.”

Here, the Russian-born VP talks about retail, product launches and the changing definition of comfort.

What has been the biggest change in the comfort market since you joined the company?
ABN:
When I came to Beautifeel 15 years ago, my husband, Ami, drew two circles and said one was comfort and one fashion. They will move together and [ultimately] meet. In the beginning, comfort was a market of need for one’s health issues or age. Slowly, it opened up because people wanted everything to be comfortable. Our customer is the 40-and-older career woman who needs to look good in tailored clothes, but can’t wear sandals or sneakers.

Today, women lead more casual lifestyles. As a dress brand, how have you adapted to the change?
ABN:
I don’t see any contradiction between our concept and the demand for casual. I don’t think you have to identify a comfortable lifestyle with rugged casual looks. Casual can be a Naot sandal or ballerina flat by Chanel. They both serve the same purpose, but do it in a different style. We’ve developed a casual line with ballet and sport-inspired styles that [fills the needs] of a casual lifestyle, but in an elegant, clean and tailored way.

How important has it been for Beautifeel to operate its own stores?
ABN:
Our main business is wholesale; however, by having our own stores, we can talk [directly] to our consumers and learn what’s important to them. For example, in Israel we cater to a variety of tastes because we have customers who have immigrated from the U.S., Russia and France. We’re also getting information from the market in real time, not at the end of the season. We see the demand at once.

How have you taken advantage of your roots in Russia as the brand seeks to grow there?
ABN:
I can read Russian Vogue. I can [better connect] to a store’s saleswoman than someone who doesn’t speak the language. Russian women are very fashion-forward and brand-[conscious]. While they’re very elegant, they like their shoes to be comfortable. They also want the best quality they can get for their money. Designwise, they like high heels, which is good for us because that’s our concept. They also expect shoes to have something [special] about them.

Are there plans to turn Beautifeel into a lifestyle brand?
ABN:
It’s a concept that can be everywhere — in clothes, bags, hosiery. Bags will be introduced in our stores this spring. However, we will not come to the wholesale market [with them] until the product matures in the way we want.