10 Questions For Gentle Souls’ Wayne Finkelstein

When Gentle Souls founder Wayne Finkelstein sold his business to Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. in 2005, he knew the change would be a fresh start for the 10-year-old brand.

Originally produced in Finkelstein’s small Bronx, N.Y., factory, Gentle Souls would now have the resources and manufacturing muscle to reach the next level. Over the past five years, Finkelstein (above), who continues to guide the brand as VP of the division, has seen sales flourish — in 2010, business rose 40 percent over the previous year.

Evan Cole, director of Gentle Souls, credits Finkelstein’s design and production expertise as key to the brand’s success. “Wayne is very hands-on,” Cole said. In fact, Finkelstein has even been tapped as fit guru for all of Kenneth Cole’s footwear lines.

When it comes to design, Finkelstein has remained focused on offering styles that connect with consumers. “Our product is geared toward everyday, all-day wear,” he said. The collection’s eco-minded comfort features include cushioned arch supports filled with flax seeds and flex panels along the ball of the foot.

And while Gentle Souls is no longer an independent brand, it continues to operate as one. “We make it easy for retailers to do business with us,” said Cole, noting that the brand’s open-stock position and price points averaging $185 have helped lure e-tailers Zappos.com and Amazon.com, as well as independents including Gimme Shoes in San Francisco and City Soles in Chicago.

1. What sets Gentle Souls apart from other comfort brands?

WF: We offer a natural comfort story, not complicated technology. We use flax seeds, cork filler, flex panels and deerskin linings. It’s the feel of the shoes, the tactile sensation when you pick them up. When most people go shopping, they pick up a shoe, turn it over and [check] the price. But [when I was] manufacturing in the Bronx, I couldn’t be price competitive, so I [came] up with an idea that would interrupt that process. I wanted someone to pick up the shoe and say, “Wow, what’s going on here?”

2. Does Gentle Souls have more of a focus on fashion or comfort?

WF: Both, but I’d rather be a comfort line with fashion. Once customers believe in the comfort of your shoes, [they are] loyal. But we achieve that even in fashion stores where people buy our shoes because they think they look cool.

3. Have your eco-friendly components been a selling point?

WF: Consumers are aware of the eco-friendly story, but it’s not the deciding factor for most. We use many renewable components in our footwear. The most eco-friendly thing we do is make product that’s durable in function and style. And the longer shoes last, the fewer [pairs] that have to be produced.

4. Who is Gentle Souls’ core customer?

WF: It’s a woman in her 20s to 80s. We have classic footbed sandals that would be competitive with Birkenstock, and higher-heel platforms that are more fashionable. This fall, we have a great baby calfskin penny moc on a round last, designed with a concealed flax seed pillow [inside]. It was conceived as a core shoe that could live on forever. Comfort stores are selling it, but fashion stores are selling it even better.

5. How do you communicate your comfort story?

WF: We have POS materials, box inserts and [information] on box covers. But the main way is [through] the soft sell. We try to get lots of shoes on display in stores so [the brand is] meaningful. Consumers can come in and touch the product. That’s what sells it. Even if they aren’t necessarily enamored with [the styling], they can see there’s something unusual going on [that prompts them] to try it.

6. Who is Gentle Souls’ competition?

WF: [From the beginning], I considered us to be our own competition. You need [comfort] features that differentiate you in the marketplace, shoes that have great value built in. I don’t think it’s a question of competing against somebody else; it’s a question of delivering a product the consumer wants to try on.

7. What can we expect to see in the fall ’11 collection?

WF: We’re doing a lot of short boots, ankle boots. Black always dominates, particularly when you get to high-priced items like boots. We’ve had more calls for medium to low heels. And we continue to do well with ballerinas.

8. How has moving production to China changed things?

WF: Quality is better in China. [There they] break down jobs in small increments, so people are great at the individual tasks they do. Stitch for stitch, they’re better than [workers in] Italy, for example, in terms of the folding, sole laying, stitching and cleanliness.

9. It seems Kenneth Cole has really given you the freedom to lead the business. Why was that important to you?

WF: I didn’t want to just be involved in decisions; I wanted to be able to make decisions. If a supplier ships us something and it’s late, and I have a rapport with them, I want the authority to say, “We’re paying the air freight.” If we want to sell to a customer that may not have great credit, I can say, “We’re carrying them.”

10. How do you approach the design process?

WF: We try not to overthink it. Consumers walk into a store and see hundreds of shoes, and then there’s one shoe they want to try on. It’s the same when we develop something. I like to show [a style] to a couple of go-to people. I trust those [retailers] who are impulsive in their decisions. We only have a few seconds to capture the consumer’s eye. And I work with our designer, Jilleen Liao, who lives in a trendy area in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I go by what she sees as fresh.

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