Sarah Flint, the luxury footwear designer, has pivoted her business to a direct-to-consumer model. And she has enlisted the help of supermodel Cindy Crawford as an investor and adviser.
After developing her four-year-old footwear business with retailers such as Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s, Stanley Korshak, Shopbop.com, and Level Shoe District in Dubai, Flint has decided to exit those stores and focus entirely on her web site business.
By going directly to the consumer and knocking out the middleman, Flint is lowering her price points by up to 50 percent below traditional retail value. Her footwear, which had previously sold for $495 to $1,200 (with some pieces going as high as $1,600) will now retail from $195 to $700. Flint is using the same Italian factories as she always has, but is now offering the consumer wholesale pricing.
WWD interviewed Sarah Flint, founder and designer, her business partner Veronica Collins, president and chief operating officer, as well as Crawford about these moves.
“My mission for the brand has always been to offer incredible quality and beautiful shoes to women of discerning taste. Traditional distribution models drove up the prices and limited the product’s reach,” said Flint, 29, who was born outside Boston, studied at The New School’s Parsons School of Design and received a degree in accessories design from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “We had amazing retail partners, but we are walking away from that,” she said.
Flint’s exit from department and specialty stores wasn’t because the line wasn’t performing, “Our receipts were up. We were growing, we had just brought on some new partners and had expanded our reach and number of stores with some of our key [locations]. For the most recent season, our business had been growing. It made this decision even harder, especially with how incredible these partners have been,” said Collins, a Wharton MBA whose earlier experience included roles at Shopbop/Amazon, where she was head of EMEA and Global Business Development, and Bain & Co.
Collins explained that after she joined in March, they had a board meeting and talked about the future of the company and how did they want to grow. “The biggest thing that we wanted to do was to be closer and more in touch with our customers. We wanted to collect more data from them,” said Collins, who noted that department and specialty stores “really own their customers, which is one of the amazing benefits of that.”
“We were small enough as a brand that we could actually make this pivot. Our investors and board members were on board and they were supportive,” said Collins.
In addition to her successful modeling career, Crawford has established several businesses, namely Meaningful Beauty and Cindy Crawford Home, and has invested in other brands. She said there were several reasons she wanted to invest in Flint’s business. “First, I fell in love with the shoes, and then I met Sarah. She felt like a great woman to champion. She’s young, she’s innovative, the way she decided to take her business is a very modern way to reach her customers, and I just believed in what she was doing.”
Asked about Flint’s exit from wholesale and selling exclusively on the web, Crawford said, “I think it’s brave. I don’t know if I would have been as brave at her age. When I sat with Sarah and she explained to me what she was doing, her whole thing was she wanted her friends to be able to afford her shoes. Maybe not just one pair, but more than one. She was able to bring the same great quality at a much more affordable price.”
Crawford said she developed her own skin-care line, Meaningful Beauty, very differently, but there was a similar intention for her. “I wanted my sisters and my friends to be able to afford this. Luxury has this kind of connotation of being expensive and it usually is, but my sisters are both teachers and I want them to be able to afford the things that I like,” said Crawford.
Discussing what her contributions will be, Crawford said, “Fortunately I’m in a position now that I can help shine a light on brands or companies that I believe in. She reached out to me because she knew that I wore the shoes.” Crawford said she knew Flint’s father, Jon, who has a venture capital fund and was part of the team that launched Living Proof. He told her to check out his daughter’s shoe line. “I did and I ordered a pair of flats. It was the first pair of flats that I had — I don’t normally wear flats, I usually wear heels or a boots with a heel — which besides being super comfortable, I felt dressed in them. I felt as good as I did in a pair of heels. I ordered a pair of boots, and had three pairs, and finally Jon connected Sarah and me. I felt it was exciting what she was doing, and I felt it was an opportunity to invest in a business that isn’t my own, but I believe in.”
