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Q&A: Red Wing's plans to expand womenswear footprint

When it comes to men’s boots, few manufacturers have a better heritage than US brand Red Wing. The business has been turning out sturdy styles for blue-collar workers, soldiers and, more recently, fashionistas since being founded in Minnesota in 1905.  

Today, Red Wing has a growing UK stockist base spanning 60 accounts including Mr Porter, Asos.com, Harvey Nichols and indies Stuarts London and Country Attire, alongside a single own-brand store in London. 

Product manager Allison Gettings, the fourth generation of the family that has run Red Wing since 1921, is now spearheading the launch of a women’s fashion-led collection and aiming to make her mark on the brand. 

Red Wing women's Chelsea boot

What is the history of women’s shoes in the Red Wing business?

Red Wing started making shoes for women in 1926. However, in the 1960s, we began to focus this just on workwear products such as protective boots. The Heritage part of the business – in which we produce more fashion-led styles for men, such as contrast-soled leather boots and chukka boots – launched in 2005 and we’ve been thinking about doing a women’s line under it for a few years.

Why have you decided to launch the Heritage women’s line for autumn 15?

We didn’t just want to take our popular men’s styles and make them on a smaller-sized women’s last. We have already seen success with Heritage men’s, which is a solid business with a solid distribution model in place, so we felt like it was finally the right time to focus on women’s and do it. 

Tell us about the debut collection.

We have three categories for our first launch. We wanted to keep it quite tight because we realised we’re going to have to educate women about who we are. The first is called the Legacy collection (wholesale from £160), which comprises two styles – a knee-high flat boot with a buckle or lace-up – from our archive that we made for women in the 1920s and 30s. Then we have the Modern collection (wholesale from £126) with three different styles. These are more feminine versions of existing men’s styles, such as the Moc toe and the Chelsea boot, but are sat on a leather stacked heel. The final collection is a four-piece Core collection (wholesale from £108). These are styles that are in the men’s Heritage line already – a lace-up ankle boot with a Moc or round toe – but they have been deconstructed and reconstructed with women and comfort in mind, using lighter-weight leathers and a leather-covered foam footbed.

What are the differences in designing for women as opposed to men?

One of the biggest challenges is that Red Wing is perceived as a very masculine brand, so we had to really think about how we could get away from that. Our men’s shoes are pretty rugged – it can be quite a commitment to break them in before the wearer gets that personalised custom comfort. For women, we realised we needed more out-of-the-box comfort so we did a lot to take weight out of the shoe. Instead of using a Vibrate rubber outsole, we used a polyurethane outsole, which is more lightweight, flexible and cushioned. We also re-tanned all our leathers, so instead of using a thick steerhide we’re using lighter cowhides. This is where the benefit of having your own tannery nearby comes in.

How are you balancing picking up on footwear trends with being a heritage business?

I think this is always going to be a fun balance for us to maintain: how do we remain true to ourselves while also being relevant to the marketplace? All the styles we’re putting out in the first collection are very core to the Red Wing business, but we can keep them fresh by using different leathers, and playing around with the textures and colours to stay current to trends. 

Whom will you be going after to stock the women’s collection in the UK?

We’re still finalising stockists, but we’re going to be holding an event for European multiple and independent retailers on January 26 at our offices in Amsterdam to give them an overview of the collection. A lot of independent women’s boutiques may not be familiar with Red Wing because it’s quite a masculine brand, but this will also be an opportunity to show our existing men’s stockists how we are now relating to women. The collections will then be available to view in the UK showroom in north Kensington, London.

On the men’s side, Red Wing is a big brand for independent retailers. Do you see women’s being the same?

Particularly for our first season, I see us leaning heavily towards independent boutiques. This has been an important strategy for us on the men’s side. The nice thing about having strong independent stockists is these smaller businesses have such a great relationship with their customers, so a sales associate can educate them on our brand. Also I think women really look to good independent retailers as tastemakers to help them understand what the cool new brands are because they have a unique point of view.

Red Wing has own-brand men’s stores in the UK. Are there likely to be women’s stores in the future?

I think that’s a great idea. That said, I think if we were to do another store in the UK, we would look to do something that combines the men’s and women’s Heritage collections together in one big space. Because of the synergies between both collections, they would bounce off each other so well in a single store.

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