This is Creative Portrait, a series where we go inside showrooms and ask up-and-coming designers for their fresh perspectives on the fashion industry.
In September 2012, Ariel Nelson was shoe shopping for a wedding when he couldn’t find a pair he liked that was within his budget.
“To pay $500 or $600 for a beautiful pair of shoes was not on the cards and everything I wanted was either in that price range, or I was looking at a sale rack and giving up on style, color, or aesthetic,” he said. After expressing his frustrations to his friend Lane Gerson, the pair recognized a gap in the market for men’s shoes of a designer quality at affordable prices.
What started as a side project that summer in 2012 quickly developed into a business. At the time, Nelson worked in operations for a distribution company. Gerson, an accountant, worked at 3D printing company Cad Blu. At the beginning of 2013, the pair launched Jack Erwin, named after each of their fathers, with a few hundred thousand dollars raised from friends and family. Within two and a half months, the first 3,000 shoes had sold out and there was a waiting list of a few thousand people, according to Nelson.
Looking to expand, the brand closed its first round of venture funding at $2 million at the end of 2013, and Diane Sullivan of the shoe company Callers led a $9 million funding round with its investors the following year. Today, the company has 20 employees and sources all its own materials from leather to soles to laces and eyelets for its dress shoes, boat shoes, loafers and boots. Its products are all priced under $220 and are made in four factories in Spain and Portugal. Its fitting room, a light-filled corner store in TriBeCa, allows consumers to try the shoes on and feel the products, but the shoes are ordered and sold online only.
Glossy asked Ariel Nelson, 33, and Lane Gerson, 34, how Jack Erwin is targeting millennial men, why it can sell designer shoes at a much lower cost, and what the biggest challenges are of starting a direct to consumer business.
Jack Erwin co-founders Lane Gerson (L) and Ariel Nelson (R).
Were there challenges in finding the right factories to let you source your own materials?
Nelson: It was a huge undertaking. You’re basically telling third and fourth generation factories that the way they’re doing it is not OK for you. We have people who work for us full time in Spain who teach the finishing. We flew people in from Italy to help with the finishing of all of our shoes.
Who do you see as your competitors?
Gerson: Cole Haan, Johnson and Murphy, Allen Edmond, any department store.
So how is Jack Erwin different?
Nelson: We give people consistency in style and price. I was always shopping on a sale rack, and I’d want a brown shoe, I knew how much I wanted to pay and I wanted a simple silhouette, but I could never go back every year and get the same pair of shoes.
What’s the biggest myth in fashion?
Gerson: The notion that only new brands are going to win in today’s retail environment, that everything needs to be changed and what older fashion brands built their businesses on is irrelevant. Great in-store experience matters, talking to customers matters, those things have always been around.
Are millennial men more difficult to target?
Gerson: No, it’s not a harder-versus-easier thing, it’s a different thing. Men tend to shop less “ear on the ground” when looking for new trends, they don’t read magazines for what’s happening, but men do more groundwork and they’re loyal customers.
As an online company, why have a fitting room?
Nelson: We loved the idea of being able to touch and feel something and it’s important when you’re buying shoes. Shoes are not the easiest thing from a fit perspective, so having a test kitchen and to speak to customers as opposed to speaking to them over the internet was important.
What was the biggest mistake you made?
Nelson: Moving too quickly, you can get ahead of yourself really quickly, sometimes you have to take a step back.
Gerson: We probably moved before we had our brand messaging nailed down. It takes a while to articulate who you are and market yourself as a brand early on.
Jack Erwin boots.