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Spring Breaks: The Launch Craze

NEW YORK — It’s the season for debuts.

A spate of women’s brands at all price points is hitting the footwear market for spring ’13, and industry insiders said it’s a good time for new players to get in the game — as long as they have something different to offer.

“A lot of [major retailers] are very open to seeing new brands right now,” said Deborah Petska-Cianciotta, principal and product development expert at Modern Pulse Consulting Group LLC. “Footwear has been on an uptrend for a while, and it keeps growing by leaps and bounds.”

Buyers coming off the trade show season and New York Fashion Week said they were on the hunt for new labels with compelling stories, ties to existing brands or celebrities and fresh approaches to design.

“We love supporting and nurturing emerging designers,” said Elizabeth Kanfer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s fashion and co-brand director for women’s accessories.

Kanfer said she was particularly excited about Sophia Webster, an eponymous contemporary line from Nicholas Kirkwood’s protegée that is manufactured in Brazil. It retails from $295 to $650 and features wearable-yet-fashion-forward styles including strappy sandals and beaded heels, with pops of color and quirky details.

“We fell in love with the collection the minute we saw it,” Kanfer said, citing the fashion aesthetic and mix of materials. “Sophia has created a collection that speaks to all women who are passionate about shoes and fashion.”

Nordstrom was optimistic about Aquatalia Group’s new fashion brand, Marvin K., launching for spring. The made-in-Italy collection, composed of leather platforms, wedges and heels focused on color and texture, retails for $300 to $500 and draws on Aquatalia’s solid history and built-in customer base, according to Scott Meden, GMM for shoes at Nordstrom.

“Over the past several years, [Aquatalia] has successfully evolved from primarily weather-proof goods into a relevant fashion line where style and design dominate,” he said. “The success of Aquatalia as a brand sets a natural stepping stone to [Marvin K.].”

Brand extensions also were grabbing attention at Piperlime.com. Derek Lam (which is relaunching footwear via a licensing deal with Schwartz & Benjamin Inc. for spring ’13) and French Connection (debuting shoes with Highline United) caught the eye of Brooke Banwart, Piperlime’s head buyer for footwear and accessories.

“Both brands have very distinct points of view,” Banwart said. “Like the [label’s] apparel, Derek Lam has a very clean, sophisticated aesthetic with beautiful snake accents. The French Connection footwear line is a bit more sporty and whimsical with the use of pastel colors and mirror metallics. They have a nice, balanced assortment with laser-cut flat sandals, sexy city sandals, espadrilles with Lucite details and even a wedge sneaker.”

Banwart added that the fact that both French Connection and Derek Lam stemmed from established ready-to-wear labels was a plus — for vendors and buyers alike.

“Contemporary apparel brands are seeing tremendous growth right now and are optimizing that by expanding into footwear, jewelry and handbags,” she said. “Rachel Roy, Rebecca Taylor and Tibi are a few examples where we’ve seen tremendous success in footwear launches [during past seasons].”

Monique Lhuillier, another designer who is jumping into the footwear game for spring ’13, said that while she will benefit from brand recognition, it was critical to make the shoes a distinctly separate piece of her business.

“Even though I had my collection in mind, I wanted to make sure the shoes stood alone,” she said. “I wanted to get into footwear specifically to reach a broader audience. I started with a capsule collection of only 18 SKUs, and I’d like to see it evolve.”

While many brands believe in the potential of the shoe business, it’s not easy for everyone to break in.

Ty McBride, brand director and creative director at Portland, Ore.-based boutique Solestruck, said he had yet to come across any must-have spring ’13 launches but was still scouring the wholesale market for the next “it” shoe.

“We’re shopping every trade show globally looking for new items,” McBride said. “We would love to see something really new.”

Ilse Werther, SVP and fashion director at the Wink NYC Inc. boutique in New York, which carries apparel and an assortment of footwear brands including Seychelles, Pour La Victoire and Jean-Michel Cazabat, said her criteria is to find items that competitors don’t have.

“That’s the biggest challenge — to be unique. We try to set ourselves apart by having that special shoe that no one else has,” she said.

What it takes to be that “special shoe” is, however, subjective. And given the rocky economy and increased competition, finding the sweet spot can be a challenge.

The Sak Brand Group was aiming to find its niche in the casual shoe sphere by taking the Elliott Lucca handbag line into footwear.

However, the label’s first attempt at shoes, in spring ’12, demonstrated how tricky a footwear launch can be. According to CEO Mark Talucci, the debut was delayed until spring ’13 because of technical difficulties regarding fit and performance.

“There are a lot of [companies] trying to get into footwear,” he said, “and launching shoes is notoriously difficult. The market is aware of that. Customers want to grow with you, but they’ve been burned before.”

Now that the kinks have been worked out, Talucci noted that Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Zappos.com have picked up the revamped Elliott Lucca offerings, which include flats, heels, wedges and boots in bright colors with woven leathers and exotic prints, retailing from $68 to $228.

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