NEW YORK — Cole Haan wants to emphasize its emotional and feminine side.
Where once the 75-year-old brand was considered a traditional, somewhat sleepy, men’s footwear business, Matt Rubel, chairman and chief executive officer, has turned the company in a new direction, and now, the momentum of its upscale women’s business is increasingly the driving force at the Nike Inc.-owned firm.
Rubel said this is a result of bringing an emotional rather than rational perspective to the overall design, as well as building the women’s handbag and outerwear segments, while successfully launching the sub-brand, G-Series, which is projected to surpass Cole Haan’s volume in the next five years. Rubel declined to give sales information, but industry sources estimated Cole Haan’s business at more than $300 million in wholesale and retail.
“We were a men’s fine leather goods company that stood for quality and tradition,” said Rubel, who took the helm at Cole Haan in 1999. “We looked at the company, and evolved it into a women’s and a men’s company through branding and product, and by understanding the dynamics of the luxury accessories market, with fine materials and reachable pricing.”
Gordon Thompson, executive vice president and creative director, said, “Cole Haan had great ingredients, but a lousy recipe…it’s been a very rational brand without a lot of emotion. The last three years have been devoted to reengineering, and reintroducing a lot of emotion in women.
“It’s been a lot of fixing, and now we are done fixing and are ready to grow,” he added.
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. Today, Cole Haan has 67 stores in the U.S. and is planning to add six more in the next 18 months.
Until recently, men’s accounted for 60 percent of sales, while women’s took up the remaining 40 percent. For the first time in the company’s history, the ratio flipped this year, with women’s making up 60 percent. That would bring the total women’s business to $180 million.
Besides footwear, women’s categories are handbags, which are produced in-house; outerwear, licensed to G-III Apparel Group, and watches with Fossil. Accessories account for 25 percent of the women’s business or about $45 million.
These days, the Yarmouth, Maine-based company’s strategy is to capitalize on the strength of the women’s business. To that end, Cole Haan is planning to unveil a 4,500-square-foot unit at the new AOL Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in Manhattan this September which, for the first time, will make the women’s assortment the centerpiece.
“The entire main floor will be a women’s salon,” Rubel said. “Walking into the store, customers will find a women’s salon with handbags and small leather goods.”
The handbags, which were launched four years ago, are also distributed to such specialty and department stores as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
“The Cole Haan handbag business is growing very quickly,” said Francine Klein, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Bloomingdale’s. “We have expanded it to all of our doors at this point and the business is terrific. They have been able to blend fashion and color with a classic twist.”
For fall, Cole Haan’s handbag assortment continues to home in on soft, structured shapes, with top handle bags in pebbled leather and colors such as plum, pink, beige and red.
The emphasis on women is also key in the company’s new ad campaign, which was created by Lloyd & Co. In recent seasons, Cole Haan typically made product the star of the ads — also created by Lloyd — and featured models only with concealed faces. The new images feature fashionable women in dynamic movement — and wearing Cole Haan shoes, outerwear and handbags.
“It was important to reveal the Cole Haan woman with the full exposure of the bag, the shoes and the coat to get the look,” Thompson said. “For a long time, Cole Haan has been a shoemaker. We are hoping consumers have a bigger view than shoes.”
Holding the new creative next to last year’s image of a concealed woman relaxing in a red Mercedes convertible, Rubel noted, “It’s the same lady, but she’s a little more stylish with a shorter jacket. We have evolved into a fashion brand, got her out of moccasins, into heels and into fashion. We believe that, as we become a full fashion brand, it is important to start to allow the woman to picture herself.”
The new ad images will launch in September books such as Vogue, W, In Style and Vanity Fair, with an estimated budget of $8 million, according to industry sources.
“Over the last couple of years, under the leadership of Matt Rubel, the brand has been reenergized and refocused and it is apparent in today’s business,” said Gail Pisano, executive vice president of merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue. “We have seen significant growth, not only in the men’s business. [Rubel] reenergized the total brand and then focused on the opportunity that existed in the women’s classification. He expanded his customer base and captured a more modern and younger-in-attitude customer.”
Meanwhile, Rubel added that Cole Haan’s G-Series footwear brand, which was launched last February and combines fashionable designs with innovations from Nike’s technology lab, is slated to grow as large as the core brand.
“Cole Haan’s strategy has been to grow both the core customer, and they have introduced a whole new fashion customer, specifically with their G-Series,” said Klein at Bloomingdale’s.
According to Rubel, plans include a G-Series in-store concept and a full line of accessories by the end of 2004. Thompson said he expects to raid Nike’s sports technology for handbag inspiration.
“[The G-Series] combines beauty with technology,” Thompson said. “For bags, it will be the same way…taking inspiration from the sport category, looking at nuances and technologies and interesting designs and applying those. But it will probably be more from the materials lab at Nike. It would be fascinating to combine some of their proprietary materials with leather for handbags.”
Rubel added: “[The G-Series] creates a strategy of growth, with multiple platforms and multiple consumers. We are also studying entering Europe with Cole Haan and G-Series. We will further drive the women’s handbag business. We are looking at categories like eyewear, fragrance and home. Cole Haan’s strategy is to create a women’s brand and also drive the men’s business.”