5 Questions for Elie Tahari

Elie Tahari has been redefining his ready-to-wear collections over the past few seasons, so taking a closer look at his footwear offering seemed like a logical next step.

“We are remolding, reshaping and perfecting the product,” said the designer, who recently named Bob Galvin as CEO of his New York-based firm. “We shrunk the number [of apparel styles] by design, and we want to limit distribution. We want to be more luxury.”

The biggest changes are now taking place in footwear. The brand enlisted licensee Highline United to help expand its women’s shoe offerings and it’s seeking a wider distribution, starting in spring ’13. (Elie Tahari footwear previously was handled in-house.)

“It has been a challenging ride with shoes,” Tahari said. “I have been trying to do it right for many years. [The decision to partner with Highline United was] very simple. They have more capability than we do as far as delivering the quality/value ratio.”

Highline United, now led by newly appointed CEO Rick Paterno, has put design director George Gublo in charge of the label’s shoe line. “Elie wanted to expand his customer base,” Gublo said. “He had already changed the look of his ready-to-wear collection and dubbed it ‘young modern luxury.’ He needed to mirror what he was doing in [apparel] in the footwear collection.”

The first offerings produced under the new partnership include single-sole looks and wedge sandals with metallic and snake-print accents, all retailing for $198 to $695. Fall ’13 styles focus on new shapes and contrasting materials and colors.

“The shoes have a more contemporary flair to them,” Gublo noted. “As opposed to matching the ready-to-wear collection, they complement it. The woman who might not wear the Elie Tahari dress [would still] wear the shoes.”

Here, Tahari talks with Footwear News about evolving his footwear offerings, next steps and his recent guest appearance on “Project Runway All Stars.”

Why is footwear so hot right now?
Shoes will always be important. People don’t realize how important they are. They complete an outfit, and it’s a natural instinct to be attracted to them. If a shoe has some sense of appeal, just like clothing, you fall in love. A beautiful shoe is a piece of art.

Why have shoes been a tricky category for you to master?
The first thing we did was go to Italy, and we bought a shoe factory, but it was very challenging to manage an Italian factory from here. [In addition], footwear has to have beauty and sexiness and look cool, but that’s not enough. It also has to fit well and be comfortable when you walk. That’s the meat and potatoes. Everything else is the dressing. It has to be the right value, the right price and look gorgeous, but at the end of the day, comfort is first. If I could make [women’s luxury] shoes as comfortable as sneakers, I would jump on that, and it would look good. When people say comfort is not important in fashion and you have to suffer to look good, I don’t believe that. Who wants to dress up if they have to lie in bed and they can’t move?

How are you feeling about the market going into fall ’13?
I am very optimistic about real, great fashion. There is no need to make another piece of clothing that is already in stores. It is time to make some great clothes that are fresh and cool and make the woman look and feel great. I’ve had a year full of challenges, but I realized this year that every challenge is a blessing, and the bigger the challenge, the bigger the blessing.

Are you planning to go into new categories in the near future?
Absolutely. We are hoping someone [who makes] great men’s shoes will approach us and we can do something together. Men’s sneakers would be big. We would also love to be in sunglasses, perfume, swimwear and intimates. I could go on, but you can’t make it all come true. We are always talking to people, but you have to match the partner with the product, and all of that takes time. But I believe the truth always prevails and what is right will happen.

What was your favorite moment from your recent stint as a guest judge on “Project Runway All Stars?”
I was able to go into the designers’ work room and see their designs before the runway show. I walked around and spoke to each of them, and that was so inspiring — their dedication and passion for what they do. [I advise young designers] to keep moving forward, live without fear and continue to love what you do.

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