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Foot Notes on Regional Preferences from the New York Shoe Expo

While fashion-forward New Yorkers want clean, stylish footwear, southern buyers prefer substantially more bedazzle for their buck, and West Coast folk favour a somewhat relaxed look, according to exhibitors at the New York Shoe Expo.

Photo: Off the wall: Innovative new footwear fashion on display.
Off the wall: Innovative new footwear fashion on display.
Photo: Off the wall: Innovative new footwear fashion on display.
Off the wall: Innovative new footwear fashion on display.

With summer coming late to the US northern states, sandals and flip-flops were everywhere at this year's New York Shoe Expo, an event organised by the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY). As well as style and comfort, foot health emerged as an increasingly important consideration for US consumers, with several exhibitors keen to trade on the posture-improving aspects of their footwear.

Typically, New Yorkers are renowned for their fast-paced, go-getter attitude, something that is reflected in their fashion-forward tastes. Succinctly summing up the kind of product that goes over well in the city, Steven Pedroza, Credit Manager for New York State-based Laurevan Shoe, said: "Here it has to be clunky and pointy. A particular type of shoe goes down well in New York, but nowhere else in the country.

"An example here would be our wooden heel shoe. It's popular here, but it doesn't work in Florida, partly because of the high number of hardwood floors in the region. I have a New York guy that buys 30 or 40 pairs a week from us and he is selling out. In Florida, you would be lucky to sell 40 pairs a year. Something flatter and more open usually works better there."

Such regional differences have a major impact on how major national retailers structure their product mix, tailoring it to different local preferences across the US. Kelly Fox, an Account Executive for the New Hampshire-based Seven Dials brand, said: "I used to be a buyer for Macy's. You can't just buy one product and hope that it sells everywhere.

"There they have a strategy called My Macy's and a team that helps you to buy for a particular area. Across the country, customers are different, the weather is different, the demographics are different and the economic situation is different.

"Generally New York is a little bit more fashion-forward, but we also have so many people here and it is so diverse that you could sell anything in New York. It's definitely different to the Midwest, which tends to be a little bit girl-next-door."

Jaclyn Cohen, Sales and Marketing Representative for the New York-based Adrianna Papell brand, also noted the clear preferences in America's leading city, saying: "The New York market is always a little bit more sophisticated. Anything black always works well here. Down south we find sexier heel heights and anything a little more jewelled and bedazzled always sells better.

"New York customers wear classic pumps to work. If you go down south, the weather is a factor, so people are wearing more open-toed, strappy shoes."

This year, the weather also had an impact on the overall content of the event. With summer coming late to the northern states of the US, sandals were everywhere at the show. This saw a number of exhibitors commenting that buyers seemed unwilling to plan ahead and reluctant to place orders in anticipation of changing conditions. Instead, they preferred to react when temperatures shifted, placing pressure on suppliers to change stock fast.

Among the many sandals exhibitors in attendance, New Jersey-based Pedi Licious Footwear was there largely on account of the innovative patented design of its Pedi-Flop product. Explaining the thinking behind this particular shoe, Premise DuSharme, the Founder of the business, said: "Wearing regular flip-flops is damaging to your toes and their alignment.

"With a building, you have to make sure that the foundation is stable, otherwise it will collapse. It's the same with footwear. Your calf muscles and hip muscles can all start to hurt if you wear flat, un-arched shoes. This is because your ankles tend to tilt inwards.

"The Pedi-Flop is a four-prong toe-separating flip-flop with an arch support. It not only helps when women go to get pedicures, it also properly aligns your toes."

Photo: Show debutante: The Victoria range.
Show debutante: The Victoria range.
Photo: Show debutante: The Victoria range.
Show debutante: The Victoria range.
Photo: Pedi-Flop: Tailored for toe-friendliness.
Pedi-Flop: Tailored for toe-friendliness.
Photo: Pedi-Flop: Tailored for toe-friendliness.
Pedi-Flop: Tailored for toe-friendliness.

