5 Questions for Jacques Levine’s President

Jacques Levine has been putting the sizzle in slippers for 75 years.

The label, known for its sexy Kraze slide-heel style, is now expanding into fashion footwear with a full shoe collection. It also is building on its heritage looks through a fall ’12 collaboration with ready-to-wear designer Rachel Comey.

Founded in 1936 by Falk Levine and named for his son, Jacques, the label originated the quintessential open-toe mule slipper. And while the brand has existed all these years, it has endured periods when slippers went out of vogue.

“We’re reinvesting in the company and trying to bring the Jacques Levine brand back to its previous prominence,” said fourth-generation family member Sam Calvanio, 28, who now heads up the firm as president.

The New York-based parent company, which recently changed its name to Gen4 Levine Footwear from Middletown Footwear, saw a 30 percent uptick in sales in 2011 and has expectations for another 25 percent to 40 percent increase in 2012, thanks in part to updated, modern takes on its slipper line.

While the Jacques Levine name has been synonymous with slippers, the brand has previously dabbled in item-driven shoe offerings, such as evening looks, and continues to offer private-label footwear, which accounts for half the business.

But with Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker as fans of the slippers, Calvanio is confident the label can lure a new generation of customers with fashion footwear. For fall ’12, key styles from the new shoe line include flats, moccasins and skimmers, priced from $184 to $330.

And the fall slipper collection will consist of novelty ballet flats and espadrille-inspired indoor/outdoor looks. Retailing from $98 to $130, the styles will be available in upscale independents, lingerie boutiques and on Neimanmarcus.com.

Here, Calvanio shares his passion for the family business and how he plans to keep it competitive.

Your grandfather, Jacques Levine, has been active in the business for more than 50 years. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from him?
My grandfather’s favorite shoe-ism is something his father passed on to him: “It costs too much not to go out on the road.” He’s a big believer in visiting every account you open, working with buyers and floor staff and seeing how customers interact with the shoes. When I came into the business, I didn’t think I would love it as much as I do, but it’s become my biggest passion.

How does a 75-year-old brand successfully go after new generations?
There’s a trust, safety and wisdom inherent in longevity. Younger customers appreciate a brand that’s not only survived for a certain period of time but adapted to meet the needs of each generation. [Today], we’re targeting 28- to 45-year-olds. The relaunch was designed to go after Neiman Marcus’ younger customer, not necessarily a young customer [in general]. But as young women start to educate themselves about fashion, there’s a desire to own the storied brands — the luxury items that everyone who cares about fashion is almost expected to own.

What brand do you consider to be your biggest competitor?
Our top competitor is Ugg Australia. They own the slipper category, but I’m confident our business will grow rapidly once customers learn there’s a stylish, chic alternative in the market. A lot of retailers only sell Ugg [slippers] because of the boots. The slippers sell incredibly well, but a lot of higher-end retailers are in a position where they need to drive the slipper business. We’re focused on creating stylish slippers. [They’re] something you could actually match with a wardrobe, whereas Ugg slippers don’t necessarily look great with a dress.

How do you see slippers fitting into the daily wardrobe?
I’ve read how more women are throwing dinner parties and spending all Saturday cooking incredible feasts for friends. They don’t want to wear their 4-inch heels while slaving away, putting together a wonderful party. But when having friends over, you could wear chic slippers that are comfortable, but still very stylish.

Most of the slipper business is done in the lower end of the market. Can you entice women to spend more on their at-home looks?
Absolutely. There’s a re-education process, [though], partly because no one has paid attention to the slipper for so many years, and if you asked the average consumer today, they wouldn’t spend a premium price on slippers. It’s been a neglected item. But we’re not just churning out slippers like a lot of the mass department stores. You can go to Target and see 30 slippers on a wall, but there was no attention or care put into their craftsmanship and how they might look on a woman’s foot, what she might wear with them and what she might do in them.

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