Alison Bergen loves a good renovation.
And it’s a good thing, because the CEO of Aerosoles took on a big one when she joined the company in late 2018, promising to restore and modernize the flagging women’s footwear brand.
After a career in the luxury sector serving labels like Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors, transitioning to a 30-year-old casual comfort brand with a checkered financial history might not have seemed like a natural next step.
But for Bergen, a Stanford grad endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit, the challenge of reviving a once popular mall staple was instantly appealing.
“This is a rebrand. This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she told Sourcing Journal. “I love looking at a business and saying, ‘Is there something really interesting there that’s been mistreated, and can I fix it?’”
Bergen likened her initial assessment of the Aerosoles brand to looking at an old house in need of repair. It had good bones, she said, and with a clear design sense and a concise budget, it could be restored to its former glory without being razed to the ground.
“Aerosoles is an amazing company in that sense. The concept of everyday comfort—not sneaker comfort, but that polished casual comfort—is super relevant,” she said.
Understanding the brand’s heritage as a purveyor of workwear staples was an integral part of devising her future strategy. Aerosoles was once known for classic, iconic styles that could carry their wearers from work through the weekend.
“When I look back 10 years, I think some things got confused over time,” Bergen said. “There have been times when the brand latched onto a consumer and aged with her—and it lost a little bit of clarity.”
Now, Bergen is driving a mission to refocus on the chic essentials that gave the brand its start.
“There are a lot of brands, a lot of noise, a lot of messaging,” she said of the current retail climate. “I feel strongly that the more focused our collection is, the better our chances are of getting the new customer who has never heard of Aerosoles—or reigniting the customer that remembers it when it was known for true product clarity, extreme comfort, and a good eye.”
Consumers’ goodwill and appetite for the brand are still alive and well, Bergen said: “We just have to determine what stays, what goes and what needs a little massaging.”
Solace in simplicity
Over the past decade, Bergen said, “The world has gotten a bit more casual.”
That reality has driven her to hone in on the core styles—like ballerina flats, loafers, driving moccasins and low heels—that earned Aerosoles its consumer base in the first place.
That shopper is a sophisticated one, Bergen said, and though she values comfort, she doesn’t want to be limited to the sneakers and athleisure-based styles that have dominated the market in recent seasons.
“We’re standing for the woman who still likes to dress in a ballerina flat or a loafer with her jeans,” Bergen said. “She wants to wear her shoes to dinner, to the office, and pushing the stroller around.”
Her creative team is dedicated to preserving the brand’s roots, she said, and until Aerosoles regains its status as a household name, the company will focus on casual classics.
Finding solace in simplicity isn’t Bergen’s only goal. She believes that customers find the concept of “endless aisle”—or unlimited choices—overwhelming.
Removing some of the “noise,” or unneeded options, could actually provide the consumer with more clarity about the brand and what it represents.
It’s a strategy that a new wave of direct-to-consumer startups has applied with markedly positive results. Unicorns like AllBirds and other success stories like Rothys have barreled onto the scene with just a few core styles—and simple ones at that.
“I personally believe that we’re in a moment where women are taking comfort in the idea of a chic uniform,” Bergen said. While the American mentality drives consumers toward an unending supply of the new and novel, some of the world’s most stylish actually wear daily iterations of the same outfit, she said.
Bringing a European sensibility to the brand was a goal for Bergen, who made quick work of hiring creative director Mirco Scoccia, a veteran of Tory Burch, Bottega Venetta and most recently, DTC darling M. Gemi.
Product design and branding are both under Scoccia’s purview, she said. “Aerosoles has always been classic, but his luxury experience is really raising the game for us.”
Bergen is banking on the idea that a focus on simple elegance will reinvigorate the brand’s base and capture a new set of eyes.
Millennials are aging into their peak spending power, and Bergen believes that the powerful cohort’s concerns about limited living space and growing anxieties over environmental impact have them looking to do more with less.
“We all have to feel responsible for that extra thing you buy at Zara and then chuck,” she said. While millennials were once the fast-fashion generation, they are now “willing to spend on quality, and would rather buy one great thing instead of two ‘okay’ things.”
