Tracking Toschi

When designer Michael Toschi launched his namesake line of high-end rubber-bottom shoes for men a decade ago, he encountered his share of skeptics.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said, referring to his idea to put rubber soles on high-end shoes. But Toschi, who had 20 years of experience working behind the scenes for a number of high-profile shoe companies, wasn’t the least bit gun-shy. He hit the road with his sample case and soon received his first order from Malouf’s in Lubbock, Texas. Orders from other retailers quickly followed.

Today, Toschi’s San Carlos, Calif.-based company continues to thrive. In 2007, sales jumped 25 percent compared with the prior year, and they are tracking at 20 percent growth annually, according to the designer.

“The integrity of the quality, craftsmanship and fit, coupled with style, was a home run,” said Sam Malouf, co-owner of Malouf’s, about the line he took a chance on 10 years ago. “We did as much business with the brand the first year as we did with all our other [shoe brands].” While the store carried other comfort lines, Malouf said Michael Toschi’s sophisticated styling really set the line apart.

And even though the new collection’s prices were about $400 a pair, he added, customers immediately gravitated toward the shoes. “They were up there in terms of price, but what Michael had going for him was style,” Malouf said. “Price can be a barrier when introducing new product, but in this case, customers understood the difference.”

Malouf’s is now one of 150 high-end men’s specialty retailers that offer Michael Toschi, in addition to 20 Nordstrom locations and footwear independents such as Arthur Beren in San Francisco and Littles Shoes in Pittsburgh. According to Toschi, his line, which retails from $400 to $700 (excluding exotics), usually ranks among the most expensive in those stores.

The collection attracts men between the ages of 35 and 65, with mostly conservative fashion tastes. Toschi admitted he is not trying to chase a fashion-forward crowd. “My customer has a more traditional foundation. He’s more masculine in his purchasing approach,” Toschi said, noting that the collection’s modern spin on classic looks fits his target audience.

Still, while aesthetics are key, Toschi, who compares wearing his shoes to “standing in a piece of equipment,” said technology is equally important. His collection is built around a series of patented technologies he developed, including NEST (Natural Ergonomic Standing Table), a low-profile, anatomically shaped midsole sandwiched between the sock liner and the lasting board. “I layer in fashion and technical elements a guy can see and feel,” explained Toschi.

Despite the strong emphasis on technology, Toschi has opted not to tout the shoes’ features and benefits on product packaging. Instead, he relies on sales associates to do the talking for him. “My only marketing campaign is to educate the sales staff,” he said, adding that he has never marketed the brand outside of co-op ads with retailers. “I just want to put my efforts and resources into the product. It has a story that’s real and honest, and it works.”

Toschi also regularly makes appearances at stores around the country to tell the story himself. In fact, last spring, he had 24 scheduled appointments with consumers at a Nordstrom in Bellevue, Wash. “They were people I’d helped out [through my shoes],” he said. “They don’t have to walk around in pain anymore.”

Though Toschi’s technologies may sound somewhat space-age, the line’s styling is down-to-earth. Included in the offering is the Classico series of dress looks, the Sportivo line of athletic-inspired styles and the Informale series of casuals. This past fall, Toschi added Sport Luxury, a bridge line of casuals with lightweight blown-rubber outsoles that are made in Spain and retail for $395. According to Toschi, the line is a way for men to experience the brand at a more accessible price point.

For the sportsman, Toschi offers a golf collection, featuring shoes with colored spikeless outsoles that retail for $550. Introduced in 2002, the collection counts among its fans celebrities such as Joe Montana and Michael Jordan.

Beyond footwear, Toschi also produces a small assortment of men’s accessories, including wallets, belts, leather outerwear, sweaters and socks, all of which debuted in 2000.

But men are not the only ones Toschi is catering to these days. In response to demand, he debuted women’s footwear in fall ’07. The line is built on the NEST technology. “Women want the style and quality of a designer shoe, but with a true working comfort system,” he said. For spring ’09, the collection is focused on mocassins with nappa and embroidered suede uppers, retailing for $390.

In addition, a line of luxury women’s golf shoes, called GD, will hit stores this spring. Set to retail from $475 to $535, the line will feature classic saddles and Mary Jane styles on spikeless outsoles, all incorporating NEST technology. Handbags were also recently added to the offering, with prices ranging from $600 to $1,200. Combined, women’s footwear and accessories account for around 20 percent of Toschi’s overall business.

While the designer’s ready-to-wear lines are the mainstay of his business, his real passion has been a collection of bespoke footwear under the Vecchia Mano label, which carries an opening price point of $1,600. The collection, whose name is Italian for “old hand,” debuted for spring ’07 and is available through invitation-only events. “It’s for the guy who likes to spend his money on the best of the best,” said Toschi.

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