The biggest news from Vionic Group has less to do with its upcoming collection of good-for-you shoes, and more to do with the brand’s recent $360 million acquisition by footwear behemoth Caleres (whose portfolio includes industry all-stars like Sam Edelman, Vince, Allen Edmonds, Dr. Scholls and more).
The sale puts Vionic in the company of some internationally-recognized, undeniably commercial brands who aren’t going away anytime soon. It also spells change for the former orthopedic sandal brand, whose evolution over the past few years has drawn attention from consumers looking for comfort with a contemporary edge.
At the helm of the team spearheading this contemporization is Marisa Byrne, an industry veteran with nearly a decade’s worth of experience at Deckers and Footcandy. As VP of product and design, Byrne has helped Vionic develop a wide range of product that seeks to fulfill a woman’s everyday needs, from work through the weekend and whatever happens in between. Byrne is passionate about providing everything for the Vionic consumer, whom she characterizes as a brand loyalist who wants something for every “wearing occasion.” Bringing the brand to this pivotal point has been a challenge Byrne has enjoyed, and she doesn’t see progress slowing anytime soon.
“We’re on the cusp of a lot of new boundaries in the footwear space,” she said when asked about how product strategy will change over the coming months. “As we grow and broaden our categories, having [support from Caleres] throughout all of that will really be the biggest improvement.”
As for the overall vision for the line, Byrne said Vionic will stay the course.
“Where we’re heading, what our initiatives are, the design direction—none of that will shift. We’ve evolved to create a year-round business,” she said, referring to the fact that Vionic got its start as a sandal brand, but now showcases shoes for the fall months as well. “We want shoes for every season. Wear-to-work and weather-resistance have really been a big push because we want to balance ourselves,” she says, remarking that sales between the two seasons have evened out, a feat that the brand has been long hoping to achieve. Another opportunity that Byrne and Vionic hope to mine during 2019 is the men’s category. “We’re elevating the men’s line so it mirrors what we offer for women,” she says.
Byrne has also championed the development of Vionic Pro, a line of slip-resistant shoes tailored to the service industry. Styles will range from mesh to leather uppers, some with water-resistant and oil-repellent properties ideal for kitchen or hospital work.
The primary value proposition that’s earned Vionic its loyal following is its proprietary orthotic footbed, and Byrne insists that there will be no departure. When asked about issues incorporating the technology into more streamlined looks, she’s unfazed, citing an ultra-talented design team with the “creative drive to work around any silhouette challenges” that might arise. Central to the brand’s DNA is its commitment to foot health, Byrne says. “That’s really our secret sauce: being APMA approved, and having the resources of our Innovation Lab and leaders in the podiatry industry.”
This unique company background has also left Vionic well-poised to take advantage of broader trends in the lifestyle market. With “wellness” being the word at the tip of every brand’s proverbial tongue, a company with a heritage steeped in the unglamorous world of podiatry is now enjoying some street cred.
“We are fortunate to be playing in a space that’s now emerging as a trend,” Byrne said. Among the benefits of this, according to Byrne, is the ability to reach a younger demographic of consumers who are more informed about health and wellness than ever—and who are buying accordingly. “We’re definitely in the right place at the right time,” she said.
This move toward health-conscious consumerism has its effects in nearly every industry. With even the most buttoned-up workplaces becoming more relaxed and the very definition of workwear being revolutionized, sky-high stilettos are no longer the norm.
“I remember when ‘athleisure’ first came out, thinking, ‘How long is this going to last?’” Byrne said, referring to the trend toward athletic-inspired apparel that’s become so ubiquitous it’s almost inescapable. “It’s stuck around, and it’s evolved, and it’s become a lifestyle at this point. I think that’s where you’ve seen a release around what’s considered ‘business appropriate.’ I’m wearing a suit jacket with cup soles right now.”
Even with Vionic’s growing brand recognition and recent big news, Byrne is reticent to take stock. When asked about her biggest victories last year, she cites expanding product lines and staying true to the brand’s core values. But she uses the word “evolution,” often, indicating that she’s far from done.
“We’ve built a world-class product team. We have a lot of fun, and it’s reflected in our shoes,” Byrne said. “Well-being has been at the forefront from the beginning, and through all the evolution and change, it’s still there. It’s fun to see us move forward, and there’s so much more we can do.”