After cornering the market on moderately priced sheepskin footwear, Bearpaw founder Tom Romeo was ready for his next move.
Last year, after nearly two decades in business, the entrepreneur introduced Luxe De León, a premium fashion brand made in Mexico. He also assumed the role of retailer with the acquisition of the Flip Flop Shops franchise in a move to create a more seasonless business.
According to John Pierce, president of Bearpaw’s parent company, Romeo and Juliette Inc., the fall ’18 launch of Luxe De León gave the Citrus Heights, Calif.-based company entry into higher-end stores.
“About  months ago, Tom started talking about expanding Bearpaw into a premium brand,” said Pierce, who foresaw the challenges of elevating the price points of a mainstream label. Instead, management decided to start from scratch and present Luxe De León as a standalone line of boots and sandals for women and men, retailing for $120 to $270.
In addition to their distinct price points, the brands target a variety of customers. “Luxe De León is for a fashionista with more disposable income,” said Pierce, adding that the Bearpaw consumer wants branded product at a great value.
While each label operates independently, the Luxe De León sales force is taking advantage of Bearpaw’s reputation. “It goes a long way since [retailers] know there’s money behind the launch,” said Pierce. “We have a [solid] reputation and are knowledgeable.”
So far, independents such as Orva, Scheel’s and Rogan Shoes have picked up the new label. According to Rick Jenkins, president and GMM of Orva, located on New York’s Upper East Side, the brand appeals to its upscale clientele. “Luxe De León is a luxury line for us and what our consumer is looking for,” said Jenkins, noting that the store also carries Bearpaw on its e-commerce site. “The company has been a good partner, and our business has evolved.”
Meanwhile, Romeo also is focused on Flip Flop Shops, the string of 59 franchised stores that he acquired in June from Cherokee Global Brands. “The Bearpaw sheepskin boot is the flip-flop of winter,”
Romeo said of the synergy between the two businesses. “The alliance between Flip Flop Shops and Bearpaw will create the perfect balance of seasonal products and styles for consumers to enjoy year-round.”
Since the ownership change, a handful of Flip Flop Shops franchisees have added Bearpaw’s fall product, and its spring goods will also be available. However, Edna de De Pamphilis, global marketing director for Bearpaw, pointed out that each store determines its own product mix.
Despite the issues of moving into new fashion territory, the company saw double-digit growth in 2018, according to Pierce, who expects business to be up again this year.
Contributing to strong sales was the fall ’18 addition of boots in wide widths, an untapped market in the sheepskin arena. “It’s gone extremely well,” said the resident. Additional silhouettes have been added for fall ’19.
To further distinguish itself in the winter category, Bearpaw is introducing Hiber Tech, 200 grams of foil-backed insulation built into the lining of its most popular men’s, women’s and kids’ boots.
The company has faced challenges, though, with its spring collection, which was introduced five years ago. “It’s still a building process and will take some time,” said Pierce. “There’s more competition for spring sandals than shearling boots.”
And he admitted that Bearpaw’s more fashion-driven fall product, such as heels and wedges, hasn’t been an easy sell, either. “When your buying dollars are short, you buy what you know you can sell,” he said of the retail reception.
But Bearpaw hasn’t relied solely on footwear to grow. It also has developed a stronger fashion direction for its range of accessories, including hats, scarves and blankets. “They’ve been a nice addition to the boots,” said Sheila Evans, co-owner of Scioto Shoe Mart in Portsmouth, Ohio. “It gives a whole picture to the brand.”
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