10 Questions With Penny and Kenny Robinson

Penny and Kenny Robinson are on a roll.

Despite the economy, the husband-and-wife duo behind the Penny Loves Kenny brand turned in a 20 percent increase in business over last year, thanks, in large part, to strong bookings on their expanded dress shoe offering for fall.

“We always loved sexy dress shoes, but for some reason, whether it was the materials or the factories we were using, we weren’t getting our vision out there,” said Penny Robinson of previously unsuccessful attempts to break into the category. “People would buy flats from us and go elsewhere for dress shoes. But we knew we could do both, so we invested time and money into it. The response has been fabulous.”

Retailers including LF in Los Angeles and Nordstrom, which in the past only bought the brand’s flats and casual shoes, have inked orders for the dressier line, which includes heels and booties at $60 to $120.

The Robinsons also are bullish on their new partnership with the U.K. brand Park Lane, which they recently acquired the rights to distribute in the U.S. “We were just knocked out by the merchandise,” said Kenny Robinson, noting that the line will be carried by Victoria’s Secret, as well as by select independents.

Looking ahead, the couple has their sights set on breaking into new doors, including Macy’s, as they continue to evolve their namesake brand and enter new footwear categories. “All successful artists have to reinvent themselves,” said Penny Robinson. “That’s how we move forward.”

1. Kenny, you were a retailer for 26 years before becoming a wholesaler. What advice do you have for retailers today?

KR: When times are tough, retailers go back to a safety net, and I don’t blame them. Why risk everything? But it’s really the time to take 10 percent or 15 percent of your buy and put it into new categories. When business stinks, going back to the same people you always bought from makes no sense.

2. How has the retail landscape changed since the onset of the recession?

KR: As retailers have shrunk their inventory and started buying closer to season, wholesalers have responded in the same way. I’m not going to go out and buy 100,000 pairs of shoes when I’ve only pre-booked 15,000 pairs. Retailers are buying less inventory much closer to season, which means inventory is turning a lot faster.

3. What have you done that’s helped your company survive these tough times?

PR: We’ve had to be price-conscious, and we’ve run different promotions to give retailers certain incentives to place their orders now. That way, we can place our orders [with the factories].

KR: For fall, we kept our best items that are proven to be strong sellers and gave retailers 90 days dating and a price promotion, and they loved it. It’s been very successful.

4. How has the juniors’ customer’s exposure to fashion and trends changed over the years?

KR: My generation of fashion came out of the Army-Navy stores, with pea coats, jeans and sweaters. Today, the kids are looking at Dior and Gucci. Fashion came from the bottom up in the 1960s and 1970s, and today it goes from the top, down. Also, if a celebrity wears an item, it has a tremendous effect on the younger generation today. As the consumer gets older, however, [the celebrity influence] becomes less and less important.

5. What is the most challenging thing about working as a husband-wife team?

KR: The most difficult thing is deadlines. Besides the business, we have [three] kids and a life. When we have deadlines and have to push and push, it can be hard to balance.

PR: Kenny and I really get each other, though, and we tend to like the same things in terms of design.

6. Where do you find design inspiration?

PR: I always want to make a collection that is cohesive, so I look at the many aspects of a woman’s life — from running errands to working to exercising. I love to sit outside and see what girls are wearing. I go to a lot of art exhibitions, too. You never know what you’re going to find.

KR: It also comes from talking to our customers, traveling and shopping all over the place. And we constantly ask our daughters [ages 18, 20 and 23] and their friends for input on designs.

7. What other designers do you admire?

KR: We love Stella McCartney. She’s really outside the box. And we really admire Stuart Weitzman. He knows what his market is and stays focused on it — he owns his customer.

PR: Beverly Feldman is like that, too. She’s survived for so long.

8. What trade shows are important for you?

PR: We’ll continue to do Micam and FFANY, for sure.

KR: This year, we’re also going to Magic because there is a large group of clothing boutiques that carry shoes that attend, and it’s a very interesting group of buyers. When they’re looking at the shoe selection, they have in mind the names of specific customers — that’s how closely they work with their clients.

9. Have you considered opening your own retail stores?

KR: If I could do it tomorrow, I’d do it.

PR: When we started Penny Loves Kenny, Kenny wanted to open stores at the same time, and I said no — it would be too much. But we already have the store design prepared for when we’re ready. It would be a great testing ground to show customers a complete collection.

KR: The first place we’d open is in Soho in New York.

10. What are your goals?

PR: For so long, we’ve been a fill-in line, and customers only see what the buyer buys. So a main focus for us is to be a collection that retailers buy a lot more styles of.

KR: We hope to launch an e-commerce site soon. It takes time, though, and you have to make sure you have the warehouse and the space.

PR: We also need to work on Facebook and [online] marketing to get our name out there to people who don’t know us. We’d never consider doing print advertising now. The Internet is where we need to be — our customer lives there.

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