DuSharme has a clear target market in mind and one that plays to the Pedi-Flop's key benefits. She said: "Typically, women aged 18 to 55 get pedicures two to three times a month. When they get their pedicures done, they have little paper towels between the toes. When we explain to them that you can just wear something similar all day long, and you can leave the salon with your toes painted, they love that as well."

Although inspired by the pedicure experience, the product has wider appeal, largely on account of its foot health benefits. Highlighting this, DuSharme said: "Guys don't tend to get pedicures. For them, the appeal would just be the health benefits of separating their toes and the way it feels. It's just like walking on the beach and the sand going between your toes. It feels great."

Another sandal company with an interesting backstory was Israel's Jerusalem Sandals. Kfir Matalon, the company's US Representative, said: "In our business, Israelis and Palestinians collaborate. All of our sandals are made by skilled craftsmen in the east of Jerusalem, inside the Palestinian territories. It is one of the very few companies that is making sandals inside the West Bank.

"All of our products are made from natural leather with a vegetable stain, so no allergens or chemicals are used. Once you start wearing the sandals, they begin to mould to the contours of your feet."

Matalon, too, was well aware of the varying tastes in evidence across the US, his primary market. He said: "Los Angeles people are more laid back, so it is not very direct. You have to schmooze. In New York, people are far more direct and it's faster. Here, we sell very simple stuff, while, in Los Angeles, they like more fancy stuff, with Swarovski crystals on etc."

Although dominated by women's footwear, there was still a significant number of male-oriented brands in evidence at this year's event, most notably Missouri's Testosterone Shoes range. Explaining the differences between the sectors, Suzanne Lorenz, the brand's New York Representative, said: "The men's business is a little tricky. It's slower and less fashion-focussed than the women's market, but it is now starting to trend more towards fashion."

According to Lorenz, as well as being less trend-driven than female footwear, men's shoe choices show fewer regional variations. She said: "Initially, we were a little wary about selling our heavier boots in the south. Now, though, our independent retailers in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina are selling out of fur-lined boots in December and January. The men's market turns out not to be quite as regionally varied as we had anticipated."

While men's footwear may be less sensitive to changing fashions than women's, some products still do notably better than others. Acknowledging this, Lorenz said: "Our best-seller is a three-eyed chukka boot. We make the back quarter suede in contrast to the leather material used for the remainder. For our suede boots, the contrast is in leather, creating something of a special detail. The welt is also stitched in different colours, ensuring it stands out."

Interestingly, women's shoes with a menswear feel was something that Adrianna Papell was finding success with. Cohen said: "Menswear is on trend. This is the second year that we have been running this particular silhouette. It has become almost as important to us as our dress shoe business."

A number of other styles currently finding success were highlighted by Fox. She said: "There are some trends that are now happening across the board. Spring booties, for instance, have become really important, everyone is wearing sneakers. The riding boot is kind of dead, though it may not be in the middle of the country.

"Any flats or lace-up boots are good. People are now dressing much more casually than they have in the past. We also have a good feeling about block heels. This year, we have a huge block heel collection."

Helen Yue, a Sales Executive with California's Westwood Footwear, backed Fox's hunches, saying: "This year our wedges are selling well, as are some of our flats."

Making its US debut at the show was the Victoria brand, a range manufactured by Spain's Calzados Nuevo Milenio. According to Ana Perez Sevilla, the company's International Sales Manager, certain elements of its range were finding particular favour in New York. She said "We have had a high level of interest in our younger-oriented shoes. Platforms in shiny material are particularly in demand. Our totally white look is strong, too, and has had a great reception.".

Photo: The New York Shoe Expo 2016: Instep with industry trends.
The New York Shoe Expo 2016: Instep with industry trends.
Photo: The New York Shoe Expo 2016: Instep with industry trends.
The New York Shoe Expo 2016: Instep with industry trends.

The Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) New York Shoe Expo 2016 was held at the Hilton Midtown Manhattan from 7-9 June.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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