“Small but mighty” is one way to describe Plae, the three-year-old, tech-driven, children’s footwear brand that blends quirky customization options with biometric technology usually reserved for professional athletes.
The company, founded by former Puma designer Ryan Ringholz, builds footwear on a specially engineered sole that follows the natural contour of a child’s foot. The shoes, available in size 8 toddler to a kids 3 (with select SKUs going to 4.5 and 6 this fall) offers Eco-Ortholite insoles for shock absorption, flexible soles for movement and toe guards and active traction for safety. Heels are a little higher, the insides are seamless for added comfort and the footbed can be removed and washed, which Caroline de Baere, Plae vice president of footwear, noted is unique in the children’s market.
In other words, if it’s strong enough for Olympians, it’s tough enough for the playground. As de Baere said, “Kids put their shoes to the test.”
That attention to performance and durability is a nice surprise from a brand whose shelf appeal is based on its kid-friendly designs, bright colors and interchangeable tabs—the Velcro closures available in multiple lengths for custom fit that can be swapped out, mixed and matched and shared with friends.
Tab designs run the gamut, from sweet floral prints and classic sport themes to reflective metallics and holiday motifs. Each pair of tabs retail for $5. Gimmicky add-ons in children’s footwear is commonplace, but Plae’s tabs are very functional.
“Everything has a reason for being there,” de Baere said. “They’re not just a design element. They come in four lengths, small to extra-large, which can help better fit a narrow or wide foot.”
Plae launched in 2013 with 10 SKUs and three styles, including the popular Roan double strap shoe in canvas and leather, the Ty sneaker and the sporty Emme Mary Jane.
“It’s active and sporty, and what we love is that children move in all directions, never a straight line, and so the designs are movement orientated,” de Baere said of the collection.
The shoes are Earth-friendly too. Plae sources responsible, recycled and nontoxic materials, like recycled cork EVA heel cups and recycled PET (milk jug) upper materials.
Newer styles include a high-top, tall boot and fisherman sandal. More tall boots, a chukka boot and waterproof products are in the pipeline for Fall ’15. The line retails between $50 for sandals to $75 for boots. The fall waterproof styles will retail for $95.
Plae has the funds to fuel that expansion. Like tech start-ups of the past, the technology-driven children’s footwear brand is good at raising money. In April, the company announced it closed $7 million in Series A funding led by Paris-based Partech Ventures, bringing its total capital raise to $10.8 million. The capital will be used to grow Plae’s global operation, as well as tap into new product categories and cross-channel technologies.
Led by Silicon Valley tech startup veteran Jonathan Spier, Plae has the chops to be stay agile in the ever-changing retail landscape. In a statement, Spier said, “Technology is transforming the future of retail, and we see an opportunity to be at the very forefront of how that future evolves. As a next-generation lifestyle brand, Plae is rooted in tech and social media that we use across channels to power our consumer engagement and growth.”
The brand’s robust social media following (103,000+ Facebook fans and 100,000 email subscribers) has been a crucial component to Plae’s speedy growth spurt. De Baere said its e-commerce business is “through the roof”, but noted that visibility online helps with brand recognition in stores. “They are beneficial to each other. Both are strong, growing 100 percent each quarter,” she said.
According to De Baere, Plae started 2015 in over 200 retail stores, including Harry’s Shoes and Tip Top Shoes in New York City and a number of retailers in Brooklyn. On the West Coast, Plae is stocked at Sportie LA, Brooks Shoes for Kids and Kid Dynamo. “Our target is every state,” de Baere said.
Plae also has place at select Nordstrom locations across the country, and the brand has gone international selling in 23 countries, including Australia, Denmark, Japan and U.K.
With the addition of waterproof and cold weather product, the company has ambitions to crack open new distribution channels. “I think what is exciting is that we can target outdoor retailers, people we couldn’t target before,” de Baere said.
Likewise, the brand has found success in the school uniform environment with its simple black and white footwear. As de Baere explained, kids can go to school in all black and adds pop of color with different tabs on the weekends.
“There hasn’t been something this fresh in years,” she said. “People are loving that you can customize the product and they love the quality. They recognize that this is a quality children’s product and isn’t a take-down of something else.”