By  on March 4, 2008

Geox, Italy's largest footwear brand, has just given itself a tall order.

"We want our business to be 50 percent footwear and 50 percent apparel," said Geox founder and chief executive Mario Moretti Polegato.

The company's apparel collection is small — primarily coats, parkas and casual jackets — representing 7 percent, or about $80 million, of the company's total sales of $1.16 billion.

Yet Polegato said the range will widen and is confident that, like Gucci, Nike, Prada, Ferragamo, Kenneth Cole and other brands that have grown beyond their roots in footwear, Geox can be a big apparel player.

"We didn't find it very difficult to introduce the apparel on the market because when we did, Geox already was an established brand, with a developed chain and distribution. We made sure the best know-how was introduced to our company," which started apparel production three years ago. "We have a fully running apparel department with product managers, quality supervisors, designers and [research and development] that focuses exclusively on apparel."

Blossoming into a full-fledged fashion brand from a footing in footwear doesn't come easy, as many fashion executives have learned.

"Even today, people know Ferragamo for its shoes and luxury leather goods," said Vincent Ottomanelli, president of Ferragamo USA Inc. "There are still folks out there who don't realize we do ready-to-wear and outerwear."

It's not easy to get all the pistons firing, he noted, with Ferragamo men's wear outselling women's lately. The company is hoping to see progress in women's soon. It's also launching watches this summer, and possibly a public offering this year. Nike, too, struggled with women's apparel initially partly because men's looks formed the basis for women's items and, at one time, the firm was considered "a shoe company trying to make clothes," as an analyst once said.

"When you start reaching out into areas that you're not specialized in, greater risks arise. But if you are in a growth surge and want to open more retail stores, part of the game is to maximize productivity in each store," Ottomanelli explained, adding that developers merchandising malls look for tenants with rising productivity. That's attained by selling more of the same category, or selling additional categories to increase units per transactions and encourage customers to wardrobe themselves in the store, rather than just shopping for one type of item.

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