It’s full steam ahead in the UK for nautical footwear brand Sebago, says its vice president, who expects its first standalone stores to do wonders for its profile.
To some it may seem incongruous that a US brand should choose the UK as the location for its only two standalone stores, but Gary Malamet, vice president and general manager of Sebago, says it shows just how important the UK is to the nautical footwear brand.
Sebago’s first store opened in Bath in March, and it has now followed this with a 1,604 sq ft store on London’s Regent Street, which opened on November 23 and will serve as the brand’s UK flagship. There are 47 Sebago stores worldwide, but with the exception of the two in the UK, all are run as franchise stores.
Malamet is in London for the opening, and his joy at securing such a prestigious retail location is palpable. “There are very few streets with the cachet of Regent Street anywhere in the world,” he says. “Whether you are on Fifth Avenue in New York or Regent Street in London, when that opportunity comes your way you have to take it.”
Opening the store just before Christmas may seem like an astute decision but Malamet insists it was more about luck. “The timing was all down to finding the perfect location. It’s just real good luck that it’s right before the holidays.”
And what about the state of the UK high street? Is Malamet worried about opening a flagship in such a tough climate? It seems not. “I’ve seen two or three different recessions in my life and one of the things I’ve learnt, from them all, is that there is no better time to open up a store,” he says bullishly. “If you can make it in this economy it’s only going to get better.”
Perhaps he’s right to feel confident. The latest set of results from Wolverine Worldwide, Sebago’s parent company, for the third quarter to October 3 show a 12.9% rise in revenues to $361.6m (£232.9m), up from $320.4m (£206.6m) in the same period the previous year. Wolverine’s Lifestyle Group segment, which as well as Sebago also includes Hush Puppies, Cushe and Soft Style, was particularly impressive, reporting 21.6% revenue growth in the quarter.
“Globally, the UK is one of [Sebago’s] strongest markets,” says Malamet. “In fact the UK is a pretty strong market for Wolverine as a whole. I’d say the group is pretty dependent on our UK business; we actually have a corporate office here from which we run all the European operations. Wolverine has been in the UK for more than 20 years and we don’t look at this market as a small subsidiary of Wolverine, we look at it as an integral part of the group.”
In the spotlight
With the UK market so important, and after opening two stores, one might think Sebago has an aggressive retail strategy for the UK, but Malamet says this couldn’t be further from the truth: “We’re definitely interested in retail, primarily because it truly allows us to showcase the brand. But we honestly don’t have any plans at the moment for more stores in the UK.”
For him, retail represents an opportunity to raise brand awareness. “If you’re going to create a personality and capture the emotion behind a brand, there’s no better way to do it than through your own stores, and that’s what we’re using this avenue to do,” he adds. “If you want to make a brand aspirational, this is the way to do it.”
And what can customers expect from the Regent Street store? It’s been deliberately designed to be different to the store in Bath, explains Malamet. “That [Bath] store is geared far more towards the true nautical aspect of the brand,” he says. “Sebago is a lake in Maine in the US and originally we were a traditional nautical brand. We have very close connections to sailing and the nautical lifestyle and the Bath store really captures the essence and ethos of Sebago from that regard.”
The Regent Street store, however, is more about the lifestyle side of the business. Sebago’s roots are as a New England dress shoe manufacturer. “We were manufacturing dress shoes at our hand-sewn factory in Maine long before we started making boat shoes,” says Malamet. “That background is what we are about and we’ve tried to convey this in the store.”
He adds: “Some people don’t even realise we do clothing, so in the store they’ll be able to see the full extent of our collection and really get a feel for what the lifestyle side is all about.”
Clothing makes up 25% of Sebago’s total sales, and Malamet describes it as an “incredibly exciting” part of the business.
He hopes that the UK trend towards all things Americana will lure customers to Regent Street. “Fortunately for us, Americana happens to be very much on trend so it’s very exciting to be able to participate in that fashion trend. We see it continuing for quite some time.”
He uses the example of US lifestyle retailer Abercrombie & Fitch to illustrate the rest of the world’s obsession with all things American. “One of my parameters I use to measure tourism in the US is when I go to New York and monitor how long the queue is going into Abercrombie & Fitch,” he jokes. “If it’s 10 people deep I know tourism is a little bit off, but if it’s going right around the block, things are good again.”
Despite the excitement surrounding the Regent Street opening, Malamet insists that wholesale continues to be Sebago’s priority. The brand has 250 doors in the UK including key independents such as contemporary menswear indie End Clothing in Newcastle and Manchester premium menswear indie Oi Polloi, as well as footwear multiples such as Russell & Bromley.
While wholesale growth is definitely important for Sebago, Malamet refuses to be drawn on an exact number when it comes to targeting stockists; he insists it’s more about partnering with retailers that are the right “fit” for the brand.
“Our product isn’t priced to be sold everywhere and it’s not positioned to be carried by everybody, so when we’re looking for stockists we’re looking for the best locations and the store that is going to best represent the brand in terms of price points and merchandising, and that have character. If there are another 20 stores like that in the UK then so be it, and if there are another 100, so be it.”
He firmly believes, however, that Sebago’s UK retail presence will only reinforce its wholesale business. “We were transparent with our stockists when we were opening our stores as we want to maintain our relationships. None of them had an issue with it because they know this can only be a good thing for the brand.”
2009 Vice president and general manager, Sebago
2006 Global vice president, Lacoste Footwear
1993 President, Stacy Adams Footwear
1992 East Coast account executive, Kenneth Cole
1987 Director of sales, Bally of Switzerland