Smack-dab between a vape shop and a tattoo parlor in the Dimes Square neighborhood of Chinatown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a popular French loafer brand has staked its flagship shop in the Americas.
Founded by cousins Dan Amzallag and Fabrizio Corveddu, Rivieras is a 14-year-old company from France making shoes for men, women and kids. Its trademark footwear is fashioned after a Spanish moccasin, manufactured in Spain with 50 percent organic cotton and 50 percent Seaqual yarns made from “marine litter from ocean clean-up programs,” and it is especially attractive to those who find socks rather objectionable. Its breathable fabrics allow ventilation to even the sweatiest of feet, though suede and leather feature heavily in its product line.
Before Covid, Rivieras’ brick-and-mortar representation in the U.S. sat two blocks to the west in an upstairs wholesale showroom, atop a Chinese grocery and fit for retailers to show up by appointment only.
All was going along swimmingly for Rivieras, importing shoes and selling them to U.S. retailers, until the night of March 19, 2020 when lockdowns were ordered across New York. Elias Belhouane, the company’s exclusive importer and lone boots on the ground in the U.S., had his largest cargo container marooned at port.
“So on Monday I had cancellation emails and here I was with no recourse…I was about to lose everything,” he said. “So, you know, retail came to me, like, pretty much out of necessity. I had to jump in the ring for retail.”
The ravages of Covid meant rents were dropping all around the city, so Belhouane made tracks to the storefront around the corner where Canal Street meets Orchard. It was meant to be just a “glorified showroom” but when Rivieras’ top retail partner Barney’s went the way of the dinosaur, the brand decided to eliminate the middleman and open its own doors to walk-in traffic.
“As it turns out, it’s also a decent retail business,” Belhouane said.
The Lower East Side location made sense for a wholesale hub, but for a retail shop, the gritty streets feel even grittier, miles from the poshness of SoHo, even if they’re separated by only a few city blocks.
“You would be surprised how much foot traffic we get,” Belhouane said. “And truth be told, there is a following to the brand, so I’m kind of a destination, too, because people discover we have a shop in the U.S., so they come here to see it.”
That stateside recognition is due largely to the launch last month of a U.S. e-commerce site, complete with a calculator to translate European sizes to their U.S. equivalents. Shoes are shipped nationwide from a warehouse in Miami.
Also aiding foot traffic is a renaissance, of sorts, in Dimes Square, the thin triangle of concrete connecting Canal, Division and Orchard Streets.
The opening of a French wine bar just down the block called Le Dive and a luxury hotel called Nine Orchard a mere 40 feet from Rivieras front door have been key to the economic spark and led to car traffic being blocked off at times during the summer. This traps just the right kind of customer, the kind who longs to be magically teleported to a Basque pelota match on the French Riviera, into the loafer shop’s lair.
Last summer, WWD hailed the atmosphere in Dimes Square as “evolving cool,” and the New York Times lauded its “eruption of new businesses.”
Belhouane can’t believe his good fortune.
“Now that the hotel is open, everything is happening,” he said. “Last summer, the street was blocked so it became every day pedestrians. At 3 p.m. we would be so full with people.”
Rivieras stands out from most of its neighbors by not having a drop-down metal shield that could protect its shoe display from tempting any passerby with smash-and-grab aspirations. Belhouane said he’s not too concerned about that.
“Yeah, but they would take only left feet,” Belhouane said, referring to the consistency of his display models. “Some stores around here had problems with shoplifters, but right now, since the hotel opened, you have patrol, like a cruiser every hour.”
Ever since its first U.S. retail partner Opening Ceremony closed its brick-and-mortar locations on the eve of the pandemic, Rivieras has had a tricky time finding homes with retailers, in part due to having Euro-luxury appeal, but prices that are anything but out of reach. The standard model goes for $88 with the highest price item stocked at the Canal Street location, the Japanese Sashiko, walking out at $185.
“The price point is low but it looks like it would be more,” Belhouane said. “In Barney’s we would sit next to all the usual suspects… at $300 and $400. Why would you go to Barney’s when you can find it in any other department store for the equal [price], or online for sometimes cheaper. We’re already like an independent [brand] so being independent with a designer store is a completely sweet spot to be.”
If a recent study produced by fashion tech company Lectra is any indication, a brand like Rivieras might be wise to exist apart from higher-priced luxury shoes.
The study found that retailers in a three-month period were ordering 33 percent less luxury-level shoes, which it defined as $550 a pair and up. Also good news for Rivieras is that even at the luxury level, demand for loafers is up with “Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Ferragamo, increasing their assortment share by 12 percent year on year for Fall/Winter 2022 collections,” the study said. This, even as the study found loafers come in at a higher price point for luxury brands than sneakers, with Ferragamo and Prada’s sneakers priced 23 and 22 percent lower than their loafers, respectively.
A report in the Financial Times (FT) last October suggested that two years of working from home in the pandemic may have caused at least U.K. consumers to be more inclined to buy comfortable shoes like loafers as they head back into the office. And Gen Z professionals might be more inclined to take nostalgia back a generation further from their parents, it found.
“Their parents are wearing trainers, so kids are rebelling by dressing like their dads once did,” Fraser Moss, co-founder of the British contemporary apparel label YMC, told FT, calling the casual, leather moccasin “a geography teacher’s shoe.”