How this brand is making hand-crafted shoes for the 21st century
As a buyer for a number of Australian footwear brands, including Midas and Florsheim, Annie Abbott often travelled to Italy, where she would come across stores full of colourful, well-made lace-up shoes, such as oxfords and derbies, for sale.
Abbott had a hunch that Australian women would buy similar shoes, but no retailers Down Under were offering hand-crafted quality below a luxury price point. So, she decided to fill the gap herself.
She found a small, family-owned factory in the Marche region of Italy that still made shoes the old-fashioned way, with hand-lasting and stitching, and started her brand, Habbot, in 2011.
While Habbot was initially conceived as a wholesale brand, Abbott tells Internet Retailing she quickly decided to go down the retail route, since she was selling more through her pop-up stores in Melbourne than the wholesale side of the business.
“Having been a buyer myself, I think I understood that it’s really tricky to take on a new footwear brand because there are lots of sizes, so there’s lots of inventory and [retailers] have to invest quite heavily just to pick up a few styles,” she says.
“So whilst I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t work, I didn’t take it as a definite black mark [against the concept].”
Habbot continued to gain traction through the stores in Melbourne and online, but at the start of 2016, Abbott says she started to noticed another shift in the business.
“I started seeing customisation happening across the marketplace in lots of different categories and I knew our customers had lots of opinions about what they wanted from a design perspective and I knew they would love to put their own stamp on a classic style,” she says.
But unlike many other companies experimenting with customisation, Habbot made its products by hand. Could the company’s factory in Italy handle customised orders at scale?
From hand-made to custom-made
“The first step was to speak to the makers to make sure they could do it. Even though we work with a small factory, they’re still used to working in a production line. I had to ask if they could change the way they worked,” she says.
The factory quickly got on board, and Abbott launched a proof-of-concept trial in October 2016. Customers were given a swatch card with 12 leathers and a form to fill out their material selection for each part of the shoe. The company then created a mock-up of each customer’s shoe design for them to tweak or approve.
At the end of the month, Abbott sent all the custom orders to Italy, and customers received the finished product three months later.
While the trial was a success in terms of feasibility, Abbott says she knew she had to make several changes for it to be a sustainable solution. For one thing, the design process was too manual, and for another, the lead-time was too long.
Abbott addressed the former by hiring a developer to create an online tool, so customers could design their own shoes and see a mock-up in real time, then click buy.
However, the latter required some finessing with the factory in Italy, which Abbott says was “stubborn” about making things right.
“One of the things that takes a while is collecting the materials. The leathers are not bulk-produced or tanned, unlike in China, where a lot of the time you go to a depot or market and take what you need and start making. The materials [in Italy] are made to order,” she explains.
“In the making part, the shoes need to sit on the last for a certain amount of time to take the shape of the last. At the factories I’ve been at in China, this is a faster process. A shoe [that spends less time on the last] might look the same to start, but over time, it won’t keep the shape as well,” she says.
Still, Abbott was able to reduce the time-to-delivery for custom shoe orders from three months to four weeks by pre-buying some materials for the factory to have on hand and creating new workflows.
This put Habbot on par with companies like Mon Purse, which also makes its handbags in Europe.
“The team [in Italy] care about efficiency, they want to keep up with schedules, but they feel it would be incorrect to speed up so much of the process that you lose something,” she says.
The launch of #myhabbot
The company officially launched the new customisation offering last week under the name #myhabbot. Customers can now design their own shoes entirely online, choosing from 24 different leathers and four basic styles.
Abbott says she expects the new offering to lift online sales. Currently, between 60-70 per cent of Habbot’s sales occur online.
“I do expect this will move sales form in-store to online. We see an opportunity especially to get beyond Melbourne through online,” she says.
However, the company still relies on its bricks-and-mortar presence for some parts of the customer experience like fit.
Customers in Melbourne can try on shoes in-store before buying a pair online, but if they live elsewhere, they’re out of luck. Habbot does not accept returns for custom shoes.
“We’re really careful to give people help with sizing and fit [via email or on the phone] so that when they get to the end, they’re confident to buy. The last thing any of us want is there to be any confusion,” Abbott says.
Meanwhile, Abbott is still designing two collections per year for customers who don’t want to customise their shoes.
“I’m making a conscious effort to keep the collection separate in terms of materials. There will be some overlap, but the collection is an expression of my design feelings and where I want to take the brand, whereas [the customisation offering] is what the customer wants.”