The Danish footwear and leather goods company opened the studio—its first outside of Europe—in the fall. Ecco plans to add office space in the same building in October, studio director Kevin Isbell said.
The company, which welcomed Levi’s alum Tom Berry as its new U.S. president and CEO in January, hopes to open a second studio in the country in Portland, Ore., also in October. The new studio will position the brand close to a number of footwear brands, including sneaker giant Nike, and allow it “to be more present” and innovate with its local partners, Isbell said.
Between Berry’s appointment and the new studios, “there’s a huge energy that’s being put into the U.S. market at this time,” Isbell said. “We just have a different focus to attract a customer that’s going to sustain us,” he added, noting the “tremendous market” “for comfortable footwear.”
Though it only opened in late 2021, Ecco’s Brooklyn studio has been in the works since mid-2019, Isbell said. By February of 2020, the company was “pretty close” to completing a lease, but Covid put a pause on those plans. After a “few months,” when it was clear Ecco still wanted to invest in studios such as the one it has opened in Brooklyn, it began moving forward again. Following a complete build-out—Ecco combined two adjacent units to create the 7,000-square-foot space—the studio opened near the end of last year.
There were multiple reasons Ecco expanded its design footprint beyond its European base, Isbell said. In addition to engaging with the network it already had in place in the states, it was also looking to instill a “different point of view, in terms of design” and to get closer to the American market—its second largest by pairs sold.
“There’s just a massive opportunity here to draw closer to the consumer that we have and just get more [of] an understanding of what it is that they love about the brand and how we can tailor that product to be more fitting to what they’re looking for,” Isbell said.
Beyond simply positioning the company close to its “pretty large network” of existing partners, Ecco’s location within the Brooklyn Navy Yard—a more than 200-year-old shipyard that the city has transformed into a modern manufacturing hub in recent years—has facilitated its own networking opportunities, particularly with small leather goods designers eager to learn more about the company’s sustainability practices.
An internal newsletter distributed by the Navy Yard facilitates further connections, including with businesses that, on paper, are relatively unrelated to Ecco, including names in wine, soap and coffee. “The opportunity to create partnerships, get inspired from them, and also to source ingredients for what we put into this space, I think is huge because if we tell their story, they’re going to tell our story,” Isbell said.
“You look at big brands that are more marketing brands—we’re more of a product brand—they have their own stories to tell, but they lean very much on others telling it for them, right?” he added. “And I think that a big part of what we want to lean into here is just being present, engaging, building the right product offering for the marketplace and allowing these different faces of what Ecco looks like to populate a more advanced image of what it is.”
The new location has also allowed Ecco to pull from a rich pool of talent, with all the studio’s designers locally based. Everyone “has within themselves also a pretty extensive network across this industry, which has been hugely beneficial to us also being able to tell the story of what we’re doing here,” Isbell said. In addition to the studio’s seven full-time employees, Ecco has brought on two interns, one from the Fashion Institute of Technology and, thanks to a program run by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, another from Brooklyn College.
“So that’s also just been another opportunity to engage with someone who’s in their lower 20s that maybe we would not have had a reach to prior to moving here,” Isbell said. “She offers a slightly different perspective than we would have had before. I think that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s just taking, little by little, a different perspective and layering on an influence towards the brand.”
Moving forward in the U.S., Isbell said, Ecco plans to both become more collaborative with its wholesalers and to expand its direct-to-consumer footprint. Currently, it has between 30 and 35 full-price stores and about the same number of off-price outlets.
“We want to be the leading footwear brand for this market,” Isbell said. I think that because of the scope of the product offering that we have, that that’s something that we can lean into.”
While Ecco expands its presence in the U.S., it is also growing in other markets as well. Its second non-European studio is slated to launch in Shanghai in a couple months. Before the pandemic, the fully vertically integrated brand opened both a new research and development space at its headquarters in Denmark, as well as a new factory in Vietnam.