How Deckers is Rebuilding Tsubo

Funky comfort brand Tsubo is back in the groove.

The label launched in the late 1990s as a small, independently owned company, but it struggled for a few years because it lacked adequate financial resources and back-office support. That soon changed. Since industry giant Deckers Outdoor Corp. acquired it in 2008, the brand has been building the business with updated product, a new president and plans to boost its global presence with a launch in France next year.

The acquisition was not a quick fix though, the brand said. It wasn’t until late 2009, when Deckers CEO Angel Martinez initiated a management change, that the product team could really concentrate on creating fresh looks.

“Deckers gave [Tsubo co-founder] Nick O’Rourke the resources and organization to kick-start the business again,” said Errin Cecil-Smith, director of public relations and corporate communications for the Goleta, Calif.-based company. “The line hadn’t evolved for a while due to the [limited] resources of a small business. It couldn’t try new things. Nick and designer Fiona Adams had a strong vision but didn’t always get to bring it to life.”

Today, the brand is led by Jim Van Dine as president, O’Rourke as creative director and Smith, who continues to oversee design. Newcomers include Jason Mora, associate brand manager, and Gianpaolo Altomari, associate marketing manager, who spearhead marketing initiatives that include an updated website and blog.

This fall, Tsubo debuted an expanded product offering that introduced sophisticated sport-casuals for men and chunky platform sandals and wedge athletic looks for women. Retail prices range from $100 to $220.

Thanks to all the changes, the company said business for 2010 is expected to be up by 50 percent over 2009. Tsubo also added 50 accounts in 2010, bringing distribution to 325 doors.

For her part, Adams said she’s committed to creating directional and diverse product. “The customer is someone who can — and does — think for themselves,” she said. “They’re intelligent professionals. They’re not identified by age, but by a modern mindset and taste level. They appreciate fashion, but aren’t slaves to it. They want to look good, but understand the importance of feeling good and therefore desire more from a product.”

Key spring ’11 women’s styles include the Sinda, an athletic-inspired Mary Jane shoe, and the Manti, a platform wedge thong. The men’s category now emphasizes a more refined look, illustrated by the Wexler, a spin on a brogue, and the Veralden, a sneaker with a bump toe.

For fall ’11, a companion line of premium fashion-forward looks is already in the works. “The collection is [designed] to push and evolve the possibilities of what Tsubo can be,” said Mora. The line will be available exclusively to select boutiques and footwear stores.

However, Mora noted that while styling remains the focus, Tsubo hasn’t lost sight of its comfort heritage. Built into the collection are such features as EVA footbeds, lightweight dual-density blown polyurethane outsoles and contoured footbeds for a customized fit.

“We play up the comfort elements,” he said, “but we don’t scream the story. The shoes tell it themselves.”

Echoed Adams: “It would be too easy to create product that just looked good without regard to how it performed. The industry is saturated with that. We want to maintain our point of differentiation.”

Among the stores testing the brand for fall ’10 is Nordstrom, which will also move forward for spring with an even broader assortment.

The brand also is building up its distribution among e-tailers such as Zappos.com, Amazon.com and Onlineshoes.com, as well as selling product on its website, Tsubo.com. Still, the bulk of business continues to be done through independents.

San Francisco’s De La Sole Footwear has carried Tsubo since 2004. Owner Joe Costa said that although the brand lost direction over time, Deckers’ deep pockets have reinvigorated the merchandise.

“[The move] allowed Nick and Fiona to focus on design,” said Costa, who noted that the fall ’10 looks weren’t simply a rehash of old product but exhibited fresh styling. “The line has been amazing this fall. It’s a completely new line.”

John Holden, COO of Benjamin Lovell Shoes in Wilmington, Del., agreed. “Tsubo is in a great position to lead the cooler side of fashion/comfort,” he said. “And you don’t have to be a hipster to wear it. We have plenty of fortysomethings buying it. There’s always a void for that category, and that’s where [the brand] will thrive.”

Tsubo’s next goal is to reconnect with customers, particularly through social media. Consumers will be able to access a blog via a microsite on the brand’s website, which relaunched in October.

“[With the blog] we’re looking to connect organically, with an honest voice through a medium consumers are familiar with,” said Mora. “It will not be a selling tool, but [a means to] share the soul of the brand and host a variety of content that informs, inspires and educates.”

Part of the initiative includes a competition, in which design school students can come up with their own takes on a Tsubo shoe.

And though the brand has managed to accomplish a lot in two years, Mora admitted that success is a balancing act. “We’re lucky because we have a unique point of view,” he said. “The challenges we face are balancing [being] fashionable against staying true to our heritage. We’re trend-conscious, but not trendy.”

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