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Blinged-up Sandals and Furry Footwear Top US Seasonal Shoe Styles

Dramatically changing weather patterns across North America have ushered in changing shoe preferences, according to many exhibitors and buyers at this year's Metropolitan New York Footwear, Apparel and Accessories Marketplace Expo.

Photo: Naughty Monkey: Stylish, seasonal footwear.
Naughty Monkey: Stylish, seasonal footwear.
Photo: Naughty Monkey: Stylish, seasonal footwear.
Naughty Monkey: Stylish, seasonal footwear.

Chilled by the increasingly cold winters in the US, American buyers are clamouring for warm and waterproof footwear, according to visitors to the Metropolitan New York Footwear, Apparel and Accessories Marketplace Expo. Fur and fringe were the in-style trends for heavier footwear, while 'blinged' up, studded sandals and wedges were the preferred options for the warmer seasons and regions.

While comfort may still be king for some American consumers, style is a must, even for the older generation, with many superannuated consumers now more intent than ever on staying active and young at heart. In other sectors, investment in marketing, whether heavy, savvy, or both, was seen as key for swaying younger customers' preferences for sports shoes.

Overall, weather was front of mind for many visitors to the Expo. With US winters of recent years being colder, longer and affecting normally warmer southern states, consumers have been clamouring for winter wardrobe items that don't just look the part, but stay warm and dry as well.

Doug Hoyt, President of New Jersey-based Atlantic Sports, was representing five brands at the show. He said: "There's fashion in farms, and farms in fashion – something we are seeing writ large with the Muck brand. There is also a function to fashion, and fashion to function, something we are seeing with women's products. Those are two big trends in America. People that didn't have waterproof products missed it last year, especially in the Northeast."

Simply transplanting an agricultural or industrial brand into the high street – even one with great performance provenance – was seen as unlikely to work. Style is a must, even for those consumers anticipating another bitter winter. Citing his experience with the Muck brand, Hoyt said: "We are huge in the farming business, we're huge in the hunting business. You can't take a product like this and put it into Bloomingdale's and think it's going to sell.

"More recently we've become very fashion-oriented, making our boots lightweight with a nice 'vamp'. The evolution of the brand is taking us to warm waterproof leathers with beautiful rubber bottoms."

Jaclyn Ventrella Wormann, an Associate Account Executive with New York's Nine West Group, handles Easy Spirit, a comfort brand aimed at the more mature female customer. Again noting the recent shift towards good cold-weather performance, she said: "I think this winter sealed the deal and established that winters are kind of changing. I did the Atlanta show in February and, for the first time, we were selling our more wintery products.

"We did a lot of booties with fur trim and in suede. We've never really sold that down there. We definitely had new customers in that region coming in looking for that kind of product."

Sonny Roffe, Vice-president and Sales Manager for New York's Rasolli Footwear, broadly agreed. He said: "For fall, we are probably looking at fringes and a lot of fur. This is largely because of the extreme weather we experienced this year."

Aside from the stampede into warmer winter wear, some clear style trends were noticeable at the show. Liz Sinclair, a Representative for the Carlos by Carlos Santana brand from Calares, a Missouri-based footwear manufacturer, was also keenly aware of the fringe trend, as well as several other developments. She said: "For us, a lot of the embellished sandals are selling well. Our wedges have been flying out of the door. We really do well with opened-up wedges.

"For fall, the biggest thing is fringe, we're doing really well with the short booties with fringe. We have a tall shaft fringe boot, too, that we're doing in leather that we're selling a lot of.

"Colour-wise, we're seeing the black and cognac range – our big pop-up colour this year was wine. Embellishment-wise, we're doing studs and chop-outs. Studs are huge for us this year, and we have a couple of boots with corseting up the back that have been very big for us."

According to Rick Kramer, Sales Manager with California's Naughty Monkey, while allowing for some regional variations in taste, certain trends were nationwide. He said: "It seems that the Southeast and the West Coast kind of mirror each other, and the Midwest and the Northeast kind of mirror each other too. A lot of the styling that we are doing – the embellishing – it's crossing over, going into both areas. Like the fringe, it's doing very well everywhere."

Photo: Muck: Putting the farm in to fashion.
Muck: Putting the farm in to fashion.
Photo: Muck: Putting the farm in to fashion.
Muck: Putting the farm in to fashion.
Photo: Laforst: Workwear with a twist.
Laforst: Workwear with a twist.
Photo: Laforst: Workwear with a twist.
Laforst: Workwear with a twist.

