5 Questions for Bob Infantino

Bob Infantino has a knack for comfort.

Following nearly two decades at the helm of Clarks Cos. N.A., Infantino brings his vision to Cobb Hill, a contemporary women’s collection launched last fall under Drydock Footwear Group, a company that was created in 2011 with New Balance to help the athletic firm develop its comfort business.

In just three seasons, Cobb Hill has garnered shelf space in 1,200 independents, including Schuler Shoes in Maple Grove, Minn.; Brown’s Shoe Fit in Shenandoah, Iowa; as well as Nordstrom, Von Maur and Zappos.com. The $70-to-$220 line also is sold through New Balance retail stores.

“We’re driving Cobb Hill as the biggest part of the Drydock business,” said Infantino, president of the Boston-based company. He noted that sales for Cobb Hill are up 71 percent year-to-date.

Although the women’s brand faces competition from established comfort players such as Clarks, Born, Taos and Earth, Infantino said he is confident the new label can hold its own. He said Cobb Hill’s size-and-width focus, coupled with New Balance’s comfort technologies, provide an edge. In fact, all Cobb Hill product is co-branded with the athletic giant’s name.

“Part of comfort is getting the right fit, so offering sizes and widths is essential,” Infantino said. “We also are having success with repeat patterns. We’re not changing our line constantly. We’re [stocking] inventory, and our retailers [can replenish] — another big advantage for a comfort brand.”

While Infantino remains focused on what’s inside a shoe, he never loses sight of the brand’s fashion appeal. “There is always room for fresh ideas,” he said, citing Cobb Hill’s signature details, which include artisan burnished leathers and antiqued hardware. “You have to make sure the price-value relationship is true.”

Here, Infantino talks about taking on the Euro-comfort establishment while connecting with today’s younger, fashion-savvy consumers.

How do you balance Cobb Hill’s European and American sensibilities?
American styling has its own look — kind of classic [with] a nice feeling of its own. But it’s all one market, whether [shoes] are coming out of Europe or the U.S. It’s [about] last shapes that give women a little more [wiggle] room and uppers that use stretch materials. A shoe that fits and feels good is universal. That’s where the two come together. No one has to compromise anymore on comfort. Uppers have caught up with technology.

Can comfort and fashion ever merge?
The comfort market is distinguished by [craftsmen] who understand how to build comfort technologies. When you have [the fashion market] making comfortable dress shoes, they might simply put some foam into a shoe and call it comfort. But people who live and breathe it understand so much more about materials and technology, and they can then make fashionable shoes on top of that.

What can comfort brands do to entice today’s young consumers?
The twentysomethings want high fashion: high heels and platforms. When they’re dressing up, they’re going to wear those kinds of shoes. [However], a lot of them are wearing Cobb Hill because we’re giving them comfort as well as [trends] such as combat looks and materials that are exciting to them. We’re putting comfort technologies into wedges and [even] 3-inch heels. But I don’t see young women ever giving up their fashion looks.

How do you differentiate between Cobb Hill and Drydock’s other comfort brand, Aravon?
We try to separate the [two lines] with materials and last shapes. We design Aravon for women who really need to have a removable footbed and [require] more size and width options. You can customize [the options] more. Aravon also is [targeted] to a more [conservative] comfort customer, going only up to 2-inch heels. However, we use some of the same New Balance technologies in both lines. Our team works with New Balance to see what technologies we can [use] next.

As comfort brands have become more focused, do comfort stores have a harder time distinguishing themselves with unique offerings?
There are several really good brands out there. Good retailers know how to hand-pick [styles] from each [brand] to give their stores a [unique] look and feel. [In fact], retailers can tell a better [comfort] story than before because shoes are so interesting today. If you [find a retailer] who does it right, I wouldn’t even call it the comfort category. It has more cachet.

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