Ron White is having a moment. The sheen of his black jacket and the glimmer in his eye sparkle under the camera’s rapid-fire flashes, as a photographer bobs and weaves to capture White at just the right angle—every handshake and group shot with the Canadian glitterati that have assembled here on a late-spring day in Toronto.
But nothing shines so bright as the Swarovski crystals on the signature shoes White is wearing. Those shoes are the stars of the show, really, as White launches an upscale footwear line at Saks Fifth Avenue.
It’s the latest in a series of partnerships for the shoe designer and retailer, who has also inked deals with Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom Canada. These agreements are as much about expanding his footprint as they are proof points for other retailers: If White’s shoes are good enough for the toniest retailers in North America, then they’re good enough for Selfridges in London, Brown Thomas in Ireland, and so on.
That could be why White looks positively ebullient on this afternoon, bowing ever so slightly as he greets the parade of local celebrities and fashionistas, who nibble on mini-doughnuts and sip champagne cocktails. Bonnie Brooks, vice-chairwoman of Saks parent company Hudson’s Bay Co., presides over the crowd. Even Toronto mayor John Tory does his best Derek Zoolander in front of a long mirror as he slips on a pair of casual blue Ron White shoes, officially known as the Jace Jeans sneaker, handcrafted in Italy from cashmere suede and retailing at $375. “It’s super cool,” White exclaims, pointing at his creation. “It’s like a boat shoe mixed with a sneaker.” White implores Tory to go for a stroll, and the mayor struts across the floor while a small crowd of rubberneckers takes in the scene.
This spectacle has been 25 years in the making, the result of the countless hours White has spent perfecting an innovative product, soliciting extensive customer feedback and deploying an innate talent for schmoozing. He’s on a crusade to rescue 35- to 55-year-old women and men from the perils of pinching their long-abused feet into ill-fitting shoes. Ultimately, his gospel is that shoes can be both elegant and comfortable. Along the way, he has had to accept that he’s not a Jimmy Choo or a Manolo Blahnik—at least not yet. Indeed, while the scene at Saks is a long way from the days when White was fitting grannies into orthopedic shoes, it’s still a quaintly Canadian celebration. Today’s marquee guests? The Tenors.
For White to reach the next level, he’ll have to make a name for himself in the U.S. And while he has made strong inroads with high-end independent retailers, it’s a much different story with larger chains such as Nordstrom. A few years ago, he tried to break into Nordstrom in the U.S.; he failed. Recent partnerships in Canada could give him a path back in, provided he learns from his past mistakes. After all, his life’s mission will only be complete once he has redefined the perfect shoe—and racked up blockbuster sales.
When White isn’t hobnobbing, he can sometimes be found ensconced behind a sprawling desk in his Toronto office, busy fielding calls. First up this afternoon, talks with buyers in San Francisco about the launch of next fall’s collection. Next, discussions about spring ’17 with purchasers in Palm Beach, Fla. Then it’s an email to a factory in Italy—the same plant that manufactures leather goods for Hermès.
Meanwhile, an endless loop of photos streams across a wall screen in the reception area: White at the Grammys; White at the Emmys; White mugging alongside celebrities like Matt Damon and Céline Dion. At 47, White looks every inch a boy from the Peg, with wholesome good looks, a perfect coif of sandy brown hair cresting into a swirl like the tip of a Dairy Queen cone, and a hyperkinetic manner of speaking that hews to a bygone era, with its “bam-O”s and “OMG”s.
“Follow me,” he says, gesturing toward a makeshift showroom, its shelves lined with an infinite palette of lace, leather, buckle and bling. “My woman,” he begins, picking up a lacy open-toed number that’s been a smash hit this season, “won’t put up with things that are uncomfortable just because the Kardashians are wearing them.” She is confident, and she likes comfort. But she’s not a comfort shopper. “That—” he sniffs, “that’s a Clarks shopper.”
Over the course of the next two hours, White will define his customer, invoking her (and it is always “her”) as though she exists among the Platonic Forms. White’s customer is always “my woman” or “she,” who needs shoes for board meetings, silent auctions and running around on the weekends, not to mention for the opera or a bar mitzvah.
