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A Boot-Based Brand Makes Room for Casual Styles

Blackstone Shoes may be entering full-blown adulthood in the European market—the Amsterdam-born brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary there this year—but the company is still in its infancy in the United States. Launched in 1992 and originally known for selling full-grain leather ski boots, Blackstone quickly made its way into the safety and work shoes markets just three years later. It was also around this time that Blackstone recruited a new manufacturer to take its shoes in a fresh direction.

“We were making work boots at that time for K-Mart and a couple of other brands in the USA, then Blackstone came and said, ‘Can you make a heavier boot, more like a street look?’” said Susan Cochran, whose family ran the aforementioned manufacturing business and who is now owner of Blackstone USA.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that Blackstone began designing more fashion-forward looks, creating its iconic AM19 boot that became a top-seller in Europe. “It has a leather sole and looks more like an Italian boot,” Cochran said.

In 2005—the same year its shearling-lined boots became a must-own item overseas—the brand also began offering women’s versions of its popular men’s boots. After a new designer joined the team two years later, Blackstone shifted its attention more toward the ever-growing women’s business, which now makes up 40 percent of the brand’s sales and includes silhouettes ranging from sneakers and oxfords to slip-on boots and wedges.

But it wasn’t until seven years ago that the European footwear company finally brought its silhouettes stateside, where a more casual market led Blackstone to experiment with its now-popular sneaker business. “In 2013, the sneakers started to grow faster than the boots, so we started to focus less on leather boots and more on sneakers,” Cochran said.

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Now Blackstone’s sneakers are the brand’s biggest sellers for many of its more than 100 U.S. retail partners. This includes Nordstrom, where its sales have doubled each year since first joining the department store’s roster three years ago. Cochran says the styles cut through the competition thanks to the brand’s insistence on using the highest-quality materials, including full-grain leather and genuine shearling lining. “Most of our collection—probably 95 percent—is genuine leather,” she said, noting that Blackstone never designs with synthetic materials and rarely uses canvas, even for sneakers. “We use either Italian leather or South American. We also do U.S. hide, and we buy leather from eco-tanneries. We try to be as exclusively leather as possible.”

But with elevated materials often comes an elevated price. Blackstone’s styles typically range from $150-$300, with sneakers ringing in at around $200. Cochran said pricing can be a challenge in terms of consumer perception, especially as a small and still-developing brand. “When we are compared to big brands that have big budgets and can make their shoes mass-produced in China using different materials and technology, people kind of go toward that. They don’t actually understand the making of the shoe,” she said. “As a shoe manufacturer, I know that I use the best-quality materials. But the consumers don’t get that message, so I still have a lot of homework to do in terms of introducing the brand and letting our customers know why our shoes are so good.”

On the men’s side, specialty sizing is another differentiating factor, with sizes up to 22 attracting famous athletic fans like Shaquille O’Neal and Tony Gonzalez.

Blackstone is also hoping to up its comfort features next spring to attract customers who want to feel good but look sharp at the same time. “We want to keep the classy leather luxury looks for the sneakers, but have better insole footbeds that enhance the shoes,” Cochran said. “For Spring 2018, I’m actually really excited about the collection. I feel that Blackstone as a brand itself is starting to really find its DNA and people are starting to notice, ‘OK, this is Blackstone.”