H.H. Brown Heralds Heritage

The Heritage Shoe Group at H.H. Brown is preparing for the future by looking to its past.

“When the economy is tough, people return to things they can relate to,” said James Rowley, SVP and GM of Heritage.

To capitalize on consumer interest in retro looks, the group in 2009 launched Vintage Shoe Co., a men’s and women’s brand focused on reviving styles from H.H. Brown’s 100-year-old archives. Heritage also has seen its iconic Kork-Ease and Walk-Over brands return to the spotlight.

As a result, Rowley said sales at the division are up 90 percent to date compared with a year ago, and that momentum is expected to continue into 2012.

The men’s Walk-Over label, dating back to the mid-1700s, came under the H.H. Brown umbrella in 1991. Its nod to the past, particularly its offering of traditional bucks and saddles, is connecting with men across a wide age spectrum.

Rowley said younger, fashion-driven customers are buying styles such as the Derby 100, a classic buck from the 1970s with new, colorful outsoles that were introduced in spring ’11. “We have the classics, and then can update or put a twist on [them],” he said.

It’s not just U.S. consumers who have jumped on the Americana trend. Rowley said 60 percent of Walk-Over’s business is done in Japan and Italy.

For Kork-Ease, which launched in the 1950s and was acquired in 2009, the Ava sandal remains a signature look. The crisscross banded style on a covered wedge debuted in the 1970s, and its recent popularity has spawned a series of companion shoes that now represent 25 percent of the brand’s overall business. One of the updated versions features an exposed cork bottom.

“In all three brands, everyone wears [the shoes] differently,” said John Robbins, director of marketing. “[They] mean different things to [each one].”

Vintage Shoe’s authentic combat styles have caught the attention of celebrities such as Adam Levine, who has been spotted wearing the Nathaniel jump boot, and “True Blood” actor Joe Manganiello, who picked up the Isaac tanker boot. Ready-to-wear designer Nicholas K. is also a fan and has used the boots in his last three runway collections.

Kork-Ease, too, has received a nod from celebrities and designers. “Modern Family” mom Claire, played by Julie Bowen, has worn the brand on the show, and designer Mara Hoffman selected Kork-Ease for her resort ’12 collection during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim in Miami.

“The brands have their own rich heritage,” said Tom McClaskie, designer for Heritage Shoe Group. “Our job is to enhance that for the modern customer. We bring the real deal to life.”

Beyond period styling, the brands in the group promote American manufacturing, which is proving to be a strong selling point. All Walk-Over and Vintage product is made exclusively in H.H. Brown’s factory in Pennsylvania. A collection of higher-end Kork-Ease products will also be produced there for spring ’12. In all, about 20 percent of the group’s footwear is made in the U.S., and that share is expected to double within the next two years.

“Heritage is important because it’s a trend,” said Rowley, “but ‘made in the U.S.’ is a selling feature. People are starting to care about [that]. It has added value.”

American-made product appeals to Eliza Perez, co-owner of Soles 384 in Mill Valley, Calif., who carries the Vintage line. She said the company’s domestic sourcing is a key selling point on the floor. “Vintage ties in nicely with the artisan handmade look of the shoes [we carry],” she said. “We’re also trying to feature brands made in the U.S., which is rare today.”

Gretchen Plummer, co-owner of Johnny Soles in Portland, Ore., agreed: “Customers ask for [domestically made footwear],” she said. “[Consumers] have seen the fallout of [goods] not being made in the U.S. And [H.H. Brown is] an old U.S. shoe company whose quality and styles are hard to beat.”

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