“There was such beautiful clothing out there for kids, but there was a void for classic, stylish footwear to go with the clothing,” said the Sydney-based designer. “Most of the shoes in the market, especially the baby shoes, were very ‘kiddie’ — clowns, cupcakes and all that. I saw an opportunity for a more sophisticated approach.”
In 2008, Lever launched Old Soles, a line of baby shoes that has since expanded to include collections for kids up to about age 12. Over the past six years, the Australian label has seen strong growth, with its distribution now spanning nearly 25 countries including South Korea, Japan, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and parts of Europe. The U.S., where Old Soles debuted in 2010, is among the brand’s largest and fastest-growing markets. The collection is stocked by retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, J.Crew, Tea Collection, Shoofly in New York and Shoe Zoo in Minneapolis.
“The U.S. has been a great market for us, and we still have many areas of the country we want to reach,” said Lever, noting the brand recently expanded its network of sales reps.
Priced from $42 to $90, Old Soles’ offering covers a wide range, from classic metallic and patent leather Mary Janes and ballet flats to edgier printed canvas high-tops and slip-on sneakers. “Our shoes are built with all the features for the comfort, health and proper development of kids’ feet, but it’s our designs that make us unique,” Lever noted. For fall ’14, the brand is adding a series of boots, as well as an Urban range featuring chunkier bottoms.
Here, Lever talks about finding inspiration, Old Soles’ famous fans and her plans for growing the business.
As a newcomer to the shoe market, was it difficult getting started?
VL: Coming from the clothing industry, I actually found the footwear industry easier to break into. In the clothing market, there is much more competition, [with] small labels constantly popping up. I mean, you can go to China and buy stuff right off the shelf and call it your range. Shoes are a more complicated product to develop and produce, and they’re harder to copy because of the lasts and molds. So if you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to find a place.
Where do you look for design inspiration?
VL: Everywhere. I travel a lot, look at shop windows, watch kids on the street. I look to the adult market quite a bit and take hints of what I see and translate it to kids’ shoes. And, of course, there is so much out there on the Internet. You can almost get overloaded. But when I sit down to put together the range, it just comes together somehow. My problem is not being able to have as big a range as I’d like. I have so many ideas.
Are more clothing stores adding shoes these days?
VL: I definitely see more interest from them. We already do a nice business with clothing retailers like Tea Collection, for example. Tea actually sells our shoes in its catalog as part of a [head-to-toe] outfit, so we do development work with [the retailer], where we’ll do special colors or styles to match. But I always advise clothing stores that have never sold shoes to start with baby shoes first and see how it goes. Baby shoes don’t take up as much space and they almost never have to be put on sale, [so a shop] won’t get caught with a lot of unsold inventory. We want stores to be successful with this, so we work with them and make sure they’re ordering the best sizes and doing it right.
How much power do celebrity mom fans, such as Charlize Theron or Jennifer Connelly, have in promoting a brand like yours?
VL: It’s great to see our stuff out there, especially knowing they are choosing the shoes themselves. I’m starstruck myself, so to see celebrities wearing Old Soles is exciting [on a personal level]. But celebrities only have so much influence. You have to really like something to want to buy it.
With your background, is Old Soles clothing a possibility?
VL: We’ll never do clothing, no. We don’t even want to do socks. We’re a kids’ shoe brand, and that’s what we want to stick to. We’ve even been getting requests to do adult shoes, but we’re not going there just yet. There is still so much to do in kids’ footwear. And the adult market is a whole different ball game in terms of selling and distribution. Right now, we want to focus on expanding and rounding out our kids’ offering. We’d be spread too thin if we tried to get into a new market.