5 Questions for Ecco’s Felix Zahn

Ecco may be based in Denmark, but these days the brand is firmly planted stateside.

Today, the U.S. is the comfort brand’s largest market, led by top accounts Nordstrom, Dillard’s and The Walking Co. But the firm still wants more. Helping it get there is product director Felix Zahn, who joined the company in 2010 and is charged with giving Ecco’s global design team insight into America’s tastes and needs.

While German-born Zahn gives an American perspective to the label, he said common denominators exist throughout the line. “There’s actually a lot of crossover between the different [regional] divisions to make sure all our products are aligned with our brand and message,” said Zahn. In fact, he added, the company created a corporate design manual a few seasons ago to establish common guidelines for its designers. “The key overall content of the manual is keeping designs within the spectrum of our Scandinavian heritage.”

As a result, the brand offers a global collection across all its markets and then cherry picks other looks for specific demographics. Many of Zahn’s ideas have been used in Ecco’s global offering. “I’m traveling a lot, and one of my favorite exercises is to watch people at airports and look at their shoes and outfits,” said the exec. “You can clearly see a lot of different directions and elements.” And due to Zahn’s success in trend tracking, the firm recently added more product directors in Asia Pacific and Europe.

Here, the executive discusses the challenges of bridging the fashion gap between Scandinavia and the U.S.

Over the past several seasons, Ecco has stepped up its fashion offering. Has it been difficult to convince consumers to rethink the brand?
It was time to update our products and brand [image]. And the mindset of consumers has changed over the last [several] decades. I see it in my family: My parents are in their late 50s, but have a much more contemporary style than my grandparents did at their age. Now, convincing retailers [to try] new products — such as our women’s Sculptured collection introduced in fall ’10 — remains our biggest obstacle. But we still have classic styles that appear season after season. This minimizes the overall risk because not all new initiatives hit the bull’s eye.

What challenges have you faced as a European developing product specifically for the U.S.?
I quickly adapted to the American lifestyle. Some of my co-workers say I’m more American than they are. When it comes to [developing] more modern product, it hasn’t been that challenging. We always stick to our Scandinavian design principles and then translate them for different markets and consumer needs. In Scandinavian design, everything is there for a reason. It’s a timeless design that never really gets old or outdated. It’s all about simplicity and functionality. Scandinavian designers get a lot of inspiration from architecture and furniture. Sometimes we’re inspired by non-Scandinavian companies such as Apple, for instance. Apple has a fantastic product strategy and has also found its own look and signature.

Has the Internet affected your business?
The Internet is increasing the amount of global fashion customers. It’s also speeding up the flow of information and making new products more easily accessible. For example, most shoe trends have their origin in the U.S., then go out to Europe or Asia, such as Crocs, Ugg and now Toms. But people still dress differently country to country, and even regionally within countries. Americans, [more than the rest of the world], have a strong demand for classic and conservative wear-to-work styles, whereas Europeans are much trendier. But outside work, Americans dress sportier than Europeans or Asians do and use sport-intended sneakers or running shoes as everyday casuals.

Do you work closely with your counterparts in Europe and Asia?
We talk about new strategies or systems we have implemented in our regions, such as getting sell-through data, customer segmentation and brand architecture. In regard to product, it’s always interesting to hear what’s selling well in their regions and why. Sometimes we don’t even offer the same product in North America, but if I hear there is a hot Ecco product in Europe or Asia, I check to see if it makes sense to test in the U.S.

As a technology-driven brand, how important are components to your designs?
We work with a lot of new materials and always try to push the limits on new technologies. As a passionate shoe developer, my biggest interest is in leather because it has the major influence on the character of a shoe. Ecco operates its own tanneries around the globe, so we develop most of our leathers ourselves. The most exciting leathers we work with are made from yak and camel hides. There are not many shoe companies out there working with these materials.

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