At the Project Las Vegas trade show this month, the fashion industry will get a look at a whole new Greats Brand.
Almost a decade ago, when the footwear company launched, it had a radical concept, to offer minimalist sneakers made in Europe that were sold direct to the consumer online. Today, that model is all too familiar. And that, its new leaders say, has been part of the problem.
“They were really the first to offer this DTC, amazing quality at a price, but fast forward and within a few years, that became a very crowded space,” said brand president Brian Krauss. “All of a sudden that same product was being made all over the world — and not just by high-end companies but everyone from Banana Republic to J.Crew.”
Despite the competition, Greats Brand had annual net sales of $13 million as of June 2019, and a few months later it was acquired by Steven Madden Ltd. But the pandemic brought its share of challenges: Men stopped buying premium sneakers as part of their office wardrobes, and Greats co-founder Ryan Babenzien departed in 2020.
But instead of allowing the label to fade into obscurity, its parent company is investing in a new direction. “Greats continues to be a brand I’m excited about,” said Steve Madden, founder, creative and design chief. “The team we have in place has some good ideas for the future. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s to come.”
Krauss was brought in last August to lead the rebrand. His background includes founding multiple streetwear labels, including the skate brand iPath, which he sold to Timberland in 2007. He’s applying that same entrepreneurial spirit to Greats Brand, though with an importance difference: “This is the first time that I have the opportunity to build a company where I’m not undercapitalized,” he said. “We’re part of a multibillion-dollar company and they are giving me the freedom — and the challenge — to make this happen.”
Essential ingredients of the brand are being preserved, especially its premium product made in Italy and Portugal. But the DTC focus is out the door.
“We needed to go wholesale,” said Krauss. “We needed to have those touch points and visibility to the consumer.” He said the ideal distribution ratio is 70% direct-to-consumer and 30% wholesale, and Greats is targeting better department stores and specialty stores.
But to compete on a retail shoe floor, the brand is also abandoning another longtime trait. “There have never been logos on any of our shoes,” said Krauss. “I learned a long time ago from a guy named Robert Greenberg [at Skechers] — you have to know from 10 feet away what that shoe is.”
Industry veteran Marc Scepi joined the team three months ago as VP of design and has crafted subtle brand identifiers that will help set the shoes apart. Additionally, the brand’s signature Royale style is receiving an update. “We looked at all the comments from over the years and said, OK, here are things we want to change to improve this already great sneaker,” said Scepi, noting he tweaked the last to provide a better fit and is reintroducing OrthoLite insoles to the line.
New styles have been added as well. The premium Charlie and Reign sneakers debuted last month and retail for $230; and a relaxed loafer called the Paros will launch this spring, priced at $179. Greats also is expanding its boot and apparel offerings. “Our goal is to gain new consumers,” said Scepi. “We have our core customers and they’re super loyal, and we don’t want to alienate them. But I think this new look is going to resonate with a slightly younger consumer.”
To reach those customers, Krauss is putting a bigger focus on marketing and PR. A new in-house marketing manager is tasked with building its social media presence. And Krauss is in talks to recruit the label’s first celebrity ambassador. “We’ve had every A-lister wearing our shoes over the years, but we haven’t exploited that and we haven’t really told the story,” he said. “I would like to create more awareness of Greats again.”
New partnerships have already been forged with Surf Lodge in Montauk, N.Y., and Snow Lodge in Aspen, Colo., making the brand part of the staff uniform. And it will have a presence in the Nexus Radio interview booth at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in March.
The exec is also taking the brand overseas by tapping into the Madden network, with plans to launch in a dozen countries including Canada, Mexico, Italy, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.