10 Questions for Tracy Reese

After 25 years in fashion, Tracy Reese is looking to make footwear a more viable part of her growing portfolio.

The New York-based designer has developed a celebrity following with her clothing labels — Tracy Reese, Plenty by Tracy Reese and Frock — and home décor offerings. And, recently, opportunities below the ankle, including a footwear license with New York-based Highline United and a spring ’09 guest designer partnership with Keds, have pushed her into the shoe business.

Reese, 45, has stepped into the category before, first designing a short-lived Spanish-made collection that never went into production and then introducing a 2006 made-in-Italy line. But prices for the Italian collection peaked around $600 — far higher than what Reese envisioned — and she began reassessing her place in the footwear arena.

Now Reese said she’s determined to make footwear a vital part of her business. Her partnership with Highline United, which distributes and markets Miss Sixty and United Nude, began in spring ’09 with a capsule collection and blossomed into an official license agreement for fall. Footwear, Reese said, currently makes up about 10 percent of her business and could expand to 15 percent in the years ahead.

The fall collection, featuring flats to boots, is set to retail from $225 to $495 at specialty shops, including Reese’s flagship boutique in New York’s Meatpacking District, and offers the same aesthetic as her ultra-feminine and vintage-inspired clothing designs.

The Detroit native recently took time to talk with Footwear News about adapting in an unstable economy and making a name for herself in shoes.

1. You’ve tested the footwear waters before. Are you approaching this collection differently?
TR: It’s not something I want to dip into for just five minutes. The guest designer gigs are fine for a season, but this is something we have wanted as a staple product for a long time. It’s not a fly-by-night dream, but something we really want to establish. Shoes are a personal passion, and it’s something we had a voice for.

2. Why the licensing route?
TR: [Before], I was sketching everything [and] I loved designing our footwear collection in-house, but the production process is entirely different than apparel. In order to really elevate our footwear offerings, we decided to partner with a licensee with the technical expertise and production capabilities to take my designs to the next level.

3. What are advantages of working with a true footwear manufacturer like Highline United?
TR: It’s about so many things: capability, technical expertise and price point. They’ve created shoes we wouldn’t have been able to create ourselves. Matt Joyce, [Highline president], and his team updated the whole shoe from the bottom up and made the shoes so much more competitive. And in terms of marketing, it’s a totally different structure. They get on the road and have connections [in the footwear world] that we just don’t have.

4. How key was the decision to move production to China?
TR: [It was] the smartest thing we did. We still have the quality and finishing we want, but at a price that’s 40 percent less. It boils down to value, and people are looking around for that same look with the same quality. It’s happening everywhere in the market.

5. How does this most recent line differ from the earlier collections?
TR: There’s a lot more attention to detail, from the soles to how the heels are built. At the end of the day, that adds up to being a much more quality product. There’s a lot more value for the money. You’re looking at a shoe that is retailing for $225, [compared with] the shoe we were doing in Italy for $425. [The move to China] was kind of well timed with everything going on in the economy.

6. How do you plan to grow the line?
TR: We’re taking it one step at a time. Even with the clothing, we’re finding it’s better to rein it in and present something that’s tight and focused. It doesn’t make sense to show too much product because buyers don’t have the budget. [But in the long term], we want to strategically grow the [footwear] business by focusing on high-end specialty stores and better-grade department stores and provide the customer [with a] Tracy Reese [look] from head to toe.

7. Are there plans to sell your shoes independent of the clothing?
TR: They’ll always be connected. My inspiration for each season is reflected in both the apparel and footwear offerings, and our goal is to create footwear that coordinates with our ready-to-wear collection, yet is also unique, stylish and fashion-forward enough to stand alone. [But the shoes and clothing] will always feed off each other and enhance each other.

8. What is the look of the collection?
TR: It’s an extension of the clothing collection: feminine and stylish options for women looking for quality and beautiful design. But if I do a feminine dress, it shouldn’t go out with feminine shoes — that’s too much sugar. We have to find a balance between what goes with the collection and what speaks to the brand image.

9. Footwear is pretty new to you. What do you like most about the process?
TR: I love seeing the final product — how an inspirational element, such as a flower or a painting, is reflected and evolves into a fabulous stiletto. Also, getting the samples in, making edits and then seeing the final product come through is just a thrill.

You’re known for vintage appeal. Do you have a favorite fashion era?
TR: It’s hard to pick just one. I love the femininity seen in the 1920s, the demure sexiness of the 1940s and the dazzle and glitter of the 1970s. The 1930s were very romantic, but very refined, and there were incredible women designers who offered a different level of reality to the mix.

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