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Vasque President Bryce Wernsman on Reducing SKUs, Sustainable Boots and Talking Business While Riding Bikes With Co-Workers

A refresh is underway at Vasque.

The outdoor brand — which is owned by Red Wing Shoe Co. — has had a challenging two years, marked by inventory woes and a product range with far too many SKUs. Bryce Wernsman, a Red Wing Shoe Co. veteran, was hired as president of Vasque in September 2020 to right the ship.

Now, as the brand enters a new chapter, Vasque has made key hires to ensure the future is bright. In June 2021, the company tapped Scott Kendall as its product designer, who has been tasked with modernizing its design language and increasing the use of sustainable materials. Also, Jessica Sandrin was hired in July of this year as product merchant to drive its merchandising strategy and Brandon Gough was brought on in September to fill the newly created North American sales manager role.

What’s more, Vasque revealed the newest Breeze at the start of this month, the latest look in the brand’s hiking boot franchise. This version of the Breeze, which is available now for $160, is the brand’s most sustainable boot to date. For starters, the midsole is made with sugarcane and it also features 100% recycled webbing and its new waterproofing tech, VasqueDry, which is made from 25% polyester.

Below, Wernsman reveals insights into Vasque’s game plan for 2023 and why the Breeze is a sign of things to come from the brand.

How would you describe Vasque’s health when you assumed control, and where are you now? 

“We had the constraints of COVID, had questions about how to you keep retail open and then we actually had to stop shipping shoes for four or five month period. We got back up and running, and then our factories shut down. But this whole time, we were able to hang on the fact we have been around a long time and we’re not going to be the ones that dropped the ball. We’re going to navigate this and we’re going to get through it. That’s when we took a step back and we were able to look at the bigger picture. We said we’re going to make sure that come hell or high water, when all of this noise goes away, we’re going to be in a position to win. We took what we’re trying to do for our consumers to heart, and that is go outside, get away from all of this, let yourself be free and clear of the noise and everything that’s going on — and it worked for us. Things like getting together and going on a hike to talk about business really mattered — and we carry that forward. [Marketing director] Joe [Peters] and I get on our bikes and go on a ride and talk about business versus sitting here on the computer.”

Supply chain constraints forced Vasque to shut down its e-commerce platform for almost a year. What is the status of your website and inventory today?

“We turned off the transactional capabilities of Vasque.com in October of 2021 as we forecasted inventory to be challenging into the fall ’22 season. We’re a brand built from our wholesale partners, so we thought it only right to prioritize the partners that have supported us for so many years through a challenging time by turning off our transactional capability and instead diverting our consumers to their local retail store through an enhanced store locator experience powered by Locally. We turned the website’s transactional capabilities back on in September as we’ve worked collaboratively with our suppliers and our own supply chain to get back into a healthier inventory position which has allowed us to first and foremost fulfill our orders to retailers and additionally, allow us to allocate inventory back to the site.”

How did Vasque work to reinvent or reimagine itself during this time of COVID and supply chain constraints?

“In the midst of all of that, the [parent] company reinvigorated their desire to see success from this brand and to build a long-term perspective built on the history of the brand. So a couple things happened. One, we completely restructured how our brand sits within the framework of Red Wing Shoe Co. We were an independent brand, we ran in a silo on our own, Vasque was its own thing. We’ve since integrated our product and our marketing, our data analytics, everything into the broader Red Wing Shoe Co. community. And we’ve got an incredibly talented pool of product developers, merchants, supply chain — you name it, there’s people doing jobs all over the place that we now have access to. We’re now fully integrated into the Red Wing Shoe Co. machine. Structurally, we are in a much better position for success — but we know we can’t keep doing the same things we had always done. Let’s reset this thing, let’s figure out where we want to go.

How did you strengthen your relationships with consumers? 

[Red Wing Shoe Co. president] Allison [Gettings] had led some work to redefine our brand purpose, so we picked that up and said it’s great, it’s perfect, now let’s go do something with it. We took a look at our customers, our key accounts, wholesale partners, dot-com partners, branded accounts, dealers, mom-and-pop shops, everybody, and we we said, ‘What do they need to succeed from Vasque? How can we be a better partner to them? How do we make sure that we’ve got the right product going into those stores at the right time for the consumers that we’re going after?’ And the final piece of that puzzle is how do we tell that story from a brand and marketing standpoint? We’ve completely rewritten that as well. We took a couple years to redefine the entire foundation of this business and get ready to bring it to market when the timing was right.”

Vasque Breeze
The new Vasque Breeze.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Vasque

Vasque recently launched a new version of the Breeze, which has long been the brand’s statement boot. What makes this launch particularly impactful?

“Since its original launch in 2004, the Breeze has been our best-selling hiking boot. Our retail partners and consumers who have come to know and trust this boot absolutely love it and have come back to it time and time again. When we replaced the Breeze 3 with the now discontinued Breeze AT in 2020 we missed the mark, and our retailers and consumers told us so. Bringing the Breeze back is a huge moment for our brand because it represents a renewed promise to them. A promise that we are listening to their needs and wants, and that we are committed to building and innovating on franchises, like the Breeze, that will stand the test of time for many years to come.”

What makes this new Breeze special?

“We didn’t just bring the Breeze back. We brought it back to be more relevant, affordable and sustainable for today’s outdoor enthusiast. It’s packed with all the proven comfort and performance of its predecessors with a lighter weight, more modern design featuring sustainable materials throughout. This is by far the most sustainably built boot we’ve ever made — all for just $160. The Breeze is leading the way for Vasque to create even more sustainably built products into the future.”

Vasque Breeze
Vasque Breeze.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Vasque

Although you’ve debuted a new product, you’ve also reduced the Vasque product offering by 60%. What was behind this decision?

“We knew that we had too many products in the portfolio. We were somewhere around 150-plus styles and it was just too many. We were extending equity on really good products to try to sell new products that just weren’t really hitting. The first thing we did is we pulled it back and we said we’re going to build franchises. We came up a series of franchises that we can build on, so if you’re doing business with Vasque, if you’re looking at our assortment, we’ve got 30 styles for you right now but those 30 styles sit across seven families that we know sell. Consumers love them. They’re tried and true, they’re high volume and we’re selling more of them than we ever sold of all the other stuff combined. Those 30 styles represent more volume today than the 150 styles did a year and a half, two years ago.”

How will the revamped game plan play out in the coming months?

“When we went back and thought about how we build this business for the future, we knew that we needed more than just hikers. The hikers’ business, that’s our bread and butter, we’ve been doing that since day one. The next group of consumers are those we call the everyday outdoor consumer. These are people that want to go on a walk around the neighborhood, they want to go on a hike at their local park, but they’re probably doing it in athleisure and they’re probably going to do it for an hour or two at a time. It’s unlikely they’re going to go on a weekend trip or a week-long trip. They want versatile footwear that looks good with athleisure to be able to wear on the trail as well as the coffee shop and the grocery store. We’ve had to develop messaging that attracts those two consumer groups together. The reality is we’re not trying to create two brands. We’re still one brand. We’ve done an awesome job of identifying a new idea to be able to communicate to hikers as well as those that are just trying to get outside every day that encourages participation in the outdoor space. We’ve got a concept that we’re really excited about to launch this fall.”

Vasque Breeze
Vasque Breeze.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Vasque

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