With designer sneakers experiencing a renaissance in the footwear business right now, it seems like a logical step for any shoemaker to buy into the hype and keep the cash registers going cha-ching cha-ching. But it’s just not the kind of business that Roy Luwolt wants for the Malone Souliers by Roy Luwolt shoe brand.
For those who missed the news, the London-based shoe label which catapulted into the fashion scene in 2014 as a street style and editors’ favourite for its sophisticated and curvaceous Maureen mules, is now a one-man show helmed by Luwolt and his team of designers. The creative director and his business partner, Mary Alice left the company recently to focus on her family.
But the creative changes don’t go much beyond that name change, assures Luwolt who was in town last week to launch the brand’s made-to-order personalisation service at On Pedder, and spread the gospel of the brand with VIP customers and the press. For one, the luxury shoe brand will continue perfecting its trademark collection of pumps, mules, sandals, and slides, he says.
Roy Luwolt’s Made-To-Order Options At On Pedder
It’s a pragmatic move considering how the brand is doing so well now. To date, it has around 320 points of sales globally, compared to just seven across Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman when it first started. In July, the brand opened its first store in the plush Villaggio Mall in Doha.
The chatty Luwolt — he’s lived in over 45 countries as the child of an American diplomat and has worked as a luxury brand strategist for Forbes 500 and FTSE 100 corporations — combines his deep curiosity in understanding the needs of his female customers across the world, and the process of gathering strong feedback and product research, as his M.O.
We sit down with Souliers who shares why you can’t find any sneakers at the label, why his shoes come with a lifetime warranty, and what makes his personalisation service different from his competitors.
How has the brand evolved since 2014?
“We’ve been a little bit more responsive to the business-to-business feedback that we get. We understand that they are the one who help to inform us further as to what the demographics of the region require. So if I make a wonderful shoe for one part of the world, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work in every single region. We are adapting to different climates, cultures and psychologies. In that four year period, it’s become a lot more intelligently merchandised.”
Could you share how attuned you are to these nuances?
“(Asians) are very particular about colours. It’s a very beautiful part of the culture, in all sorts of ways, aesthetics and finishes. The veneers are very colourful but the spirit is very muted, very salient, and demure. It’s less about being heard than being seen. And I like that sort of luxuriant nature to the consumption of fashion. Then you have places like New York, where I’m from for example, where luxury consumption is about how much you can put on at once.
If you think about it in a more practical and pragmatic sense, you have certain fabrics that can only work in certain climates, and you have certain aesthetics that just do not apply. So velvet, for instance, is not something you’d wear in the middle of summer — and it’s mostly summer in the Middle East. You’ve got to think about how your fabrication has to be different for certain regions and you’ve also got to think of climatic issues like dust and things like that. You just cannot have certain types of light fabric which will end up being damaged by just one usage. We have to pay attention to the actual needs of the consumer, otherwise, we’re just making these for ourselves.”
What’s the one word you’d use to describe the growth of the brand?
“Responsiveness. For instance, we started with 120mm heels in the first season but we then heard and got feedback that women are no longer terribly akin to the height because it’s not comfortable. So we focused on getting that aesthetic manifested to a 100mm heel height. You don’t see us making any heels that are higher than 100mm now. Elements like that allow you to adapt the business to what is consumed rather than what you feel like producing. So there isn’t any misled arrogance and pride in the company whereby we don’t want to do what we know we need to do. Of course, that is all within reason because if I’m being told to make sneakers, I’m not going to make sneakers. But to make something better? Absolutely.”
So you’re not into the sneaker culture at all?
“If we ever go into designing sneakers, we will be doing so because we are convinced that yes, we can really actually make a better thing for the consumer. What that means I don’t know, because I’m not sitting here trying to design sneakers today. However, whatever it is that the company embarks on, there has got to be an element of competitive advantage and some form of development and research that goes into it.
It is a very, very saturated space. I don’t think that the sneakers out there are not good — that’s not a real thing. We went into heels because we could make them better, there could be a change in development, et cetera. Until there is, in fact, a gap because of a need, then we would like to explore an actual space.
You cannot lose the centric proposition that you are as a business. If in fact you are a heel brand, spend some time telling the world that you make the best. Show them that you make the best. And then you can begin to branch into other things. We do not want to be everything to everyone. We are in fact shoemakers, after all, we are cordwainers. If there is a very beautiful and exquisite way to make sneakers, we‘d jump on it. Till that happens, we are good where we’re at.”
