Retail Sees Contemporary Boom

NEW YORK — The time is now.

With retailers and brands pushing a category some call contemporary and others refer to as young designer, industry insiders said it’s one of the fastest-growing segments in the footwear business.

“Until recently, there was a void in the market for contemporary brands that looked like designer,” said Elizabeth Kanfer, fashion and co-brand director at Saks Fifth Avenue, “but when B Brian Atwood launched [in 2010], that was the tipping point. All of a sudden, everybody realized what needed to happen, and the whole footwear market kind of changed.”

Still, contemporary can be difficult to pin down, and some players are even looking for a different moniker to identify the category. Most insiders said it can encompass both emerging designer brands and more established, trend-right labels with moderate price points, all offering styles that hold their own on the fashion floor.

For spring ’13 alone, a number of new labels are seeking to make a splash in the space, including 7B, a collaboration between Steve Madden and former Sigerson Morrison designer Kari Sigerson; French Connection, licensed to Highline United (see page 72 for a first look); and London-based Sophia Webster.

Among more established brands, Kanfer listed Sigerson Morrison, Vince and Rachel Roy (all three of which were added to the Saks offering for fall ’12) and Jean-Michel Cazabat as strong labels in contemporary, added that the retailer is hunting for a new category name to match an increasingly cosmopolitan group of shoppers and designers.

“Contemporary doesn’t sound as sophisticated as ‘young designer’ or ’emerging designer,'” she said, noting that Saks will place more marketing emphasis on these offerings this fall. “We are elevating what we consider to be contemporary footwear brands.”

At the Manhattan flagship, the eighth-floor 10022-SHOE department is being expanded by more than 10,000 square feet to make room for contemporary, which is moving up from the fifth floor.

Like Saks, Lane Crawford also prefers to give its contemporary offerings a more urbane title and placement. “Complementary to our established designer position, we refer to this area as ‘New Generation,'” said Peter Harris, president of the Hong Kong-based Pedder Group, which operates the shoe departments at Lane Crawford.

He named brands such as Alexander Wang, Toga, Acne, See by Chloé and Opening Ceremony as key offerings. “[These] are emerging brands with strong points of view, [and they] are merchandised with or close to our designer offering.”

That is exactly the space British designer Sophia Webster wants to occupy, according to her business partner, Christopher Suarez.

“Sophia is a designer brand that fits into the ‘high contemporary’ category, which has, until now, been more of a [ready-to-wear play],” said Suarez. “Sophia’s made-in-Brazil line is a first for footwear in terms of pricing structure with regard to the high level of design and skill of manufacturing.”

The collection, priced from $295 to $650, has already been picked up by luxury e-tailer Net-a-porter.com, hot specialty stores such as Colette in Paris and almost every key department store, from Bergdorf Goodman and Saks to Neiman Marcus, which is betting big on the contemporary space.

In May, the Dallas-based retailer rolled out a plan to brand the contemporary departments in 42 of its stores as Cusp (after the company’s freestanding contemporary shops that opened in 2006) and added a boutique feel with a bright, modern decor.

Cusp’s key footwear brands include Sam Edelman, Alice & Olivia, Ash, Michael Michael Kors, Tory Burch, Elizabeth & James and Pour La Victoire.

“With Neiman taking such a strong position with Cusp, it really reinforces contemporary,” said David Giordano, co-founder and creative director of Pour La Victoire, noting that, for his brand, $400 is the sweet spot for pricing. “The category gains in strength when a statement retailer puts a large stake in the ground at this price point in this marketplace.”

Giordano attributed the increased emphasis on contemporary to the fact that footwear is following the same trajectory as apparel.

“There are trailblazing apparel brands creating unique aesthetics and visions that are truly resonating with their customers,” he said. “In the past, it was just luxury brands that had more money to advertise. Social media is changing that, and you can create an emotionally resonating brand with a core consumer at this contemporary price.”

Jean-Michel Cazabat said that while his collection falls in the contemporary price range — it retails from $200 to $495 — consumers view it as a true designer brand. “Customers gravitate toward this combination of high quality and design at affordable pricing,” the designer said.

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