The winter styling trend was also commented on by Cynthia Gonzalez, an Account Executive with California's Groove Footwear. She said: "For women, anything with a lug sole is selling very well. If you're going a little dressier in a bootie, they want the lug bottom, so that continues to do well. Waterproof and snow boots are also very strong for us. In the men's lines, the whole military and combat look continues to be popular."

According to several exhibitors at the show, buyers remained reluctant to spend, despite the generally improving economy. Highlighting this, Gonzalez said: "I think they're still a little hesitant. They don't want to be stuck with inventory.

"They're buying closer to season, as opposed to giving us the order a couple of months in advance. I hope that, in a year or so, they'll have the confidence to buy deeper. Right now, though, they are still buying light. They don't want to take a risk."

Overall, Wormann, was cautiously optimistic about the market. She said: "It looks like it's warming up. Customers are definitely responding to things that are new and fresh. They have a little bit of money to spend and want to spend that money on things that they don't already have in their closet.

"I think our customer is now thinking: 'It has to be an attractive shoe first, then it has to be comfortable.' The thinking 10 years ago was just that it had to be comfortable."

Niche targetting is, of course, key to success in this sector, whether in terms of functionality, fashion or both. Although overshadowed by the more stylish sectors of the market, workwear shoes represent a substantial part of the total spend in the US, not least because of the constant wear required for some occupations.

Rich Maider, a Partner at Laforst, a New Jersey-based workwear shoe specialist, said: "About 40% of the workforce in America needs to wear specialised footwear, so it's a huge market.

"They want a shoe that's going to last them at least for five months before any corrosive chemicals eat away at the soles. Cleaning staff and restaurant workers go through their shoes rapidly."

Despite value and durability being stronger drivers in workwear, styling still plays an important role, with regional preferences also influencing purchase patterns. Expanding on this, Maider said: "LA, the West Coast, the South – they go for more of the 'skippy' looks, more of the wedge looks. In the New York area, it's more traditional – more Oxfords and sneakers. Sneakers have been going extremely well this year."

At the more label-sensitive end of the industry, sports shoes represent a true marketing battleground. This year, a number of challenger brands have deliberately set out to take on the industry's giants, notably Nike and Adidas.

One US brand taking an innovative approach to reaching the all-important younger buyer was New York's K-Swiss. The company's Board of Directors brand ambassador initiative saw 100 young style-leaders recruited to promote its latest range through social and other media. Explaining the thinking, Chris McGerigle, the company's Northeast Key Account Manager, said: "Right now we have a focus on the older market, largely because we went quiet for about five years and we lost the consumer. So, as we come back, we are bringing in some retro products. We are staying true to our DNA, but we are growing into some more fashionable styles and offering cleaner silhouettes."

Another sporting shoe line investing heavily in marketing in the US is 361, a Chinese brand represented by Atlantic Sports. Hoyt said: "This is the number two brand in China. It has just launched in the US. There's a big initiative. It has a wonderful product – one of its shoes has been rated the number one fitness shoe in America by Fitness magazine.

"They recognise that, in order for them to be a global brand, they need to be very significant outside of China, particularly in the US. They are investing very heavily in personnel and they've hired us for the New York market."

Hoyt was also clear on the importance of having control over which channels a brand is sold through, as well as how it's marketed, especially in terms of e-commerce He said: "At present, 361 is not on Amazon. The company won't allow it. Not even through a retailer. Bloomingdale's wanted to go on Amazon and 361 wouldn't let them do it.

"When it comes to Muck, it has a minimum advertised price and it is enforced very religiously – if you're off-price, you're shut down. Someday, people are going to realise you can't keep 'nickel and diming' everybody, because then you don't make any money. Companies won't make a good product for you, they don't stay in business, and then you don't have shoes to sell."

Photo: 361: The Chinese sporting shoe challenging the global brands.
361: The Chinese sporting shoe challenging the global brands.
Photo: 361: The Chinese sporting shoe challenging the global brands.
361: The Chinese sporting shoe challenging the global brands.

Organised by the Boot and Shoe Travelers Association of New York, the Metropolitan New York Footwear, Apparel and Accessories Marketplace Expo was held at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center on 23-24 March. The event saw more than 150 exhibitors present their wares to buyers from across the US northeast and beyond.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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