Why then do you think are sneakers such a phenomenon?
“Sneakers are popular because they’re comfortable. It’s a rubber sole shoe. If you consider the comparison between heels and sneakers, heels are made with leather soles, there is not so much flexibility in it. A heel is still a heel. As much as we make a comfortable heel, it is still a heel.
Sneakers are a no-brainer toy of a shoe. In a way, a lot more playful, a lot more dexterous and, in fact, they’re absolutely, not just significantly, effortless. It’s a sports product and a majority of our lives is spent in that sort of casual state; it applies to a more quotidian requirement. You can be in the house in sneakers. But no one’s really going to wear heels as sensible shoes in the house.”
So what’s the brand’s DNA?
“We’re the unpopular kid in school who creates a new technology that saves everyone’s life. He’s the one with the little acne on his face, right? And basically sits down there, a little bit shy but does his own work and does it really, really well. I think we are not looking for any popularity game whatsoever. I think we’re very much humbled by the advantage of the product itself. In other words, signifying the product is what sells the business. It’s not the brand, it’s not loudness, it’s not marketing noise. It’s more of a consumer relationship vis-a-vis client relationship.”
The Fall/Winter ’18 Collection
Is it a fair observation to say that the aesthetic of the brand has changed quite a bit, with trendier and louder finishes for instance?
“I’ll disagree that the aesthetic has changed. Has there been a development in the merchandise? Of course. That happens when you have many more silos of consumer bases to service. You may see some shoes that do not belong to a certain region — that is intelligent optimisation. It’ll be a miss of me to ignore what we’re hearing from the consumer in terms of what they need, what works and what doesn’t. When you build a brand in luxury of any kind, what you start off with is stubbornness. You come up with “I made this. It’s amazing, buy it.” Then you take a few steps back and you watch. And then you get a little nucleus that does, and they love it and it works.
And then you realise that there is a bit of a Venn Diagram that you must explore. That’s when you go back to product development and you begin to design something that does offer propositions that are in fact customised to those regions as well. In climates that are extremely warm, the feet swell a little bit. Some people constantly buy a half size up because that’s just the way their feet are sized. If I were to ignore the half sizes here and there, then we’d be actually eliminating a lot of customers who actually have an issue of nature and nurture. It’s very variable and nuanced. There isn’t an OS for it. It’s my job to learn it, be aware of it and to be able to respond to it. And what you call has gone trendy, it’s just the business has constantly matured.”
How different is your personalisation process compared to those by other brands?
“Personalisation is not just about have your initials onto something or having my signature on the shoes. We’re customising the needs of the consumer and still respecting the design philosophy of the house. That’s very important. Some brands may offer you the universe and if you’re willing to pay £6,000, you may get anything redone. It’s really like going to the doctor’s office and asking what’s the right thing to do. We listen to your needs, we advise and we make.”
Could you elaborate?
“There has to be a dialogue; there is no automatic process to this as that’s the very point of personalisation. We sit down with the customer, we talk about the silhouettes that they want. Pick a style first, then we go on to picking out the finishes, the colours, the fabrics, and you can talk about your heel height as well, if that is something you want to change.
The exception, though, is that we’ll not swap heel types because if something is not made in a block heel, it shouldn’t be made in a block heel. But we can consider certain heel height requirements for certain products. What we’re focusing on at On Pedder is more of little fun finishes. If you need something more complex, we can take them back, get them done and deliver it in a few weeks (up to three weeks) .”
Any other special services you get at Malone Souliers?
“We offer women a lifetime warranty for every pair of shoes. We never had that for women. Men have had that for a long time with the John Lobbs and Berlutis of the world. Anytime I take anything back, they’d fix it. No questions asked. We have the confidence to offer such a service because it’s not going to be used a lot — what we create is a good product. We have used the warranties 20 times since we launched, and we sell a lot of shoes out there. That speaks volumes.
One of the reasons why I instituted a lifetime warranty from the beginning is because I wanted to get and learn from the customers’ feedback. When a good product breaks, I’d want to know why and how it happened. In an odd way, I’m benefitting as well for the benefit of the ultimate consumer, because I get to look at the product in my hand and understand why that thing is happening (and improve on the issue in future).”