10 Questions for Chie Mihara

Chie Mihara knows a thing or two about mixing it up.

Born to Japanese parents and raised in Brazil, the 42-year-old designer studied in Tokyo and New York before settling in Spain more than a decade ago. There, she bowed a line of footwear known for its chunky and vintage-inspired looks.

Last spring, Mihara — whose shoes retail for$290 to $770 — entered the bridal market with a 20-style collection. Plans for 2011 include introducing a slightly higher-end collection geared toward professional women, and expanding men’s from a small mix of sandals to a 30-style offering.

Since launching in 2001, Chie Mihara has seen sales increase from about 1,300 pairs to more than 71,000 for fall ’10. And despite a 15 percent sales dip from the rough economy, Mihara and brand CEO and husband Francisco Sanchis Busquier said the firm is on track to be up about 25 percent in 2010.

With about 700 international accounts, including major department stores and one branded retail shop in Tokyo, Mihara last month debuted a revamped website with a blog and e-commece. Still, plans for the online business are modest.

“We don’t want to be unfair competition,” she said, noting that online sales have previously made up less than 2 percent of the overall business. “You have to be respectful [of your retailers].”

Here, Mihara talks about connecting with consumers and the challenges of expanding beyond her core audience.

1. How has the consumer changed as a result of the economy?

CM: We’re all reassessing how seriously we can take fashion and how much importance it can have in our lives. Before, the idea was to have fun [regardless of the cost], but now consumers want that in a more responsible and measured way. [I have focused more] on making basic shapes and adding detail because [women want product] that can be worn all the time.

2. Your line has a specific look. What can we expect from the new collections you have planned?

CM: Once you have associated yourself as the designer behind [the line], you can’t change the look too much. And that’s exactly why I’m thinking of launching another line that could be more masculine and for a working woman. Chie Mihara is very vintage looking, but sometimes I feel like I need a shoe that is strong and elegant, with a little bit of rock ’n’ roll.

3. How has being in a mix of independents and department stores helped you reach a broader consumer base?

CM: One helps the other, really. A lot of boutiques come after us because we’re in big stores like Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. So we see a lot of potential growth with the smaller independents. Department stores are basically set [in their buys], but smaller boutiques have more flexibility.

4. What’s the plan for branded retail?

CM: We would love to open in Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and New York, but I don’t know if now is the best time to be aggressive about new stores. I like to sleep well at night and not torment myself about grand plans [for growth]. When the [global economic] situation gets better, I’ll take that step forward, and New York could be one of the first opportunities.

5. Is it difficult to blend fashion and comfort in your line?

CM: [No, the big thing is] not going crazy on the heel height. The foot is just bone and muscle, and if you go much higher than 3 1/2 inches, you’ll be killing yourself. You also have to know how body weight is distributed throughout the foot and pay attention to the architecture of the last, anatomical footbeds and thicker leather soles [because all those can help] prevent bunions and a lot of pain.

6. Where have you faced the biggest challenges in the men’s category?

CM: The whole reason I started men’s is because there is so little offered, designwise, in [men’s] sandals, and I wanted to give my input. The challenge is finding the right consumer. My men’s look is a little metrosexual, and my ideas for the shoes are very avant-garde. It’s not a look for everyone, but it was like that when I started women’s, too. It took me a while to find my type of customer, and it will be the same with men’s.

7. How can you get retailers to take the category more seriously?

CM: It will take time. I’ll need to go more to clothing retailers and get it out that way. We have found that the men’s line probably won’t be very successful if we only target shoe retailers. So I’m going to start [wholesaling it] in Germany, France and Italy, where men wear this look. But in a few countries, such as the U.S., I’m not sure it will be very successful.

8. What has been the customer reaction to the bridal collection?

CM: I’ve had a good response, particularly online. There are so many types of brides looking for a wide selection. Some have said they would love to have a mid-heel and be comfortable, [and others] have asked for white without too much detail, so they can still wear it after the wedding.

9. How has your multicultural background influenced the way you approach design?

CM: Being raised in Brazil taught me a lot about femininity and women; and living in Japan, I learned about the importance of giving that little twist. When I was studying in New York, I realized that Americans are so practical and that simply dreaming about doing something [isn’t enough]. You have to do it. Spain taught me about quality of life. It’s so important there, and we use it to guide everything, even how we make shoes.

10. How are you building the brand in a digital world?

CM: I launched my new website [last month] with a mixture of blogs and video showing how I create my designs and the process of shoemaking. Consumer interaction is so important, and now we can be more dynamic with it. And I get to tell them more about me in a very natural way.

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