His niche is what he calls the pre-luxury market—the sweet spot between $300 and $600—sharing shelf space with brands like Stuart Weitzman and Aquatalia, and once dominated by names such as Cole Haan and Donald J. Pliner, before they were sold and repositioned at a lower price point. And it is ultimately the reinvention of those brands that White says created an opportunity for him to go from being a small-scale retailer to a designer and wholesaler. The route, however, was a fair bit more winding than that.
After graduating from a business retail management program at Sheridan College in Ontario, White took a job in the men’s shoe department at the now-defunct Bretton’s department store chain. A year later, White got an unsolicited call from a chiropodist to run his orthotics store. Plantar fasciitis? Pronators and supinators? White bolted in the opposite direction. But the podiatrist persisted, sweetening the pot by doubling the salary White was making at Bretton’s.
Over the next two years, White worked to gain an intimate knowledge of gait analysis, and by his mid-20s, he was straddling two very different shoe worlds. At Bretton’s, his customers would ask: “They’re beautiful, but are they comfortable?” At the orthotics store, they told him: “The shoes feel so good, but they’re hideous.” He was still living in a basement apartment when the idea struck him: Why not marry fashion and biomechanics? It might not seem so radical of an idea, but many of the fashion-conscious conflate the degree of difficulty for the wearer with high marks for vogue.
Believing he could bring together the seemingly incompatible, White took out a line of credit on his Visa and borrowed from friends, and opened his first store, in midtown Toronto. He carved out a niche selling upscale—but comfortable—shoes from brands like Mephisto, Stuart Weitzman, Donald J. Pliner and Taryn Rose.
The latter company essentially defined the luxury comfort market in the U.S. (It was founded by a podiatrist turned designer, after all.) “It’s just snowballed from there,” says Barbara Schneider-Levy, a senior editor who covers the comfort market for Footwear News. Still, it’s a specific market, just a portion of the $6.95-billion shoe industry in Canada. Some higher-end brands live in both the fashion and comfort world—even if a few luxe designers are loath to admit they try to make shoes comfortable, as though it devalues their brand, Schneider-Levy points out.
Today, Ron White Shoes has expanded its unique offering to six Canadian stores, including shops in Ottawa and Calgary. But the company’s real engine of growth is in the fledgling wholesale and design side of the business—something that never would have happened had White not been paying attention to his customers’ needs.
The way White tells the story, “she” would come into the store, look at existing brands and tell him a shoe would be perfect if only it had a lower heel or more padding or a different buckle. He’d then talk to the brands, and they would listen, ultimately incorporating these suggestions into upcoming collections. Sure enough, those revamped shoes became bestsellers.
White thought, Why not produce my own line? His first step was to figure out a way to insert comfort into luxury. Eventually, it led him to NASA, where he found a high-tech material called Poron that was invented to help cushion astronauts’ legs and backs during blast-off.
Tinkering over months, White perfected and patented what has become known as his All Day Heels technology: The secret is hollowing out the shoe sole and injecting it with Poron so that every square inch contains 1,000 air bubbles. If the effect doesn’t replicate a weightless environment, at least it lets shoe buyers feel like they are walking on air. He disregarded the typical North American fit. It was a recognition that “she” can no longer squeeze into the same tottering stilettos she did when she was 20. Pregnancy and the foot expansion that comes with age mean most shoes don’t easily accommodate women older than 35. White’s designs, in contrast, all have extra room in the toe box, along with a narrower heel.
Once these design overhauls were in place, aesthetics took over. White began travelling to Italy, going to the same factories where Chanel, Gucci and other luxury brands are produced. Designs were tweaked. Leather, buckles and ornaments were sourced. For the first few years after he introduced his shoes into his own stores in 2006, it was very much trial and error. “At first they didn’t sell at all. The heels were too high. The heels were too low. The look just wasn’t right,” he says. “If I didn’t own my own stores, I could never have done this. The stores are a business in themselves, but they’re also my secret weapon.” Bottom line: His customers are his best focus group.
