How Canada carved out a place in the global shoe market

Ron White was a freshly minted business school graduate with dreams of taking over Saks Fifth Avenue when he was hired by Bretton’s department store in Toronto.

He was assigned to work in the shoe department, regarded as the hub of the store, as part of a management trainee program.

“I went kicking and screaming,” said White. “I was like ‘Shoes? I don’t want to be in shoes! I don’t want to touch feet! I’m a clothing guy, what are you doing to me?’”

Twenty years later, Bretton’s is gone and White is a shoe retailer and wholesaler, with four stores in the GTA, an online store and deals to supply Hudson’s Bay stores, Town Shoes and Holt Renfrew. He has a newly minted deal with

White is one of a handful of Canadian shoe designers and retailers who are carving out a place for themselves in the global footwear market, even as the global footwear market expands into Canada.

U.S. discount retailer Designer Shoe Warehouse Inc. recently announced it is coming here in a $62-million deal with Town Shoes Limited, bringing the brightly lit, self-serve environment to deal-seeking designer shoe aficionados north of the border.

All the new Target stores in Canada have shoe departments, and U.S. department store retailer Nordstrom, which will open its first location in Canada this fall, is known for having a strong shoe section.

Last year The Bay under Bonnie Brooks opened the largest shoe department in Canada, a vast and sparkling space on the main floor of the Queen Street store in Toronto.

Once, only women like Imelda Marcos had a closet full of shoes.

Today, White points out, there is the office shoe, the weekend shoe, and depending on what you are doing on the weekend, it could be an athletic shoe or a driving shoe or a ballet shoe, a walking shoe, a sandal or an espadrille. There is the bride’s shoe, the mother-of-the-bride’s shoe, the once-in-a-lifetime-event shoe and don’t even get him started on the boots.

Shoes were a $5.2-billion business in Canada in 2013, according to the consumer research market firm The NPD Group. In 2011 it was $4.8-billion.

The beauty of shoes, says White, is that no matter what changes in your life, your shoe size stays the same.

“If you have kids and gain an extra 20, guess what? Your feet don’t change. You put them on, it makes you feel special, elegant, sexy.”

Despite the painful heights of heels on shoes by Jimmy Choo and Louboutin, comfort is the top priority for men and women shopping for shoes, according to NPD.

White’s specialty is shoes that cushion the foot and allow his customers – from store clerks to real estate agents, CEOs and celebrities – to wear heels all day more comfortably.

The Ron White collection, made in Italy, sells in the $300-$400 range. His new, lower-priced line, White Ron White, is made in China and aimed at a younger customer. The shoes start at just under $200 – a relative bargain in the world of designer shoes, where prices spiral easily into the thousands.

At the other end of the country, and a different end of the fashion spectrum, is John Fluevog, the co-founder and designer of Fluevog shoes, which has been expanding the number of retail stores in Canada and the U.S., at a pace of about two or three a year, for the past three years.

Fluevog now owns and operates 19 stores, including 11 in the U.S., one on Queen Street East and one in the Distillery District in Toronto.

While Fluevog supplies shoes to other retailers, he prefers creating retail environments.

“I like the feeling that we are able to put across – our culture – in our retail stores with the staff and the way things look and feel,” says Fleuvog, who still designs the shoes, with their trademark bold colours and sturdy architecture, softened by whimsical touches.

They begin at about $250, a relative bargain, especially considering that there are a limited number of Fluevogs made in any given size.

“Our societies are so different than they were even 50 years ago,” says Fluevog, 66.

“People are doing different things to find community. And one of the things we’re finding is that they are doing it through a brand.”

Think Lululemon, sponsoring yoga meet-ups.

“You identify with them, they tweak your sensibility, you walk out of the retail experience thinking, ‘I want to be a bit more like that.’ That is what Starbuck’s was ten years ago. You’d walk in and think: Everything is nice in here, it’s what I want my life to look like, it’s all ordered, everything is neat and tidy, these people are professional. I can have a nice cup of coffee, which I deserve.”

