COLE HAAN STEPS UP REPERTOIRE
Byline: Marc Karimzadeh / Leonard McCants
NEW YORK — By 2010, Cole Haan executives expect the brand to be a billion-dollar player in the luxury leather apparel and accessories business.
They said the recent success of new categories, like its younger-skewing footwear with Nike Air technology, small leather goods and outerwear, make sales volume of that level realistically attainable. Famous for its footwear, Cole Haan now wants to be a multifaceted lifestyle brand capturing American casual luxury consumers.
With that aim, when guests enter the New York showroom tonight for a preview of the fall line, they will find all of its categories — from handbags to coats — presented in a complete and cohesive collection for the first time.
Matt Rubel, chairman and chief executive officer, said the mission was to take an established American company and “refurbish it in a way that is modern and relevant to today’s affluent young consumer.” Cole Haan began in Chicago in 1928 as a men’s footwear label created by Trafton Cole and Eddie Haan, and was purchased by Nike Inc. in 1988.
But reinvigorating a 73-year-old name, Rubel said, isn’t just about adding a cute leather belt or a shearling coat. The company has also slashed distribution by 30 percent. By eliminating its peripheral retail presence, it has decreased the number of doors from 1,800 in 1999 to its current 1,200. Cole Haan will now focus mainly on larger upscale department stores with a program to redirect certain styles to individual stores based on their customer profiles.
Meanwhile, Cole Haan is adding several new boutiques nationally and internationally. The company opened its first store in November in Tokyo, which Rubel said is exceeding expectations despite a sluggish Japanese economy, and the search is on for suitable sites in London.
There are 21 signature stores in the U.S. and Canada. This summer, a branch is expected to open in East Hampton, N.Y. and, in September, Cole Haan will open a new worldwide flagship in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. The flagship will introduce a new retail concept, which aims to give customers an alternative to the sleek chrome-and-stone trend of the Nineties, said Gordon Thompson, Cole Haan’s executive vice president and creative director.
Thompson said the look will combine Fifties’ modernist architecture with details such as wood jointers and an eclectic collection of vintage furniture from designers such as George Nelson and Paul Lazlo.
“When I started thinking about the Cole Haan look, I was interested in bringing a sense of home to the store,” he said. “If you walk down Fifth Avenue, there are a few too many [stores] that look alike, but Cole Haan is a lot warmer.”
Additionally, Cole Haan which has its international headquarters in Yarmouth, Maine, has streamlined its extensive product line and divided it into three distinct lifestyle segments: city, country and studio, each with its own functional array of products and styles.
“We’ve maintained the quality, while adding aspirational, sexiness and a fashionable approach to the product,” Rubel said in a phone interview from a Brazilian manufacturing center where the company makes some of its products.
While incorporating this new vision, the company has not forsaken its traditional roots. The new categories take an artisanal attitude, often featuring visible hand stitching on its small leather goods and luxurious amenities, like fur linings in its outerwear.
The coat collection, under license with G-III Apparel Group, will make a more aggressive rollout for fall after its initial introduction last year at Cole Haan stores and select retailers. The line should represent about 5 percent on a door-for-door basis, Rubel said, although it is not in available in all doors.
The company had sales of about $400 million at retail last year and Rubel said the plan is to grow the company by about 18 to 20 percent annually.
“If you look at Cole Haan as a leather house, outerwear is a natural fit,” Thompson said in a phone interview from his home in Hawaii. “The leather outerwear collection was also easy to translate.”
Women’s small leather goods, produced in-house, continue to play an important role in the company’s future. Rubel said they currently account for only about 3.5 percent of Cole Haan’s total volume and the company projects them to grow to 10 percent in the next five years.
The accessories, which include not just handbags but also wallets and personal digital assistant cases, feature Cole Haan’s simple detailing, such as the hand-stitched, intertwined C and H logo reminiscent of a circle and square logo.
“In the accessories, we take more literal inspirations from footwear,” Thompson said. “Handbags hold the same passion for women as shoes do.”
Rubel said the company is close to inking a deal for a watch collection, which is expected to bow within the next 12 months. Although he declined to elaborate on the details of the deal, he said the watches are likely to be Swiss made. Thompson said the key focus will be travel, with analog and digital combinations that display many times zones, with design cues taken from 1960s Porsche and BMW cars.
As part of its program to incorporate all of its categories, the company went to ad agency Lloyd & Co. for a campaign that makes the product the star of the show, rather than beautiful models. The faces are concealed in the ads, allowing consumers to project themselves into situations, from a family reclining on their yacht, to an intimate couple celebrating on a wooden deck by a pool.
“There is a certain mystery behind it,” Thompson said. “People will know they are part of this world and don’t need to see faces.”