NEW YORK — Ash Footwear is kicking things up a notch.
The label is expanding its Asian retail presence in a big way, with the goal of rolling out 57 boutiques across China by the end of the year (bringing the store tally there to 120). And in the U.S., the firm is focused on wholesale and brand-building, with a large new ad campaign and social media initiatives. An evolved product mix will round out the global push, including the label’s first handbags.
“We have a great brand that has been wildly successful,” said Rick Paterno, CEO of Ash’s parent company, Highline United. Though he declined to reveal specific figures, Paterno noted that Ash’s U.S. business more than doubled in 2013, fueled by a hot wholesale division. “Ash has so much potential to become more of a lifestyle brand. We’re looking to turn it into something bigger than it is today.”
At Shopbop.com, the brand has become “a go-to for the Shopbop customer,” said Stephanie Nelson, the e-tailer’s DMM of accessories. “The Ash design team is very savvy [regarding] the changing tastes of their consumer, and they continue to evolve the collection while maintaining their casual, cool sensibility.”
Ash’s Asian business has soared even higher, according to Paterno. And although the label’s growth in its homeland of Europe, where it launched in 2000, has slowed in a struggling economy, the CEO said Ash is “still coveted and strong — both our retail shops and wholesale business are still solid.”
Despite its success, one of the label’s biggest challenges is addressing the waning sneaker-wedge trend. Ash, priced at $150 to $465, has always produced an array of silhouettes, but it primarily is known for bold, fashionable sneakers. For 2014, a wider swath of looks is in the works. “We are developing a lot of new footwear categories and have had a tremendous reaction both to boots and heavier-outsole influences that come from [combat boot styles], but done in a unique way for Ash,” Paterno said. “There also are some new design ideas in athletic that are different than the wedge sneaker and look really cool.”
Nelson said Shopbop is succeeding in transitioning with its customers. “We have a very healthy business in Ash casual booties, as well as other sneaker styles,” she noted. “Currently, our Shopbop girl is loving the new slip-on sneakers and high-tops.”
In Asia, where the sneaker-wedge trend still reigns supreme, Ash is furthering its own retail expansion via a partnership with C.banner International Holdings Ltd. “The joint venture has allowed us to focus on the product, design and marketing of the brand, while [C.banner is] driving the retail growth. They are well funded and they are making tremendous investments in new stores,” Paterno said. He added the new locations are concept stores created in collaboration with retail design firm Howard Ash Inc. to have the ambience of “a neighborhood haunt, a coffee shop or a place you can go to hang out.”
Meanwhile in the U.S., where Ash has one store in New York, there are no plans to add retail locations for the next season or two, though a potential remodel of the existing space and more doors in key cities could come down the line. “Right now, we are really focused on our wholesale growth in the U.S.” Paterno said.
A new handbag category, which will be unveiled during market week this month, also is intended to help Ash stay relevant. Priced at $165 to $465, the backpacks, totes and cross-body styles were developed under the direction of division president Kenny Horowitz and creative director Laura Satzman, who recently came on board.
To support the efforts, the brand is bowing a spring ’14 marketing plan centered on the idea of “an intimate life.” A print component will feature French model LouLou Robert, an emerging fashion face who also appeared in a Diesel campaign last year.
Ash will incorporate traditional magazine placements, outdoor postings and Taxi TV, plus a social media component centered on Instagram. The comprehensive campaign is a departure from earlier marketing strategies, including 2013 imagery spotlighting Erin Wasson. “[In the past], it was strictly a print campaign,” Paterno said. “We are definitely upping our spend [for 2014].”
NOTE: This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in the Feb. 3, 2014, issue of Footwear News.