In many ways, there is no better or worse time to enter the industry. On one hand, the advent of social media has removed many barriers to selling and branding every product imaginable. On the other hand, an oversaturated digital landscape has fostered intense competition, ubiquitous advertising and a lack of product distinction — making it incredibly difficult for new designers to break through the clutter.
Alas, all is not lost.
Footwear News reached out to several successful emerging designers as well as other industry experts for their best advice on launching a thriving fashion — footwear and otherwise — brand.
Read on for five things you need to know if you want to launch your own fashion label.
* Learn Who’s Who
The footwear industry has a packed playing field, and there’s no shortage of designers who think they have that special something. Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of luxury boutique chain Jeffrey and designer fashion director at Nordstrom, said he is always scouting for originality and quality when it comes to new designers and their wares. “It’s in the nuances,” Kalinsky said. “If you’re designing shoes that look like someone else’s, that’s not a good thing. If you can’t figure out how to be original and inspired, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
A simple walk through one of the industry’s premier shoe shows can highlight the number — and broad range — of brands vying for retail shelf space, according to Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America.
“All it takes is one swing through the floor of the FFANY shoe show or at FN Platform in Las Vegas to see that there is a lot of competition,” Priest said. “There are a lot of people who think they have the best new design or that they’ve solved some issue on comfort and fashion, or that they have found some new material that is ethical or is sourced in an ethical way.”
In a saturated market, originality is key, B. Riley & Co. LLC analyst Jeff Van Sinderen noted. “Differentiate yourself from peers,” Van Sinderen said. “You may not be better at everything than the peers you compete with, but you can be different, and you can stand out from the crowd.” Design hopefuls should also research and explore concepts that exist within the field before touting claims of originality.
* Develop Relationships & Alliances
The art of networking is more complicated than ever before. Developing strategic alliances requires a multifaceted approach, and it’s crucial that designers get the basics right early on, according to experts.
“Building and maintaining relationships is critical,” Van Sinderen said. “But this is easier said than done. Networking has to be taken step by step [to] foster the relationships that mesh best with a designer’s personality and style.”
Whether a designer is launching a line or joining an existing brand, alliances can serve multiple career-boosting purposes. Ryan Flynn, design director at Umbro Footwear Division USA, joined the 90-plus-year-old company in 2015 and has already found that strong business relationships — and a willingness to listen to all feedback — are essential.
“We formed some amazing partnerships and did our best to consider every bit of feedback with an open mind,” Flynn said of the brand’s effort to relaunch its lifestyle footwear program, which began this year. “When a brand is over 90 years old, everyone has their own perceived view of it, and it has been very instrumental absorbing all the stories out there.”
* Get the Business Basics
The FDRA estimates that 99 percent of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported. Meanwhile, shoe tariffs are among the highest on any consumer good — averaging 11 percent but reaching as high as 67 percent for certain types of footwear.
Although it may not be feasible — or even desirable — for designers to understand every aspect of the gritty business side of things, a working knowledge of elements such as sourcing, production and supply-chain logistics can be a game-changer. Priest noted that the U.S. government has more than 400 ways to tax footwear — an understandably daunting list for new designers.
During the emerging-talent panel at the 2016 FN Summit , Athletic Propulsion Labs founders Adam and Ryan Goldston said the latter’s education has been a critical element to their success.
“Ryan studied business in school, so I can defer to him when it comes to certain things,” Adam Goldston said. “When it comes to logistics, Ryan’s formal education has helped us. If you’re a designer who wants to get into this, if you have the skill to know how to build a business, that’s going to help you.”
Similarly, leading luxury designer Rebecca Minkoff said she urges new design talent to hone their business acumen. “Get as much training as possible, and don’t just focus on the skills that you feel most comfortable with,” Minkoff said. “In order to survive as a designer in this industry, you have to understand what goes into all parts of your business.”
* Be Agile
Sarah Mullins, chair of the accessories design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said she urges students to consider multiple design paths within the shoe industry.
“We tell students to explore all of the positions that are related to footwear design,” Mullins said. “Students sometimes think there is only one position — a designer — but there are actually other areas related to design that could excite them and be a strong fit.”
Flexibility and open-mindedness can be powerful tools in the arsenal of any aspiring designer. During the course of their design careers, emerging and seasoned designers will also have to shoulder both macroeconomic and brand-specific challenges. Whether product demand slows due to a stock market crisis or there is a shift in consumer trends, successful designers know how to respond. “You have to be able to move with the marketplace,” Priest said.
* Pick a Lane
When it comes to developing a brand identity, focus is crucial. Three years into the launch of Sarah Flint’s eponymous footwear line, her elegant yet wearable collections already count Blake Lively, Jessica Alba, Reese Witherspoon and Heidi Klum as fans. While Flint’s success today is hard to deny — her line has landed highly coveted shelf space at luxury department store Barneys — she faced pressure to deviate from her signature style early on.
“People wanted me to go in a different direction aesthetically,” Flint said. “But it’s important not to change your distinct point of view.”
Kalinsky also noted that new designers, with their own signature style, need to be resilient in the face of criticism and doubt. “You have to be determined,” he said. “You’re going to have a lot of rejection, and if you don’t know how to stick to your guns, you’re going to quit before the miracle happens.”
Having a hook, whether it’s creating athletic styles, dress shoes or a unique chunky heel, can be a designer’s key to success.
Once a line is ready for launch or begins to build a following, a designer should maintain a level of consistency. “You cannot be good at everything,” Van Sinderen said. “Focus on your core competencies and run with them.”
** A version of this article originally ran in a June 2016 issue of Footwear News.