10 Questions for Naya’s Kasey Gibbs

Brown Shoe Co. took an environmental stand with the launch of Naya this spring.

The new brand, which provides fashion-comfort looks with a nod to Mother Nature, takes its name from the Hindi word for “renewal.” And it’s the first step in the St. Louis-based parent company’s green initiative, according to director of product Kasey Gibbs, who divides her time between Naya and sister brand Naturalizer.

“We all think of Naya as an ‘eco lab.’ When we see something we can do that would work for Brown’s other lines, our sourcing team will implement it,” she said.

Naya boasts product made using water-soluble cement, chrome- and metal-free leathers and cork footbeds, as well as nickel-free hardware. Recycled packaging completes the offering.

Pat Hogan, GM at Naya, said the company is invested in Naya for the long term. “Brown is cutting its teeth on eco-friendly footwear,” he said, adding that he hoped the initiative would encourage the industry at large to be more green-minded.

With sustainability a priority, Naya is also focused on creating trend-driven styles. “We want the shoes to be beautiful, expressive and artfully made,” said Gibbs. And as a comfort brand, Naya incorporates cushioned footbeds and lightweight unit bottoms. Naya debuted in stores last month and retails for $100 to $150, with boots up to $250.

Here, Gibbs reveals her vision for being fashionably green.

1. Is the eco-movement here to stay?
KG: It’s time to start thinking about ways to make products easier on our environment. The home goods industry is way ahead of fashion in this area. It’s a totally new way of thinking about design, and many designers are taking on this challenge. This takes awareness and a thoughtful approach to designing, packaging, manufacturing and distribution. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

2. What are the pros and cons of launching a line in a tough economy?
KG: It’s difficult to launch during an economic downturn, and most companies wouldn’t do it. But senior management at Brown Shoe recognized that the Naya concept was an important one and “of the moment.” Its message of renewal was important to tell in these difficult times. Everyone has been searching for renewal this past year, so it was easy for our team to put together this powerful message.

3. Who is the Naya customer?
She’s creative, expressive and socially and environmentally aware. She likes to wear statement items, but doesn’t want to suffer for the sake of fashion. She could be 25 or 55 years old, urban or suburban. And she’s willing to pay a little more to get something unique.

4. Other green looks tended to be casual and crunchy. What was your design strategy?
If the shoes are not feminine, expressive and joyful, then the design team hasn’t done its job. Women want to look and feel pretty. They don’t want to wear eco-friendly product that looks like it should be worn around a campfire. They want fashion first, then comfort. If they can have that and the shoes are eco-friendly, that works [with our goal].

5. Has the use of low-impact materials affected pricing?
A lot of what we do only impacts prices slightly, such as using water-soluble cement, nickel-free hardware and recycled packaging. We use chrome- and metal-free leathers that don’t always cost a lot more. Our cork footbeds and midsoles are eco-friendly and comfort-driven. [While they] cost more, you’re getting premium comfort. We use chrome-free leather linings, eco-friendly counter pockets and bamboo heels that also cost more but add to Naya’s styling.

6. What’s the biggest challenge in working with green components?
Making sure [component] sources understand what you mean by “eco-friendly.” We know Naya isn’t 100 percent eco-friendly, but with each choice we make, we are softening our footprint. We want to learn and challenge ourselves to make a difference. [It’s been] rewarding to see our factories and suppliers start to understand and respond to our needs. Everyone’s starting to think differently.

7. How far does Naya’s environmental story go?
We have tackled packaging and are using recycled paper and/or PET forms in the shoes. We put Naya’s message on box lids so as not to add more paper. Boxes are made of recycled paper and water-soluble cement, and with chemical-free printing. We’re [including] recycled fabric bags to wrap the shoes. We’re also looking at ways to [better] project buys to reduce our carbon footprint. We’ll also research how to design the shoes to be more recyclable.

8. What are you doing to get the message out to consumers?
Our marketing and creative team, led by Marci Ranger, created the brand statement: “Naya, renewing body, spirit and mind.” We put an eco-friendly charm with the statement on the right shoe, and it can be worn as a bracelet. All the POS [materials] are eco-friendly and include the brand message. We have a Website, Nayashoes.com, which launched on Feb. 10. We have a public relations firm focused on social media, TV and print.

9. How receptive are your consumers overseas to the green initiative?
We’re already selling [Naya] in more than 12 countries and plan to add more this fall. Our international team made projections before selling started and then over-sold for spring. They’re planning for an increase for fall ’10. Our hope is that the brand builds in Europe, Asia and South America. Our Canadian neighbors also have been big supporters.

10. Is the shoe industry doing enough to incorporate eco materials?
Consumers making the choice to buy eco-friendly products will drive the movement, the same way they have in the auto, home goods and building industries. It’s a big switch and will take time.

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