Paring down rather than diversifying the style offering also has implications for the brand’s bottom line.
“In some respect you’re trading a sales dollar for a better profit margin,” Bergen said, explaining that building a business around core styles is a way to avoid the “rut of promotions and sales” that many brands have relied on to drive purchases.
“To have a core business around products that don’t get marked down, like our ballerina flat, is the best thing you can hope for,” she said.
Pulling another page out of the DTC handbook, Bergen characterized Aerosoles as a brand that now puts digital first. “Our flagship is Aerosoles.com,” she said.
That’s a far cry from the approach that solidified the brand’s identity during its ‘90s-through-early-aughts heyday. Aerosoles was once a mall and department-store staple, but that’s all changing in 2020.
“The business I’ve inherited is a wonderfully clean slate,” Bergen said, and she’s working to devise an omnichannel strategy that will reach a new, diverse group of consumers.
In building out that plan, Bergen has taken an experimental approach.
The brand launched a fit shop in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 2019, featuring a small collection of core styles. The learnings from that popup have proven invaluable, both from a product assortment perspective and in testing retail strategy.
“We’re using that experience now to craft our next step,” she said.
While she’s interested in growing the brick-and-mortar business, Bergen believes that enacting a targeted approach for different markets is the clear path forward. Each new store will have its own unique selection of product based on the needs of its individual consumer base.
“I think for a brand that’s been out of brick-and-mortar for a while, we need to make it easy for anyone to walk away from the store and know what Aerosoles stands for,” she said.
Bergen is also wary of repeating the brand’s past mistakes. Developing a national footprint of 150 stores earned Aerosoles its name recognition, but proved detrimental to the bottom line.
“Stores are fantastic marketing value, and there are a lot of reasons why stores deliver value beyond profit,” she said. “But the history of Aerosoles shows that stores can also go against you if you don’t have a clear strategy for how you expand profitably, or at least manage risk.”
Trade war: ‘It’s humbled us’
Building out entirely new brand and retail strategies would seem a tall order for any new CEO, but over the past 13 months since Bergen began her tenure at Aerosoles, she’s also had to contend with a greater existential foe: the U.S.-China trade war.
“It’s humbled us,” Bergen said simply, referring to the nearly two-year conflict that has cast a pall of uncertainty over the industry.
When asked if the brand is diversifying its operations away from China, she admitted that Aerosoles is in a holding period as the conflict continues to play out.
“You have to stay nimble. You want to develop long-lasting, valued partnerships with factories and agents to ensure consistency, and that takes time,” she said. “One thing I wish Mr. Trump understood a little better is that it takes years to rebuild a supply chain. A tariff today isn’t going to bring business back to the U.S.—or even force it out of China—tomorrow.”
The situation has proven a sticky one, Bergen said. Aerosoles is currently reassessing its supply chain model and vendor base in anticipation of continued tension between the two world powers.
What’s more, the List 4A duties that took effect in September are already beginning to impact the brand’s bottom line.
“The tariffs are extremely painful, and we’re not able to pass on the cost to the wholesale customer or the end consumer without jeopardizing our business, so we are in a period of margin compression,” she said.
While that unease will likely linger, Bergen is intently focused on product execution and building up the brand’s goodwill at home. If supply chain partners aren’t able to deliver quality goods due to tariff strain, she’ll act swiftly to develop new relationships—potentially in rival markets outside of China.
She’s poised and ready to make that call, but also believes the success of the brand hinges on evolving to meet the challenges of a changing retail ecosystem.
“We’re thinking about different ways to find margin and cost savings that aren’t as simple as just leaving China and setting up manufacturing in Brazil,” she said. “It’s more about, ‘What are some great new materials? What are some interesting ways to do more opening price-point product, or flow your goods differently, or create product more quickly?’”
Working to answer those questions—instead of engaging in hand-wringing over trade uncertainties—will help the brand move boldly forward.
“Aerosoles has been so focused on business structure in its last chapter, and it’s been years since someone with a real love for product and brand came in and said, ‘This is where we’re going,’” Bergen said. “It’s all about the product and the consumer, and we’ll figure out the rest.”