Last weekend, Aerosoles CEO Alison Bergen hosted an intimate luncheon in East Hampton, N.Y., where editors and influencers dined on vintage china and browsed the brand’s Cottage Shoppe pop-up. The event was a celebration of Aerosoles’ new collaboration with iconic British label Laura Ashley, whose floral patterns and feminine aesthetic have once again become the height of fashion.
Since the debut of the steamy hit Netflix series “Bridgerton” last year, Victorian- and Regency-era styles (dubbed “cottagecore”) have been blowing up on TikTok and Instagram feeds and flying off shelves.
And Bergen, who took over leadership of a struggling Aerosoles business nearly three years ago, couldn’t be happier.
“[This cottagecore trend], everyone’s living in it and it’s quite practical and easy and feminine and universal,” she said. “It just feels right. So we’re incredibly excited. And I think the team did an amazing job of making a story that really did nail that extremely difficult transitional period — what we used to call pre-fall.”
Together, Aerosoles and Laura Ashley created a Gen Z-friendly footwear offering that puts delicate flower prints and embroidery on modern silhouettes, such as gladiator sandals, clogs, court sneakers and lug-sole boots. The vegan collection, which is part of the eco-friendly Aerosoles Aware line, launched on July 13 and some styles are already selling out online.
This collaboration marks something of a revival for Aerosoles.
In September 2017, former parent Aerogroup International Inc. filed for Chapter 11. As a company deeply invested in brick-and-mortar stores — particularly in malls — it suffered from dimming mall traffic, a heavy promotional environment and digital shifts. But the brand was saved from liquidation when New York-based hedge fund Alden Golden Capital LLC acquired its assets for $26.2 million in early 2018.
Later that year, Alden recruited Bergen, whose background included leadership roles at Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors.
She told FN that her task over the past couple of years has been to completely reshape the business. “The first thing, of course, was to set a modern direction for the brand, to think creatively and from a communications perspective and re-envision this universe and the footwear world they’re within, and build a team that could get us there,” Bergen said.
A key part of her strategy was to become fashion-led. “We make shoes that happen to be comfortable. But we’re not a ‘comfort’ footwear brand,” said Bergen. “That’s one of my biggest objectives: changing that mindset directly with consumers.”
Beth Goldstein, accessories and footwear industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc., noted that Aerosoles has successfully evolved its imagery and product into the fashion space, although there’s still opportunity with its comfort roots. “Comfort doesn’t have to be a bad word anymore,” she said. “It’s become a huge priority for the consumer, especially after this past year, and as they emerge, this segment has the opportunity to be the go-to for consumers that want to carry the in-home comfort they’ve become accustomed to back out to the office, to social events, etc.”
Indeed, in recent months, as social calendars have filled back up, Bergen said Aerosoles has seen heightened demand for its party-ready wedges and stacked heels, in addition to its core closed casual styles and sandals.
Flipping the Channels
An even bigger change at Aerosoles was the distribution model. Prior to bankruptcy, Aerosoles had 88 branded stores; now it has none. The brand currently sells on its own website and wholesales to major accounts including Macy’s, Nordstrom.com, Nordstrom Rack, DSW.com, Saks Off Fifth and others.
And thanks to a new partnership, Bergen aims to expand its retail scope further.
Last month, Aerosoles inked a distribution partnership with American Exchange Group to collaborate on the design, branding and strategy for a new collection targeted to the mass and off-price channels, slated to launch for spring ’22.
“The deal with American Exchange is an exciting one because they’re bringing a real volume opportunity back to the business,” said Bergen. “We have a strong history in those distribution channels, but we really did need to take a pause and first kind of reboot the more-premium collection that’s for the more advanced points of distribution. Now we feel like we have enough history and momentum in the main collection to bring an exciting and value-driven collection to those points of distribution.”
Bergen is being careful though to protect the brand image she’s worked so hard to hone.
“There’s this idea that, you know, X brand has an outlet and it’s some of the same styles but they just use cheaper materials, cheaper factories and sacrifice quality in the execution,” said the CEO. “That was not at all something I was willing to accept as a model.” Instead the two design teams will collaborate closely on styles that complement the more-premium line.
For Next Season
Bergen also noted that by working with American Exchange, Aerosoles can better service retailers by offering special makeups — and it can tap into the company’s sourcing scale to explore sustainable manufacturing options.
The brand’s eco-minded Aware collection currently features shoes made with vegan materials, but it is looking to delve deeper. “As we do more EVA soles and constructions, for instance, there are some great materials that are so much cleaner than what is used predominantly in the industry,” Bergen said. “American Exchange, being a manufacturing partner that has great reach, they can help us bring some things into our universe that unit economics would have forced us out of historically.”
In terms of next steps for Aerosoles, Bergen is keen to continue collaborating with like-minded brands, particularly in the ready-to-wear and lifestyle worlds. And she’s not ruling out the return of branded retail stores.
“We’re just beginning that exploration, but it’s a really good time, in my opinion,” said Bergen. “I’m very, very pro-brick-and-mortar, in the right way. And I think having this American Exchange partnership to round out our price points and assortment puts us in a perfect place to go pursue those opportunities.
NPD’s Goldstein pointed out that competition in the fashion footwear category is tough, so executives are wise to get creative and find areas to bolster their business. “As the market recovers and consumers’ shopping habits evolve, brands are making moves that they might not have considered in the past, such as new retail partnerships,” she said. “It makes sense that Aerosoles is focused on this.”