Letter From the Editor: Leading Wedge

It’s all about shoes. Again.

One short year ago, the world as we knew it had ended. Retail was in the doldrums. Consumer confidence was flagging. Many businesses were struggling to make sense of an economy that was going nowhere fast. In short, there was too much product, too little demand and no discernible view of what was to come.

So what did shoe people do? What they have always done. They got tough. Some of the shrewdest operators on the planet, the industry’s best wholesalers and retailers, followed the time-honored system for survival in the cut-throat world of footwear. They trimmed expenses, reduced inventories, lowered prices and focused on the few glimmers of growth on the global landscape. More importantly, the smartest minds in the business shrugged off the paralysis common to other businesses and started to lay the foundation during those darks days for some great product innovation and amped-up marketing plans.

The results of those efforts are clearly paying off. As one high-level player said last week: “Shoes are leading fashion out of the recession” — and that appears to be the case.

It may not be the moment to cue the chirping birds and swelling music. There are still serious troubles. Many retailers and smaller wholesalers and young designers are still fighting the battle of their lives. But the best shoe players are clearly finding the silver lining in the darkest of clouds.

More nimble in terms of design and sourcing, powerhouses such as Steve Madden, Skechers, Deckers, Brown Shoe and others are generating positive results with new product launches, pared-down assortments, innovative partnerships and more sophisticated promotional strategies at a time when other fashion players are still in retrograde.

The level of product innovation alone over the past year has been impressive. From athletic to comfort, high-end to low, many brands have raised the bar with fresh styles that really do look and perform differently. Wellness, in general — and toning, in specific — has been a boon to many brands. The consumer’s appetite for products that offer more than the usual has been a huge meal ticket for a number of companies. Toning has going a long way to rescue the troubled athletic category at a time when many said there was no plausible new direction to pursue.

The emerging idea of wellness product has few boundaries at this point. Toning is central to the current story, but look for more innovation as designers find new materials and technologies that promise additional benefits, from circulation to fat loss to posture and physical conditioning. The category will explode when even more players jump into the fray, ad spending increases and the idea of benefit-laced footwear expands into other markets.

Of course, the luxe end of the industry took the biggest hit last year. But even in this rarefied zone, business has started to come back, with Christian Louboutin continuing to dominate (see page 12 for more). And though the idea of expensive looks may have been tempered by the economic meltdown, the basic desire for statement shoes remains an intrinsic part of the current fashion landscape. Just look at “Sex and the City.” While the furor may have quieted a bit following harsh reviews for the second film, the footwear industry continues to owe a debt of gratitude to its stars, stylist Patricia Field and director Michael Patrick King for recognizing the role fashion, and particularly shoes, play in many women’s lives. In fact, the franchise brought fashion to life in a way very few films or TV shows have been able to do. And the glow, albeit slightly faded from its once-crazy high, continues to fuel a positive association between romance, fun and footwear — an invaluable rub-off.

Add to that some solid signs that the sluggish men’s category is finally seeing the light of day. The clamor for heritage product and classic American styling has reinvigorated the market, from sneakers to boots to dress shoes. The much-welcomed sales boost has brought the category back to the forefront and delivered some big hits for companies including Red Wing, Wolverine, Timberland and Clarks. That new life couldn’t have come at a better time.

And there’s more good news: Continued resilience in the kids’ business rounds out what looks to be a mostly rosy forward view. That is not to say there aren’t enormous challenges ahead. Retail is still finding its way in the new world, and the future of many smaller doors still hangs in the balance. A number of young, talented designers that felt entirely comfortable hanging out a shingle during the run-up to the recession are now facing the aftermath without any cash reserves to handle slow bill payments and retail bankruptcies. And the sourcing picture is still incredibly challenging as cultural changes in China and currency issues in Europe change the playing field from day to day.

But these kinds of issues have been part of the footwear story from the beginning. The best operators have managed to stay ahead of the global game by being nimble and proactive. Shoe people understand what other business leaders failed to comprehend in this trying moment: Obstacles really are opportunities in disguise.

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