“It’s been a roller coaster. Over the last two years, we’ve had growth that others might see over five or 10,” said Dutch designer Elza Wandler.
Since the brand, which launched with bags in 2017, expanded into footwear last summer, Wandler has been one of the few emerging design talents to break through during a time of intense change and challenge for high-end retailers.
“We’re nearly at a 50/50 split between bags and shoes, which is amazing given that we only launched shoes six months ago,” Wandler said. “Adding [the category] helped us to be seen as a brand. It’s made a big difference for us.” The designer’s shoe push was well-timed: Her square-toed Isa mules, pumps and boots resonated with fashion-forward consumers just as the trend took off.
“Wandler has a strong point of view and offers a point of difference that resonates with our client. Elza [creates] product with timeless appeal, and we also love her use of color and design,” said Cassie Smart, the head of womenswear at MatchesFashion.com, which this month debuted a nine-style bridal wedding capsule with the designer.
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Wandler also is stocked in Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-Porter, Neiman Marcus and Mytheresa, among others. The brand experienced growth of about 40% in 2019, doubling its store count to 175 doors. “Wandler became an instant hit and has since become the cult label that filled everyone’s Instagram feed. Almost three years later — now including footwear — the brand continues to be a huge success due to its unique aesthetic and accessible price point,” said Ida Petersson, womenswear buying director at Browns. “Elza continues to set the bar high and has an amazing way of interpreting a customer’s personality and hits the right trends season after season.”
There’s no question that Instagram is helping to fuel the excitement surrounding the brand. Wandler has garnered attention from celebrities such as the Hadid sisters, who both wore the brand’s boots during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris this month. Celine Dion and Priyanka Chopra are also fans. The designer appreciates the power of well-timed Instagram moments, but she’s not banking on buzz alone to build the brand. “I don’t want to depend on ‘It’ styles. It’s a great compliment, but I don’t believe that’s the way to solidify Wandler,” the designer said.
With a focus on designs that will transcend trends, the label is now putting a larger team in place, hiring marketing, PR and logistics managers. “Now that I have built the foundation, I’m ready for the next step,” she said.
Here, the designer talks about the importance of fit, the allure of Amsterdam and how shoes will evolve in 2020.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being one of the new “It” shoe designers?
“The industry is competitive and crowded. Everything is happening faster, and therefore the life cycle of a product is becoming shorter and shorter. What’s a best-seller now may have a short life, and then what? For me, the focus is on designing investment pieces with a distinctive aesthetic and high quality, alongside function and convenience.”
Why do you think your shoes took off so fast?
“When we launched footwear, we had a knowledge of who our customer was since it was a category we launched a year-and-a-half after we started. The way consumers buy is being turned on its head, so I think it’s all about knowing their state of mind. For me, the fit of the shoe and the way it’s structured around a foot is important. Everything is nice in a size 37. When you have a size 39 or 40 — which basically every European woman has — you don’t want your foot to look like a boat. It was important for me to make shoes that make your foot [appear] slim and sexy.”
The handbag market has been challenged during the past year. How are you keeping the momentum going there?
“We launched shoes in a difficult period for brands. But they did so well that it brought the same positivity back into the bag business. It’s very important to stay relevant and to introduce new shapes, so we launched the Georgia [leather shoulder] bag last September. We sold out with all our major partners online.”
As a young brand, how are you making sure retailers stay satisfied?
“Over the past year, we’ve been working on achieving a healthy balance between online and physical stores. As a company, you don’t want to be too dependent on one or the other. I will do specific marketing pushes with each partner, such as exclusive products and capsules. It’s important for stores to have that point of difference. For instance, with Bergdorf Goodman, which has a very high-end luxury clientele, we might do monogramming events with them. Their customers can afford the bag, but it’s the experience that makes it special.”
You released a wedding capsule this month with MatchesFashion. How do these types of projects fit into your overall vision?
“Matches does an amazing job of identifying gaps in the market. It was the right move for the brand. I got married six years ago and it was the best day of my life. Weddings are magical and hold a special place in my heart. To be designing shoes that will carry so many beautiful memories is a dream come true. That’s why I didn’t just focus on creating shoes for brides. This capsule is for the whole party, including bridesmaids and guests.”
How else will you evolve the collection this year?
“I’m doing flats for the first time for pre-fall ’20 — backless slippers. Pre is the perfect season for that because they will come out in June. For the main fall collection, I will do a flat boot. Wandler is about femininity and elegance, so it was right to start with heels. But now I want to translate our core values into a flat as well.”
Sustainability is dominating the fashion conversation. How are you approaching this critical issue?
“We use hides derived from the food industry that are a by-product of the dairy and meat industries. Our leather is mainly of Western European origin, and we never use exotics. We work with our partners, who share our concern for the humane treatment of animals. We keep our production process as local as possible and source everything from the same area. But we still have much to learn about how to change our operations toward reducing the footprint we leave behind, and part of our journey is to become more responsible.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of living and working in Amsterdam rather than one of the fashion capitals?
“Over the past three years, it has become more of a fashion capital. Before, if you got to a restaurant at 9:30 p.m., they would say the kitchen was closing. Now, they ask if you have a reservation on a Monday evening. Lots of hotels and a Soho House have opened, and it’s getting an international vibe. I can also be in Milan, London or Paris in an hour, and in New York in six. I have all the advantages of living in a fashion capital but get to come home to a more relaxing environment. The only disadvantage is that house prices have rocketed.”
What geographic markets are most important for the business?
“The U.K., Germany, Italy and the U.S., which is increasingly becoming a very strong market for us. The sell-through for the shoes is especially good there. My main focus is to get my existing markets right before going into ones I don’t know yet.”
How much pressure do you feel to keep up the momentum?
“Obviously, we all have insecurities about the future, whatever business you’re in. I tend to say, ‘That was amazing. How can we do better?’ My dad, who is a mindfulness trainer, always reminds me [to focus on today]. I also use mindfulness apps to help me.”
What’s your ultimate goal for 2020?
“It’s the same as the years before: staying interesting. The end goal is to make Wandler a brand that is always relevant.”
HER DESIGN PROCESS: “I go to trade shows and make a mood board out of materials. I use art and sculpture farther into my process for the colors and heel shapes. I’m not a big drawer. I prefer to work in 3D, and I make little bags out of paper. With shoes, it’s a similar process. I start with the heel height, which is important because that’s the base of a shoe.”
SOCIAL MEDIA BUZZ: “Instagram can help us become a household name. It’s amazing that the Hadid sisters are so supportive and Celine Dion carried our Luna mini in zebra. I was so happy to see that. But it’s not the main driving force. Some of the women who go to physical stores don’t even have Instagram. They just find the quality of the product appealing.”
THE WANDLER WOMAN: “Me. I always think that if I don’t like it, I shouldn’t be doing it.”
MAKING COMFORTABLE SHOES: “I’m always so happy to get messages from women on Instagram saying ‘I’ve just bought your heels and I’ve worn them for 12 hours without any pain.’ I always screenshot those.”
OPENING STORES: “I’m not in that mindset yet. First, I am looking at pop-ups in London, LA or Miami during events like Frieze or Art Basel. Pop-ups help you see what market is doing best for you.”