10 Questions for Gordon Rush

The men’s designer shoe category is a tough nut to crack, but Gordon Rush has beaten the odds.

As he marks 10 years in business, Rush’s namesake company is thriving. Sales hit $25 million last year. And his collection of classic footwear with a modern vibe has grown to include two diffusion labels — GR by Gordon Rush and Rush Gordon Rush — allowing him to reach an even wider audience of men, ranging in age from 18 to 55.

In addition, Rush is making strides to build a complete lifestyle offering. Last year, he introduced jackets and accessories such as belts, wallets and bags — and ready-to-wear is on his wish list. “We also plan to move into women’s wear one day when the timing is right,” he told Footwear News.

Rush first stepped into the business in 1998 with the opening of a store in San Diego, selling his own collection exclusively. But it didn’t take long before buzz around his brand reached a Nordstrom buyer, who placed an order for Rush’s entire inventory, pushing him full steam ahead into the wholesale business.

Soon after, Rush shuttered his store, and Nordstrom has remained his biggest account since. Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s were added to the roster in fall ’07, but Rush continues to keep distribution tight and focused mainly on department stores. “The more controlled the distribution, the better the supply-and-demand economics work,” he said. The collection retails for $135 to $1,600.

Here, Rush reflects on his biggest milestone and where the brand is headed.

1. What initially drew you to the men’s luxury  business?

GR: I could never find a pair of shoes I liked and was always particular about product. I saw a void in the marketplace for a luxury brand with an American sensibility, [as well as] global appeal and reach. In 1998, [when I launched], the market was not nearly as saturated as it is now. There were stodgy American brands and not-so-practical European brands and a wide-open arena for a new market entrant.

2. As you mark 10 years in business, what has been your biggest milestone?

GR: I am asked that question a lot and always vacillate between giving a business or a design milestone. I ultimately give the oblique answer — which is true — that it hasn’t come yet. I’ve always set my sights on opening multiple store locations internationally so I can tell a complete story of the brand and vision. Until that happens, every milestone pales in significance to that goal.

3. How is it different selling to boutiques versus selling to department stores?

GR: Our company is more adept at selling to department stores than boutiques because we have not [yet] entered the trade show circuit, which a lot of boutiques visit. We’ve had our hands full selling to department stores to keep distribution controlled. The more controlled the distribution, the better the supply-and-demand economics, so [we can] benefit our retail partners. As far as special collections for [specific] stores, we pitch ideas all the time and work closely with [accounts] to execute their specific needs.

4. How important is it to personally connect with consumers?

GR: I emphasize interacting with consumers as much as possible. I always find a lot of answers to questions and inspiration when meeting [them]. As a company, we’ve had a lot of success with this type of outreach. For example, when we launched our accessories line last year, we simultaneously launched a series of trunk shows so we could have the opportunity to hear [consumer] feedback firsthand. [It’s] invaluable not only from a design standpoint but also to convey to our retailers particular opportunities that can improve their business.

5. Can men be taught a sense of style?

GR: Yes, one can be taught to appreciate most things. Interestingly enough, in other countries such as Japan, there are fashion magazines that spell out exactly what to buy and how to wear it. Although one would think it creates a sense of homogeneity, on the contrary, it leads to endless self-expression after confidence levels naturally go up.

6. Your line is influenced by Asian art. What about it intrigues you?

GR: Before entering the shoe business, I worked and lived extensively in Asia. I’m influenced by myriad aspects of the cultures in Asia — from the Japanese attention to detail to the Chinese opportunistic and entrepreneurial spirit. A lot of the design inspiration is seen in the clean and simple aesthetic I strive to create. The art history of China, for example, is one of the richest and a source of constant inspiration. Even the new Chinese culture, and especially the contemporary Chinese art world, is at the cutting edge of creativity. It is a very powerful source of inspiration for many designers now and in the future.

7. Have men gone too casual?

GR: I’m a big believer in tradition, and an even bigger believer in being comfortable in what you wear, whoever you are. I like the fact that casual is becoming more common, especially out here on the West Coast, as well as in other parts of the world. I design both casual and dress shoes based on our customers’ needs. For the most part, our customers know how to dress for [a specific] occasion. [They have] not gone too casual, but push the limits whenever possible.

8. Is there a ready-to-wear designer you keep in mind when creating your shoes?

GR: Although I do not have a complete ready-to-wear line, [I keep myself in mind]. I always start by envisioning the entire look I am trying to create. Part of the vision is how my own future ready-to-wear line would look. I’ve started articulating this through our accessories line and first complete leather outerwear collection, launching for spring ’09. Clearly, there’s always inspiration from other designers, but it is more for what they stand for and what they’ve accomplished than for their specific tastes.

9. How long can a man wear your shoes and still have them look on-trend?

GR: I design generational pieces more than seasonal ones. Generational has different meanings to different people, but [for me], it refers to keeping up with a generation, staying relevant in the customer’s mind and growing over time in as many facets and categories as are appropriate.  
10. If you could work on the selling floor for a day, what store would you choose?

GR: Isetan’s flagship in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Not only is every brand and designer known to mankind represented [there] but also every customer’s taste. It’s an international, cosmopolitan, eclectic and highly charged environment that creates a lot of inspiration. It’s a great place to learn and see the entire industry under one roof.

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