His online business may be growing at a faster rate than his retail business (which is also growing well), but he thinks there will always be a place for the bricks and mortar experience.

With 44 years of experience under his belt, he is watching other retailers with interest.

“At The Bay they have some very unusual and high-end shoes sitting in a package – a department store – that doesn’t invoke a feeling or emotion. I wonder if they are going to be able to get the dollars for them? I am not saying they’re not, I’m just guessing.”

White was wooed away from the shoe department at Bretton’s by the owner of an orthopedic shoe store, where he learned to analyze foot posture and how that can relate to gait, knee, hip and back problems. Eventually, he found himself drawn back to his passion.

“I was a fashion guy trapped in that orthopedic world. I had to burst out,” he says.

He used Visa cash advances and small family loans to open his first store, The Foot Shoppe, on Yonge Street north of Eglinton Avenue. In the early days he sometimes slept in the basement, which was equipped with showers for the aerobics studio above the shoe store.

“I used to help customers all day, then I’d mop and clean up, eat dinner, I would sort the receipts with manual accounting – I didn’t even have a computer. My cash desk was my sister’s old kitchen table from Ikea that had a bunch of duct tape on it. I’d collapse, go to sleep and do it all over again.”

White was among the first in Canada to carry Ecco, Mephisto, Geox and on the fashion side, Cole Haan.

“I would go into the showrooms in New York and I would pick up a shoe and say, ‘Could you add extra padding in it, could you take the heel and flare it so it’s a little more stable? Because a little tiny flare on a shoe doesn’t even change the look dramatically, but it made it more stable, and I knew how it affected the arch and the knees and the hips and the back.”

He kept trying to make the fashion stuff more comfortable and the comfort shoes more fashionable. Finally he decided to do it himself.

“I went to Italy. It was a disaster at first to get them to fit properly. If they fit, they looked chunky if they looked good then they didn’t have all the materials inside. I had to reinvent how to make shoes.”

Using his experience from his time working in orthopedics, he developed a three-layer sole to keep feet comfortable in heels all day.

“I call it my triple-decker sandwich,” he says.

He opened a store in Yorkville, which introduced his shoes to the film festival crowd, including celebrities, which led him to the red carpet in Hollywood. The Duchess of York was a customer.

He let the lease go on the store at Yonge and Eglinton after the demographics shifted from the Lawrence Park and Forest Hill crowd to a younger customer looking for $59.99 deals.

Getting into Holt Renfrew was important. Being Canadian doesn’t have much weight when you’re trying to sell to Saks Fifth Avenue.

“You’re Canadian. They expect you to be in hockey or gas and oil. So to be in fashion is tough and to be in shoes is even tougher because try and think of three people who are in the shoe business as designers in Canada? I present my line as beautiful Italian shoes. I am proudly Canadian but I can’t lead with it. The next thing they ask me: “Oh, does Holts carry your shoes?’”

With the increase in shoes about to flow into the Canadian marketplace, there is likely to be consolidation at the bricks-and-mortar level, predicts Sean Clark, who co-founded the Canadian online shoe store

He launched it a year after announced it would no longer be shipping to Canada. sells current styles, in-season, by more than 200 brands. Clark, who helped build up the online business Clearly Contacts in Australia, is bullish on the future of online shoe stores – he says the market is underserviced in Canada. does brisk business among rural fashionistas who don’t have access to a wide range of brands at their local retailer.

Clark points to the bankruptcy of Sterling Shoes as an example of the potential future for bricks and mortar. He named Soft Moc, which has more than 100 locations in Canada, and Walking on a Cloud, with 45 locations in Canada, as mid-tier shoe stores with mall locations that might be affected.

White is satisfied with his brick-and-mortar store count for now. He is focusing on wholesale.

Zappos was a coup and a world stage for his shoes.

“We went and presented in Las Vegas. It’s crazy-cool, like the Facebook of shoes,” says White.

The buyer bought every single style he had to offer.

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