The Soft Sell

Soft Style is stepping out.

Introduced six years ago under the Hush Puppies umbrella, the collection focuses on value-priced footwear in a range of sizes and widths. But last year, Rockford, Mich.-based Hush Puppies decided to spin off Soft Style as a standalone brand, complete with a new logo and boxing.

Under Joan Cortese, the director of product development who joined the company in 2007, the brand’s styling has been pumped up with the addition of trend-driven dress and casual shoes.

“I think about styling that will stay in our existing customers’ comfort zone, but that has broader appeal to attract a slightly younger customer,” said Cortese, who also enhanced the line’s components and introduced a patented comfort technology.

While Hush Puppies continues to offer leather product, Soft Style distinguishes itself with shoes made of synthetics and fabrics, retailing from $40 to $50. The line, which accounts for about 20 percent of Hush Puppies’ business, is sold in moderate department stores, footwear independents and catalogs.

1. Who is the Soft Style customer?

JC: She’s fashion forward. She works and dresses up, and it’s important to her to look great. She shops with specifics in mind and may be inspired to purchase based on an outfit she has. She doesn’t have a lot of disposable income for her wardrobe, but she reads fashion magazines, sees the trends and seeks out something that looks similar.

2. Does great style have to come with

a big price tag?

JC: Style is an individual portrayal of self and can be expressed in myriad ways. A woman may choose to wear head-to-toe Prada, or a mix of eclectic flea-market or vintage items, or a combination of both. It’s all about her attitude and the way she puts herself together. It’s a hot pair of red pumps worn with jeans.

3. In addition to its range of sizes and widths, what else does Soft Style offer?

JC: Our Soft Comfort Construction is engineered into every shoe in the line. That means there is extra cushioning in the ball area and added flexibility. This, combined with breathable, antimicrobial linings and socks, gives our customers a tremendous amount of added value. Additionally, our Innersoft career shoes feature a molded forepart insert in the front that provides deep and lasting comfort. These shoes have a leather sock for added breathability. They provide all-day comfort.

4. Size-and-width footwear often carries the connotation of being basic. How are you changing the line’s image?

JC: We created new branding, a brand mantra, new boxes and POS materials. We also began sending monthly e-mails to our [online] subscribers this year and are running ads in trade magazines.

5. Are women today more likely to admit their weight than shoe size?

JC: A woman will never admit her weight, but her shoe size — well, that’s becoming less of an issue. As the average shoe size in America continues to grow, women are less self-conscious of the size of their feet. It is beginning earlier in life. My daughter and many of her friends were wearing sizes 9, 10 and even 11 when they were in sixth grade. It seems to be just a fact of life.

6. What are the key trends for spring ’09?

JC: Spring is all about color and texture. There is a fun color palette — citrus brights and fuchsia/orange combinations. Also important are natural materials and trims: Cork becomes the tan, tortoise becomes the brown and washed gold becomes the bone. Python is really great in bright colors. Fabrics play a major role, particularly satin when used in unexpected ways, such as in casual daytime footwear. Patents continue to have a strong presence, but now they have an underlying texture or grain. Short vamp mocs continue, as well as pointed skimmers. Heels are more architectural — broader, but still feminine — and wedges continue to play a major role.

7. Which styles will be essential for spring?

JC: The Nita, a sexy, pointy toe pump, is offered in a range of textures and fabrics. It’s versatile — it can be worn to the office, with jeans or with a geometric patterned sundress. It takes [a woman] everywhere. Petrus, our satin open-toe slingback, sits on a great fabric-covered wedge. The upper is solid, and the wedge detail adds that element of surprise and flair that carries through the Soft Style brand. Love, a playful fringe T-strap, captures the bohemian look of the season. And Satin Doll exemplifies the trend of combining a luxury fabric upper with a casual outsole. Any one of these patterns will update a woman’s existing wardrobe and make it trend-right for the season.

8. Are there any styles that don’t translate into larger sizes?

JC: All silhouettes can work in the higher size range. A woman who wears a size 12 still wants that sexy, high-heel pump, and when she wears it, it enhances her personal style. It looks in proportion with her and adds to her edgy attitude.

9. Retailers are cutting back on sizes and widths. How has that affected Soft Style?

JC: Actually, it makes our brand more attractive. Many brands no longer manufacture or stock sizes and widths, but that does not mean the customer is not out there. We are also one of the few brands that carry fashionable footwear in a complete size range. The normal practice in our industry is to offer the most fashionable shoes in medium widths, sizes 5.5 to 10 and maybe up to 11. The Soft Style customer can buy a beautiful pointy toe pump in red patent in a size 12 wide. We have many independents and department stores that continue to push us for three and four widths, and we will continue to offer them.

10. Are size-and-width customers more likely to be brand loyal?

JC: Most likely, because they have more limited options. And once they find a pattern within a brand that they like, they will keep coming back to that brand for those same fit qualities. That is why we spend so much time making sure all our patterns adhere to our rigid fit standards.

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