NEW YORK — Can small heritage labels that once occupied a niche find success in a crowded athletic market dominated by the big names?
A number of labels, including Etonic, Pony, British Knights and Ewing Athletic, are trying to make waves this year with boutique-focused retail plans and unique marketing initiatives that spotlight their histories.
Etonic is the latest label looking for a new audience. The brand, which was first established in 1876 and had its heydey in the 1970s and ’80s, will relaunch product in six stages. A retro shoe line will debut in June, with performance golf, running and fitness walking to follow for fall. (Basketball and apparel are also in the works.)
The company is targeting specialty stores and independent retailers such as New York’s Atmos and Chicago’s Leaders 1354.
“We’re not trying to compete with the big dogs,” said Etonic CEO Bruce Weisfeld, who bought the brand with Anthony L&S Footwear in 2012 from Lotto Sport Italia.
Justin Davis, manager and buyer of Mint Footwear in Los Angeles, noted the store will pick up Etonic’s running styles. “They will go over well because customers are looking for something with historical value that we can introduce to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, two other heritage brands have begun to carve out shelf space. Ewing, the signature company of former New York Knick Patrick Ewing, has been building a presence since it was reintroduced in 2012.
According to David Goldberg, president of Ewing Athletics, the brand’s success in boutiques can be attributed to maintaining an element of surprise.
“Whether it’s a special-edition release or a regular shoe, we’ll put it on social media channels, then sale of product follows a week or two after,” he said. “We keep it close to the vest. That way consumers aren’t sick of a shoe before it’s even out.”
The brand’s recent limited-edition St. Patrick’s Day release sold out quickly, according to Matt Halfhill, owner of the Nice Kicks store in Austin, Texas. Halfhill credits the lack of mass-market stock for driving demand. “You truly get a lot of shoe for your money,” he said. “For $110, you get a limited-edition style by Patrick Ewing, and the shoe is not absolutely everywhere. You can look down on your feet and see a Hall of Fame basketball legacy.”
For Susan Boyle, owner of the Rime boutique in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ewing’s shoes have resonated with both children and their parents, who might have worn the brand in the past. The label’s retro 33 high-top, which comes in a variety of colorways, has been a top seller for the store, Boyle added.
Pony, which debuted in 1972 and relaunched last summer after many stops and starts, has made collaborations a key part of its strategy this time around. Next month, it will unveil two special styles with trendy boutiques Wish in Atlanta and Atmos.
Wish’s shoes will feature pony hair with reflective touches on the sides, while Atmos will offer suede kicks in “Big Apple” red and “liberty” green.
And in June, the brand will team up with London-based styling agency Art Comes First to create two capsule collections to be sold exclusively at Dover Street Market’s three locations, according to Michael Clark, Pony’s VP and creative director.
Frank Cooke, head buyer of Wish, said the brand has fared well in his store. “People are responding to the [classic] M-100s,” he said. “Those, along with the artistic partnerships are re-establishing Pony as a legitimate fashion brand.”
Thomas Cykana, buyer at Kith in New York, said Pony is on his radar because the brand reached into its archive “in a diverse way,” and he hopes to carry the line this summer in Kith’s Brooklyn store. “The classic styles in the line, like the Topstar Hi and Topstar Lo, have the most potential,” Cykana said. “Those shoes could easily take market share from the Puma Suedes, Adidas Gazelles and the like.”
Founded in 1983 by Jack Schwartz Shoes, British Knights will relaunch May 10. The brand has recruited artist Darren Romanelli as creative director and tapped music-industry talent manager Scooter Braun — best known for making Justin Bieber a household name — to repurpose the brand under the slogan, “Artists are the new athletes.”
“We have collaborations lined up for the next 18 months with names in music, fashion and art,” said David Schwartz, president of British Knights. “In May, we’ll launch in earnest, but for now, we’ve dropped some updated 1990s retro basketball shoes.” Other artistic directives for British Knights include creating a mix tape with hip-hop producer Alchemist, launching social media-friendly ads, reviving archived 1980s and ’90s prints, and utilizing music video product placement.
But Cykana is skeptical. He said British Knights’ collaboration pack of basketball shoes by Romanelli did well in his shop a few weeks ago, but didn’t sell out. “While the shoes look very similar to the classics of the 1980s, they may not resonate with our consumers the way the first-to-market brands [like Ewing] were able to,” he said.
Overall, bigger challenges lie ahead for heritage brands.
“If Nike, Adidas or Puma retros something, a 17-year-old kid most likely buys that,” said Diego Ross, GM and buyer for Leaders 1354. “These shoes all look good, but it’s bigger than throwing shoes on a rapper for legitimacy. Kids should understand why these shoes matter, so marketing [campaigns] should center on the brand’s history. It’s our job to help [young consumers] understand a shoe before throwing it on shelves.”