The footwear industry is never without a fresh crop of emerging brands. At the 2016 FN Summit on Monday in New York, a panel discussion aimed to explore three standout labels making waves — exploring not only how they launched their brands, but what is needed to stand out in today’s competitive field.
Sarah Flint, Ryan and Adam Goldston of APL, and Aurora James of Brother Vellies sat down with Footwear News fashion director Mosha Lundström Halbert. In case the names sound familiar, the three brands landed the cover spot of FN’s Emerging Talent issue last year and have gained serious momentum since then.
The founders discussed their vastly different backstories and visions for their brand.
For Flint — whose collections include elegant pumps worn by the likes of Amal Clooney and Blake Lively — footwear was always on the horizon, even from a young age. “I always knew I wanted to do this. Even in high school, I was working in retail and interning in New York,” she said. “Then I moved to New York to study accessories design and Italy to study pattern-making.”
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When launching her line, the designer saw a gap in the market for more-refined women’s designs. “I saw a space for shoes that were understated, sexy and wearable,” said Flint. “Women need shoes they can wear in their everyday lives.”
Though she’s had a strong start, Flint had to fight for her vision along the way. “When I first met with retailers, they wanted mile-high shoes,” said Flint. “It was great launching with Barneys, and to have that affirmation that my product is something consumers would want.” She originally launched exclusively with the retailer in one door, but is now carried in more than nine of its doors.
Meanwhile, James produces her Brother Vellies men’s and women’s shoes in South Africa, Kenya and Morocco through local artisans. Though she’s gained major buzz for her distinctive point of view, including a 2016 CFDA nomination for The Swarovski Award for Accessory Design, her starting path wasn’t always so clear.
“I had no idea I was going to end up doing this,” said James. “It was only when I was travelling through Africa that I started paying attention to what people were doing. I felt they were losing a lot of the manufacturing opportunities out there, and I wanted to make sure these people still have a way to continue supporting their families.”
A breakout moment for the designer included her win of the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund this year, a reality-show competition that saw James win $300,000 for her label. For James, mentors such as Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenburg, who are both judges on the show, have proven to be key.
“I started my company with $5,000, so a big investment like [the Fashion Fund] is great for the future,” said James. “I don’t have a background in shoes, so having these amazing people to go to for advice is really crucial.”
Similar to Flint, James also had to fight her brand’s mission statement along the way. “A lot of people early on were like, ‘You’re making shoes in Africa? That’s crazy. You should just stop now,’ ” said James. “But for me, that was the whole point.”
As for the Goldston brothers, whose brand APL produces men’s and women’s athletic shoes and has been worn by celebs such as Khloe Kardashian, growing up around the footwear industry obviously had a strong impact.
“Our dad worked at Reebok, L.A. Gear, Converse,” said Ryan. “We were actually the first product testers for the L.A. Gear Lights. We always knew we wanted to create technology-based products.”
Their Load ’N’ Launch technology was so good it was banned by the NBA in 2010. Though it made major headlines, the two brothers used the hurdle as an advantage instead. “We sold nine months of inventory in three days,” said Adam.
Given the athletic world’s current saturation of performance shoes, the Goldston brothers have focused on carving out a niche for themselves. “Our product sits organically in the high-end fashion market,” said Ryan. “People are buying our product because it looks great, but it can also perform however they want it to.”
While all three brands agree they’re still learning new things every day, Ryan Goldston said inexperience can ultimately be used as an asset for emerging brands.
“Experience is valuable, but inexperience is just as valuable,” he said. “It allows us to look at the industry from a different perspective.”