Crawford said Flint views her as a mentor. “A lot of the time we just talk about what my ideas are. I can probably learn from her too since she’s from a different generation. I learn from my kids all the time, the way they use the digital platform is so native to them. We’re talking about doing some philanthropy together. I wear the shoes anyway, so I’m getting photographed in them. I know that those things matter. I’ll pose, but I don’t have a contract. I’m being an investor and on the board, and supporting where it feels authentic and organic,” said Crawford.
Opening their own retail stores is an opportunity for Sarah Flint down the road, and the company will start with pop-up shops and then will open freestanding stores. “We don’t have an exact date yet, but are looking into opportunities in 2018,” said Flint.
One way in which Flint gets close to her customers is by having in-home VIP shopping events around the country. “It’s almost like a trunk show in somebody’s home, but it’s a very curated experience where we bring in sketches and hors d’oeurves and I attend. That’s something we’ve done since Day One of the brand. What’s so incredible about that is that I get that direct customer one-on-one feedback and it’s an incredible grassroots marketing experience as well,’ said Flint.
Collins discussed the rationale behind going direct to the consumer, who she described as an urban professional woman. “The decision was really oriented around us offering an amazing price-value ratio,” she said. “We wanted to be able to offer this incredible quality of artisanal craftsmanship that still exists in a few key factories in Italy to as a many people as possible,” she said. All of Flint’s footwear is handmade in Italy, outside of Milan.
Flint described how she got to know Crawford. “Cindy has been a client of mine since early on. When we started thinking of an ideal partner moving into this new venture, we wanted it to be someone who was really an authentic customer. Since Cindy has been that to me, I sort of approached her because what’s so incredible about her is, not only is she an icon in the fashion industry, but she’s really an incredible businesswoman.”
Flint said they also hope to do a product collaboration with Crawford down the road “although we haven’t narrowed down the details yet.” She won’t appear in any advertising. “We were looking more for strategic help than advertising.” She’s already introduced Flint to some amazing photographers that she’s worked with in the past. “She’ll be helping with things like that which is so important for a young brand. She’ll be hosting some events for us in the future, and we’re looking at finding a charity partner that we can do something with,” said Flint.
The company, which is based in New York, employs eight full-time people including one in Italy — and they need to add more.
This current fall is the last season that Flint’s footwear is being distributed in department and specialty stores. Jennifer Jones, Bloomingdale’s divisional merchandise manager of women’s shoes, observed about Flint’s aesthetic: “Sarah’s love of the art of shoemaking, appreciation of Italian craftsmanship and her dedication to quality sets her apart. As a young designer, Sarah takes an old school approach to the shoe business. She focuses on craftsmanship and creating timeless designs with a modern aesthetic.”
Describing what Flint sees as the strength of the Sarah Flint brand and its point of differentiation, the designer said, “It’s the combination of the fit, the quality and the design is really key. When I started the brand, the most important thing to me was I wanted to create incredibly beautiful, fashionable and elegant shoes but also had that element of fit.”
Collins said they think about it in terms of heel heights, 70-80 percent of assortment is 50 mm. or below (under two inches), and the remainder are 85 mm. (just under three inches). The highest the brand goes is 100 mm. (just about four inches).
Flint has ambitious plans for the company and said her dream for the company is to build the next great American lifestyle brand.
“We’re very focused on doing footwear well right now. When I look to the future of the industry. I’m 29 right now, and I looked at how my friends were shopping, and all that consumer behavior. I feel there’s a good opportunity in the luxury sector to build the next great American luxury brand, but digitally native and direct to consumer. What we’ve seen is a lot more contemporary-type brands doing direct to consumer, but less in the real luxury designer space. I think the next heritage brands of the U.S. will be digitally native and direct to consumer.”
As for where she sees the business in five years, Flint said, “I would see us global, with multiple product categories. The same kind of blend of function and femininity can be applied way beyond footwear. I think we’ll have an incredibly robust web site. We’ll be able to build a loyal customer base. The future is feeling very bright right now.”