Designer John Varvatos kicked off the 2011 Footwear News CEO Summit on a personal note.

As he recounted his childhood in Detroit and career rise at Ralph Lauren — first in sales and later in design — Varvatos said he decided to be a designer at 29. After a short stint at Cole Haan, a longer run at Calvin Klein and a return to Ralph Lauren, he started his label in 2000 with a focus on originality.

“[Back then], there was a lot of sameness,” he said. “And I thought, ‘This is the time for someone to do something different.’ I wanted to create a lifestyle brand, something with personality.”

And Varvatos said innovation continues to be critical to moving the company forward. “Our mantra is to create new designs and never copy,” he said.

Through it all, he added, shoes have been key to building his brand. In fact, shoes now account for 31 percent of the total business, while just three years ago, that number was 14 percent. And Varvatos just renewed his collaboration with Converse for another five years.

Footwear debuted with the launch of the label and immediately won shelf space at Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. “I love shoes,” Varvatos said. “When we launched our first collection, I felt I couldn’t do it without shoes. I had to have my own handwriting.”

In recent years, overcoming the recession has been a major challenge, he said, pointing to an even bigger need for the brand to offer customers value and excitement.

“We had to stay the course,” he said. “You can go down [in price], but then you can never go back up. We have to push for innovation. Product is king.”

The designer said 2010 was a record year for the company in terms of revenue and profits. Retail comps were up by 24 percent, and wholesale increased 40 percent.

Now the company is looking at new ways to market itself, including streaming music on its website and offering tickets to concerts before they are available anywhere else. And with a partner in Korea, the firm is considering freestanding retail there.

So where does Varvatos want the brand to go? “We want it to go up,” he said. “We don’t have a polo player or an alligator [logo], and I don’t want one. But I want retail and wholesale [to continue to succeed].

“We are hell bent on creating an experience,” he added. “In our 11th year, we feel like we are just getting started.”

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