5 Questions for Gold Toe’s Michelle Cannon

When it comes to sock trends, Gold Toe Brands Inc. goes with the flow.

“Everything is evolutional,” said Michelle Cannon, Gold Toe’s VP of merchandising and design. “What’s old comes back around and becomes new again, so we are always going through that cycle.”

That’s not to say the company, which is almost a century old, is complacent, she added. The men’s and women’s sock maker always challenges itself to stay current without sacrificing its heritage. “Design-wise, every season — because we don’t have an apparel line that we pair with — we have to be very relevant to what’s going on in the [general clothing] market, as well as being color-right and weight-right, and delivering on quality,” Cannon said. “All those things are a balance. If I change a sock too much, I get hate mail. There are certain styles that we have to be really careful [about when it comes to introducing new colors and components].”

Keeping things fresh also calls for constant attention to marketing. And for 2013, Gold Toe is updating its strategy. “We are in the process of redoing our whole visual campaign, and we’ll have a new POS [look at retail],” Cannon noted.

While she admitted the hosiery space is challenged by the economy, Cannon said she’s confident about the future, given her company’s strong history in the business.

Gold Toe was founded in the early 1900s as Great American Knitting Mills, producing men’s socks with reinforced toes incorporating gold-colored yarn. It eventually changed its name to Gold Toe, and introduced women’s product in 1983. The brand is now sold in 800 retail doors, including major department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and JCPenney, as well as independents.

Cannon recently spoke with Footwear News about how shoe trends affect socks, why she looks to the living room for design inspiration and where the hosiery market is headed.

What have been some of the biggest changes in the legwear market lately?
The hosiery departments shrunk [starting in the 1990s], and they continue to shrink. They’re very small, so what is important now is being meaningful in [terms of having] a very intentional type of presentation and sock selection. The hosiery floor also has gone from a really strong sheer base to a tights-and-leggings base. Socks have become more of a basic need, replacing the sheers, as well as working well with layering. The boot trend also has been great [for sock sales].

Why doesn’t your current mix include tights and leggings?
We have been in and out of that business, but our wheelhouse has always been socks, and we are really focusing our energy there.

What is your outlook for that market?
I feel good about where we are going. We have strong partnerships with our accounts, in terms of looking at what’s trending in their businesses and what’s working, and making sure we develop and design into that. That is where we can transcend [economic challenges], although we do feel the effects of people lowering their inventories. We also feel the effects of faster turns and things like that, but because we design, manufacture and source all our own product, we try to manage those levels steadily and make sure we are in the proper inventory positions to service [our] markets.

Where do you go for design inspiration?
Senior designer Matthew Mull and I shop the [U.S.] market and trends, but we are also in Asia [and especially] Japan. China is not a trend direction, but in Japan and Korea, you can get some forward trends. We also shop Europe. We look at what’s going on in ready-to-wear, as well as footwear, to anticipate that next trend. Another interesting thing we often track is what’s going on in home [decor], because a lot of the leading palettes start there and work down. There is always an overwhelming motif in home that translates, the next season or two, into ready-to-wear. We look at the tapestries, jacquards and woven fabrics.

How do footwear trends affect what happens in hosiery design?
Take any kind of athletic shoes. With the advent of so much color, it has allowed more color in socks. [Before this trend], everyone wanted predominantly white coming out of their shoes. Now they mix and match with whatever color they need. But with boots [being a hot item right now], we have to make sure we have the right socks [to go with them]. Also, with slingbacks and mules [being prominent footwear looks], we have to offer solutions such as liners, massaging foot bottoms and air vents. There’s a solution level, a function level and a fashion level.

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