Footwear designer balances luxury, sensibility in shoesFor a few years, Lee Bo-hyun spied a hole in the Korean shoe market: Was it possible to sell beautiful and trendy shoes that are competitive with world-renowned labels but also affordable?
The designer decided it was ― if she designed and produced her own. When her cute shoe boutique named Suecomma Bonnie opened two years ago in a back street of Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul, the store’s sexy, sassy high heels in candy colors immediately captured hearts.
“Here, those nice imported shoes were only available in limited selections and quantities,” Ms. Lee says. “Basically, there was only Prada and Gucci. If I went to a store like Boon The Shop, shoes would be too expensive; the same ones would be much cheaper abroad. I wouldn’t wear those Korean custom-made shoes because they were not attractive.”
Her idea for shoes has given birth to a new niche market in Korea. While Suecomma Bonnie has expanded to five locations inside major department stores such as Lotte, Galleria and Shinsegae, a drove of similar brands has crowded the new market niche.
“The Korean market is trend sensitive and fashion forward with a great potential for the future,” says Hose Moran, the sales and marketing director of Ras, a Spanish brand of shoes. “In the Korean [shoe] market, you can’t compete in volume because it’s dominated by local giants such as Kumkang and Esquire. And you can’t hit the target by showing your products in hotel exhibitions organized by the government and trade commissions.”
Before opening her stores, Ms. Lee designed men’s clothes for a company in the 1980s and used to order shoes as part of wardrobes, but that was the extent of her experience before becoming a shoe designer. When her European friends suggested she sell imported shoes in Korea, she quit her designer job and represented Spanish shoe brands for about 10 years including Alima, Ras and Kowaski. But she always wanted to start her own brand.
To create her line of shoes, Ms. Lee went down to the basics, and that meant a simple aspect: comfort. “Even if they are stilettos, I made the heels slightly thicker to make them more comfortable,” she says.
They are designed by a team of Korean designers and handmade by local craftsmen. All parts of the shoes are made in Korea, but she imports the best-quality leather from Italy and Spain. Unlike most locally made shoes that simply copy popular designs, she developed her own molds ― called lasts ― to make her shoes.
To fit Asian feet, each shoe goes through multiple fittings by five staffers who have different foot shapes, and the shoes are wider and allow more flexibility for the upper part of a person’s foot.
Most Suecomma Bonnie shoes have plastic soles, reflecting the local preference. Suecomma Bonnie shoes have mostly 3 to 3.5 inch-high heels and fall into two categories, “chic” or “cute.” Whether they are round-toed red pumps or metallic lime green strappy sandals, each pair rightfully reflects the trend of the time, and they are easily noticed.
When Chi Miggi, a model and party planner sports a pair of Suecomma Bonnie’s spiky pumps custom-made for her, she says people notice and ask her if she bought them abroad. Ms. Chi said she finds these trendy Korean-made shoes affordable.
Ms. Lee also came up with a competitive price. A pair of Suecomma Bonnie shoes costs between 258,000 won ($253) and 328,000 won, a range where there were few shoes with top-grade leather similar to that used by Gucci and Celine.
“When she started her own brand, it was just perfect timing because she hit right on target with her concept in the market,” Mr. Moran says, who has been watching the Korean fashion market for years. “She started it all with her sexy, trendy and elegant shoes worn by celebrities, and look, everyone [in the shoe business] is following her.”
Both Ms. Lee and Mr. Moran have a sharp eye for analyzing Korea’s market for their shoes, and both have collaborated on ideas on how to to penetrate the market. Since Mr. Moran took over Ras 10 years ago as a marketing and sales director, his brand has expanded to 30 countries and collaborated with high-end brands such as Prada, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, with annual sales of around $13 million. In Asia, he has Ras stores in China and Japan, and he says he’s ready to expand in Korea.
What they have done ― along with many imitators ― is exploit a niche overlooked by other shoe designers. A few years ago, there were few brands of shoes in the middle-price range offering high quality but not an astronomical price. While Japanese retailers and consumers have typically held Korean shoe producers in low regard, both Mr. Moran and Ms. Lee are looking to the Japanese market for Suecomma Bonnie.
“When I showed the ‘made in Korea’ shoes to Japanese distributors, they were very surprised,” Mr. Moran said. “When they visited Korea, they were also stunned to see that Korea had such a trendy and fashionable side to it.”
Upscale stores like Barney’s New York and Via Bus Stop in Tokyo confirmed their first order of 100 of the Suecomma Bonnie 2005 fall and winter collection. Ms. Lee says she is looking to break into the European market through a trade exhibition in Paris later this year.
“If possible, I’d like to have a flagship store in New York City, London and Tokyo,” she says.
Do they have any strategies to beat out shoes made in China, the shoe manufacturing juggernaut in Asia? They believe that even though there is fierce competition, “Instead of following, you have to reinvent yourself, be creative and fashion forward,” Mr. Moran says.
by Ines Cho