White also realized developing his own wholesale line provided a much bigger market opportunity. Besides, he’d always dreamed of becoming a designer—not just helping other brands create better products. He began selling to large, independent retailers in the pre-luxury market, such as Arthur Beren in San Francisco and Harry’s in New York, as well as to stores in Canada.
And then came his biggest break yet.
After all the schmoozing, the headlines and the fans White had picked up from the Grammys and Emmys, the biggest purveyor of shoes in the U.S. was willing to give him a shot. In 2011, Nordstrom gave White space to sell not just his regular lineup of women’s shoes but also his super-luxe, high-heeled Red Carpet Collection, situated right next to the Dior, Stella McCartney and other high-end brands. One season in, it proved to be a disaster. While his regular collection sold, White says, consumers weren’t willing to spend $800 for his emerging luxe line.
“It was devastating,” White confesses, pausing for a moment. “But the learning experience was insane. It was because of that experience that I could really find my niche.” Undoubtedly, the failure stung for some time, especially the realization that Ron White was not considered a luxury brand, even though the Kevin Spaceys and Kim Cattralls of the Hollywood set were happy to be seen in his shoes. But dwelling on the negative simply isn’t White’s style. “Tell me one designer who’s in all of the major Canadian department stores,” he says in the next breath. “There’s no one but me.”
Still, isn’t he just a teeny bit worried that as he moves into chains like Saks, he’ll see a repeat of what happened at Nordstorm in the U.S.? On this, White is unequivocal. “They see what I’ve done. That I’m focused on my niche. I really think it’s going to sell out in about five minutes,” he says, adding that talks with Nordstrom are already underway to launch in American stores again.
The U.S., of course, is a much bigger and more competitive market than Canada. “I love Ron, but it’s not a name that comes up in a lot of conversations here yet,” says Schneider-Levy at Footwear News. “His shoes are beautiful, but it’s not easy to penetrate this market.”
White says his U.S. strategy isn’t that different from the one he has used to create a loyal following in Canada. “There are two ways brands get rolling,” he explains. “You can have a multimillion-dollar campaign—the whole shebang. Or it can be done at the store level. Getting feet into stores. For my customer, it’s all about feel. I just need to get her in them.” This is where White excels, and it explains why he does so many store appearances. Sid Burger, lead buyer for tony San Francisco retailer Arthur Beren, says the on-the-ground strategy has worked well, as White has steadily expanded his market share at the store by winning customers over one pair of shoes at a time. “He’s full of piss and vinegar. He has a way of sharing his passion and his energy like no one else. When he comes to the store and does a meeting with the staff—you’re just listening, fully engaged for an hour,” Burger says.
It’s a slow, painstaking strategy, however, especially at major department stores, where sales staff are hawking so many different brands at various price points. But the plan did work at Hudson’s Bay Co. Bonnie Brooks, the company’s vice-chairwoman, confesses it wasn’t until she tried on a pair of Ron White shoes that she finally understood the value proposition. And that’s why she has now become such a champion. After all, it was her idea not only to bring White into the Saks fold but also to lure younger consumers to the Bay by introducing a new line of his shoes at a lower price in 2013. White, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t happy with the results. Instead of manufacturing in Italy, where his shoes have always been produced, White had contracted factories in China. The quality was not up to snuff.
White abandoned the line and instead launched a collection of vegan shoes this past spring in partnership with Rapisardi, a stalwart Italian brand with a huge presence outside North America. The shoes are made using only vegetable-based components and chemical-free glues—footwear good enough to eat. This fall, the line will launch at the Bay in the $250 to $295 range. It’s not just another bid to lure a younger demographic but also a way to groom future customers to embrace a higher price point as they climb the corporate ladder.
About an hour into the Saks launch, Brooks is busy playing host, introducing guests to one another. She pauses for a moment, surveying the room and watching as White mugs for one photograph after another, pressing the flesh, all while talking up his story. Brooks thinks there’s more to come. Much more, she says, suggesting he could rise to the level of Dior or Christian Louboutin someday. “Ron hasn’t even had his moment just yet,” she says. “That’s where his journey will go. I have no doubt about that.”