After becoming sold on accepting the CEO job at Aerosoles, Alison Bergen is hellbent on selling fashion fans on shopping the brand.
“I don’t think I ever thought I would end up at a comfort footwear brand. And I think [Aerosoles] offered me the job twice before I accepted it, because I had to get over my own snobbery,” Bergen said on the latest Glossy Podcast. Prior to Aerosoles, she held lead merchandising roles at Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors and Diane von Furstenberg.
“What finally attracted me to [Aerosoles] was the original story about the founder, Jules Schneider,” she said. “How and why he started the brand … felt like it was equally relevant today as it was revolutionary back in the late ’80s when he founded it… He thought, ‘Women shouldn’t have to sacrifice comfort for style, or vice versa.’”
Bergen joined the brand in 2018 with the goal of modernizing its approach to design and business — which has proven to be quite the feat.
“Taking a Titanic and trying to change the course doesn’t happen by just hitting one button,” she said. “You’re really repositioning and realigning so many facets of the business. Whether it was distribution, product, branding, team structure — all of those things were going to change, in order to push this brand into relevancy and a healthy future, from a profitability perspective.”
Bergen also discussed the internal changes she’s made and the customer response to the brand’s recent updates, including product pricing.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
Breaking up with discounting
“One of the real challenges we had was, while it’s great to inherit a brand with awareness and a customer base, certainly — we all know it’s very expensive to acquire new customers today — the challenge we had was that this was a customer that was under the expectation that they should be able to buy Aerosoles for 60% off consistently. And so we had to have the honest conversation — and it’s not one that you have at many brands, but it was very important to me to acknowledge it, recognize it, be honest about it, and then work around it — which was, ‘We’re going to make changes. We’re going to start trading on emotion and desirability. We’re going to improve quality, whether that’s through taking a bit more of a current approach to the fashion or using some finer materials.’ [It was about] primarily accepting that there would be a significant part of our customer base that would not travel with us into that next chapter… We’d love to keep that customer. But we knew that, for our business to be healthy and profitable — and as a reminder, Aerosoles was acquired out of bankruptcy, so it was not working the way it was being done — we really needed to focus our efforts on a high-quality customer that we could have a fair relationship with. The cost of production, we all know, is only going up. And so there was just no workaround… And we did lose a certain number of customers through that process.”
On eliminating company silos
“Brands are living, breathing things. So every brand I’ve been at, whether it’s a huge public company or a smaller contemporary brand, the biggest challenge is that brands are like plants. They need water. They grow, and they change every day. And if you don’t keep changing them proactively to evolve with the times and with your customers’ changing sentiments, then the business suffers. And then you have an even broader gap to fill to reconnect and re-anchor to a relevant place. And through that process, I’ve seen, at so many companies, different arms not speaking to each other or PR not really on the same page as where the product team is trying to move. So I was really sensitive to this concept of coordination, of making sure that everything we did — if we’re going digital or if we’re going after a different type of customer — how does that relay across everything we do? And our structure is a big part of that.”
The perks of omnichannel
“We work in a bunch of different capacities with different partners, depending on our objectives and theirs. There’s a healthy mix. The world is so volatile that … having a presence in a couple of different [sales channels] is really helpful, whether it’s having a really strong brick-and-mortar strategy directly or through your wholesale partnerships, whether it’s selling online through more traditional wholesale partnerships or working in a dropship model… The pros and cons of dropship are that you can control your inventory and you can really maximize inventory flexibility. You can just decide, as the business, that you’re going to sell it where it sells first, whether that’s through aerosoles.com or it’s through a partner. [But you also] own the inventory risk. [Whereas] with wholesale, you sell a pack of shoes, they’re out the door and they’re not coming back. That’s also a beautiful thing. But it’s a nice balance, because what we’re all seeking as business leaders is ways to maximize inventory more efficiently, whether it’s by reducing lead times so that you can sit on less inventory or by sharing inventory in a true omni strategy. And so we work in multiple ways, and I think that’s served us really well. We’ve benefited from the ability to shift in and out of them as the times are changing and things are wacky. And for us, exiting some of the bottom-tier partners and moving into Nordstrom … has been tremendous… A lot of our strategies pre-Covid fortuitously set us up to survive better than others. A lot of the bottom-tier department stores got hit a lot harder, and many went bankrupt. And so we didn’t have that risk. We had really put ourselves in a healthier place, as a result of having deeper partnerships with the right partners and the right customer base.”