From a week in Tahiti to a day rummaging through a second-hand shop — while design inspiration can come from anywhere and anything, for years, fashion creatives have taken to world travel in search of the influential elements for their latest collections. Now, with COVID-19 placing travel out of reach for many, shoe designers have been challenged to find new ways to get their creative juices flowing as they prepare their fall ’21 collections.
According to designers, virtual trade shows, local day trips, and browsing stores online have become new trend sources when building a collection. Add to those, maintaining a dialogue with customers to better understand their ever-changing style needs, these changes have become the new artistic normal.
“In a typical season, we would have had one multi-city trip to Europe and one to two development trips to Asia,” said Amy Egelja, VP, footwear design for Aetrex Worldwide Inc. “I’ve always found travel to be very inspirational and I miss the days of discovery — walking through city streets, going into shops, seeing what people are wearing. Technology has been a savior since I can visit some of my favorite shops and department stores online.”
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Egelja has in part, replaced travel with Instagram’s explore feature. “It’s probably the closest thing to the discovery part of travel,” she said. “We also rely heavily on technology in lieu of our [product] development trips. We have a weekly Skype call with our U.S. and China teams since face-to-face time is important. I’m always trying to find better, more efficient ways to communicate visually and virtually.”
Like Egelja, Megan Gold, design director for Alegria and Traq by Alegria, is keeping the lines of communication open among her design team members. “Hands down, the number one thing that’s holding it all together is video chat,” explained Gold, referring to associates in China as well as the company’s corporate, sales, design and marketing teams in the U.S. “We have to communicate what’s going on with each part of the team so we’re all on the same page,” she said. “I haven’t talked on the phone this much since the 7th grade.”
While the retail and material markets have opened up more extensively in China and Taiwan, allowing Alegria’s Asia-based teams to move about more freely, Gold, who’s based in the Seattle area has been more limited in her outings. “I’m able to shop, but with more planning than usual,” she said. “Smaller vintage and thrift stores may have limited hours, so I’m doing a lot of calling and verifying store hours. I am also avoiding extended trending trips, as it feels less risky to go on well planned day trips.”
Reinforcing the lines of communication with his design team is also a top priority for Scott Radabaugh, director of design for Vionic, especially when it comes to exploring new color and material options. “I think the hardest thing to do virtually, is seeing new materials,” he said. “A huge part of materials, is their hand [feel].”
in lieu of attending trade shows, parent company Caleres has set up online material shows with suppliers for virtual meetings that allows the design team to ask questions, then follow-up by receiving actual swatches. “It isn’t the same as traveling to a material show,” noted Radabaugh, “but it’s been the best and most efficient way to adjust.”
As consumers lifestyles have changed due to the pandemic, designers are increasingly relying on their feedback when developing new products. “Right now, we’re inspired and motivated by identifying what our customer needs in this moment,” said Angelique Joseph, VP of global design for Naturalizer, also under the Caleres umbrella. “Her priorities have shifted, so that’s shifted our approach to design with a focus on sport and casual.”
Joseph’s team has also been putting themselves in customers’ shoes by engaging in more outdoor activities for new products that include getting out to bike, hike and even camp. “We’re trying to understand how our customer is spending her time now and what she may be looking for and the innovation around it,” said Joseph.
“Social media engagement, e-store consumer questionnaires, and in some cases, online fashion forums and focus groups are now an integral part of how we obtain information to forecast future fashion direction,” said Vanessa Bolieior, VP of product development for The Enjoiya Group. “In addition, I often utilize family, friends and local neighbors to invoke inspiration, referencing old photos, classic TV shows and movies that showcase vintage trends that are cyclical and coming back.”
As it turns out, in uncertain times, what’s familiar often resonates with consumers.
“Nothing is better than last year’s best sellers, with a tweak here and there,“ said Bolieiro. “We have now run some for two to three consecutive years. They’ve developed a following and a certain loyalty that our consumer embraces. With so much uncertainty out there, familiarity can be a good thing.”