Throughout 2020, Footwear News is marking 75 years of covering the shoe industry. Each day this week, we’ll be looking back at some of the big stories we’ve been following in recent years.
When the debut issue of Footwear News arrived on desks on Oct. 6, 1945, the U.S. was moving forward after the devastations of the Depression and World War II. It was an era of overwhelming optimism, but also uncertainty: Could America and the world rebuild itself once again?
FN — then a weekly newsprint — was a vital resource for shoe companies. It tracked the latest style trends from Europe, analyzed new political developments out of Washington, D.C., and provided insights into the consumer mindset.
Though the industry has changed dramatically, one thing has not: FN remains dedicated to documenting both the boom times and the difficult moments, including this unprecedented period in history.
Since the coronavirus began to disrupt economies early this year in Asia and then later in Europe and the U.S., FN has been tracking the crisis in real time across a variety of platforms.
Covering the Story
On Footwearnews.com, which now attracts more than 6 million unique visitors monthly, readers can find breaking news about the government and industry responses to the pandemic, from bailouts and furloughs to charitable commitments. And in the pages of the print magazine, we offer in-depth insights and analysis about the road ahead.
Meanwhile, FN’s popular social media accounts have turned the spotlight on independent retailers and brands, some of whom are reinventing their business models to stay afloat, while on Instagram Live, celebrities such as J Balvin and Nicky Hilton have shared their “Quarantine Routine.”
And the newest launch, the FN Webinar Series, hosted by Editorial Director Michael Atmore, has become a must-listen for advice from some of the smartest minds in the business.
Together, FN and the shoe industry have weathered numerous trials over the past 75 years, including wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, and multiple recessions.
In August 1965, for instance, editors examined the “Deepening Impact of Vietnam Buildups,” while in February 1974, they covered the economy’s growing “stagflation” in an article titled “Gas shortage braking early spring retail.” Then in March 2003, as the U.S. deployed troops to Iraq and continued the conflict in Afghanistan, one headline predicted “Industry Hunkers Down for War’s Long-Term Impact.”
More recently in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy buffeted the New York tri-state area, staff members came together to produce the annual breast cancer awareness issue, despite the fact that many had no water or electricity in their own homes.
And now, amid the coronavirus shutdown, the editorial team continues to produce high-quality content while quarantined in their homes and scattered across the country.
Through it all, FN has documented the major moments in the footwear industry and the many ways it has changed. Here, we look at a few of the most notable.
Retail: The Only Constant Is Change
Daily headlines bring grim news about retail — a trend that has been accelerated by the global pandemic. JCPenney and Neiman Marcus are facing bankruptcy, as is Lord & Taylor, which last year was sold to Le Tote after shuttering its storied Fifth Avenue flagship in New York. And Macy’s efforts to turn around its slumping business are now in limbo.
Over the decades, the retail sector has undergone multiple transformations.
The mom-and-pop shops, which were so prevalent in the ’40s, gave way in the 1950s and ’60s to the major department stores. Then came big-box discounters like Walmart and Target, followed by mall-based chains such as Foot Locker (founded in 1974) and then dot-com players like Amazon (launched in 1994) and Zappos (in 1999).
The past 10 years have precipitated even more-rapid change. The 2008 financial crash birthed a new generation of price-conscious, tech-savvy consumers, who have forced retailers to adopt more digital commerce and omnichannel strategies.
At the core of omnichannel services, BOPIS has proven to be a valuable addition to retailers’ arsenals — particularly as today’s consumers seek to limit human-to-human interactions amid the coronavirus’ spread. Curbside pickup and other contactless shopping options, which were initially offered for the sake of convenience, could become more useful when retailers open back up, thanks to their health and safety benefits.
The rise of e-commerce has also led to an unexpected return to small-format stores, and that trend will likely continue post-pandemic. Some retailers that offer discretionary goods have already ramped up their efforts to downsize, which not only saves on overhead costs but also allows them to tailor services and stock merchandise that’s relevant to their local consumer base.
Meanwhile, a slew of alternative purchasing options have emerged in recent years, from PayPal and Apple Pay to bitcoin, as well as “buy now, pay later” services like Klarna and Afterpay. (They have catered to millennial and Gen Z consumers or to shoppers who may not have or want to use credit cards.) Customers could begin to embrace digital payments more widely, as some studies suggest that paper bills can be a vehicle for COVID-19.
Luxury: Aspirational by Design
Since the emergence of the luxury market in the 1950s and ’60s, when names like Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Dior and Roger Vivier were dazzling customers with their luxurious creations, FN has helped to promote and discover the latest rising design talents.
For instance, in 1972, an interview with Manolo Blahnik appeared about his then-1-year-old label, called Zapata. This week’s cover star, Christian Louboutin, was profiled in a 1993 issue of FN, to fete the opening of his first U.S. boutique. And FN editors were there to mark the start of another luxury empire in 1991 with the article titled “Choo’s custom shoes draw London’s glitterati.”
Today, the superstars of the luxury world reflect a more diverse range of talent and backgrounds than ever before, including Virgil Abloh, Rihanna, Kerby Jean-Raymond and Amina Muaddi (each of whom has graced the cover of FN).
And the ethos of high-end brands has evolved as well, to reflect the tastes of today’s younger consumers, who increasingly value ethical, sustainable and inclusive fashion over pure aesthetics.
Now, amid the global shutdown, high-end labels have been challenged further, to stay nimble to keep up with wherever retail lands both in the duration of and following the pandemic. For some designers, that has meant scrapping their upcoming collections, introducing new categories and opening their first e-shops.
All of that leads to a larger question: Will fashion go back to its traditional cycle? Designers, especially emerging talents, have long had to adhere to the production schedules of wholesale buyers, instead of looking to more digital-friendly retail models to guide them.
But it’s becoming clear that the winners in this pandemic-forced revolution are brands that have already adapted to the ways younger customers are engaging socially, such as Muaddi and By Far.
And as for the Fashion Week calendar, the summer men’s and couture shows are already canceled, and the spring ’21 season of September and October still looms large and unanswered.
China: Friend and Foe
It was in 1971 that China began to exercise its manufacturing prowess, as the U.S. Commerce Department issued its first warning to American producers that they couldn’t compete on labor costs with foreign suppliers. Reality finally set in in the 1980s, as American manufacturers witnessed double-digit annual declines in footwear produced in the States, and in the following years, more domestic shoemakers closed their doors.
Now, as the largest footwear producer in the world, China plays a key role in the shoe business — representing four out of five pairs of shoes exported by Asian countries, according to the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. (In 2019, it was responsible for 69.2% of U.S. shoe imports, with 1.6 billion pairs.)
But the shoe industry’s heavy reliance on the country could be changing. Even before the coronavirus shut down factories across Asia and halted supply chains earlier this year, the Trump Administration’s ongoing trade war with China had already taken a toll. In 2014, the country’s exports peaked at more than $56 billion, but in just four years, that figure had fallen more than 18% — largely due to a drop in the shipments to the U.S.
Additionally, China’s emergent consumer market, which has been a major enticement for brands (from Prada to Nike), hit a snag last year when Western culture clashed with China’s communist practices, over the protests in Hong Kong.
While COVID-19 has hit pause on those issues for now, it has not put an end to questions among retailers and brands about the need to diversify manufacturing and protect the supply chain against the next global crisis.
— With contributions from Shannon Adducci & Samantha McDonald