10 Questions for Guess’ Paul Vando

Marc Fisher Footwear launched in 2005 with lifestyle brand Guess as its debut label. Since then, the two companies have created a solid licensing partnership, with Paul Vando serving as director of product development for men’s footwear at Guess. (Kathy Ringwood spearheads women’s footwear.)

Vando (above) joined the Guess team in 2006, when men’s was added to the offering, and has since worked to create a standalone identity for the footwear brand, while also being mindful of the apparel label’s fashion point of view, which gives an edge to casual, denim dressing.

To keep track of trends in the marketplace, the design team often turns to its own retail stores, which allow them to get a read on customers. “We learn a lot there,” said Susan Itzkowitz, president of Greenwich, Conn.-based Marc Fisher Footwear. “Then we focus the line for the major [accounts].” Today, Guess Footwear counts Nordstrom, Macy’s, Journeys and Dillard’s among its retail partners.

After weathering the economic storm in 2009, Itzkowitz said the brand is especially aware of pricing now.

However, Vando is not willing to compromise on style in the process. “Our customers [are] accustomed to our product having a point of difference represented in the details,” he said.

Here, Vando shares his thoughts on working closely with factories, creating a footwear line in sync with the Guess image and his favorite spots for design inspiration.

1. How challenging is it to design for an apparel label?
PV: It’s challenging to create for a brand with its own stores, while also trying to satisfy the needs of the overall young men’s footwear market. The average consumer walking into a Guess store is a bit more fashion-aware than the consumer shopping department stores and larger footwear retailers. In an ever-shrinking footwear market, we’re required to be more focused in our collections.

2. Who is the Guess customer?
PV: He’s 25 to 40 years old with an understanding of fashion and is not afraid to show it. He’s going out at night and needs the appropriate denim, jacket and footwear. He can wear denim around the clock and look good doing it.

3. In the tough economy, have you made any design concessions?
PV: We’re a lot more focused than in the past, allowing us to keep our development and sample costs down. We have great relationships with our factories and suppliers, [so we can] be competitive in a price-sensitive market. Where product is concerned, it’s difficult to take anything out of the shoes. It’s important we keep the details.

4. How closely do you work with Guess women’s designer Kathy Ringwood?
PV: We talk a lot about what’s selling and what we’re seeing in the market. When we’re working in China, I’m always checking out what she’s working on.

5. What’s your favorite part of the design process?
PV: I enjoy working in the factories and sample rooms. I spent a lot of time earlier in my career in factories learning about pattern cutting and leather. When you begin the design process and have an idea in mind, it’s tough to [relay] the full concept on paper. There’s no substitute for being there and working with the last makers, pattern makers and tanneries.

6. Who is Guess’ footwear competition?
PV: We’re usually stacked up against other young men’s brands, including Kenneth Cole Reaction, Steve Madden, Skechers and Robert Wayne. I would also include most athletic brands offering fashion product, such as Puma, Adidas, Nike and Lacoste. Then you have private-label brands such as Alfani and INC [at Macy’s]. When you include Aldo in the mix, it becomes a very competitive marketplace.

7. How do you get young men to move past athletic looks?
PV: It’s easier said than done, especially in spring, when lighter, more athletic-inspired footwear is an easy way to accessorize a wardrobe. Guess is a denim brand, so that allows us a bit more range than some other brands. Fall ’10 will be all about the sneaker boot and how it allows guys to wear casual styles on athletic constructions. Lanvin has done a great job with this for the past few seasons. I expect the look will trickle down to the masses for fall.

8. What are the must-have styles for guys today?
PV: The vulcanized, high-top, [Chuck Taylor style]. It’s a must with skinny jeans. The rocker look continues to be important, and this silhouette helps define it. Also, the sneaker boot, a casual high-top on a cup sole, is a must-have. It’s a bit more sophisticated than the low-profile vulcanized looks we’ve been seeing. Monochromatic combinations of nylon, leather and suede give the silhouette a more casual feel. [Then there’s] the vintage workboot, which is a classic American look most guys feel comfortable with.

9. Where do you trend watch?
PV: London’s East End is great. Watching people in Spitalfields Market on a Sunday afternoon is a great way to pick up new trend ideas. There’s a 1980s type of punk rocker vibe that comes off as very natural. The shops on Milan’s Corso di Porta Ticinese are great to find street-inspired product. In the summer, Milano Marittima and Riccione are two great places in Italy where you can find casual sport-inspired product and sandals. Los Angeles is probably the best place in the U.S. The West Coast has a casual, laidback vibe, which works well with our brand. [In New York], you’ll always get ideas from watching people in Washington Square. It’s the backyard for New York University, so it offers a look into what young people are wearing.

10. Are young men influenced by today’s celebrities?
PV: Guys are greatly influenced by celebrities. I am. The three [most influential male celebrities] are Brad Pitt, Tom Brady and Justin Timberlake. That same kid who watched Tom Brady of the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl in 2002 is influenced by what he wears on the cover of GQ today. I’m a Jets fan, yet I still admire Brady for his sense of style.

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