CEO Talk | Camilla Skovgaard, Shoe designer and entrepreneur

Camilla Skovgaard | Source: Shine Group

Camilla Skovgaard | Source: Shine Group

HONG KONG, ChinaCamilla Skovgaard is one of those rare aberrations of the current economic malaise.

While almost all other designers I have spoken to are nervously reporting order cancellations and declining or flat sales, Skovgaard’s shoes have chalked up triple-digit increases for Spring/Summer 2009.

Of course, part of this growth can be explained by the rapid growth of the luxury shoe category — it’s a case of  ‘the rising tide raises all boats. ‘ And, according to a recent report by Bain & Company, shoes will continue to be the fastest growing luxury segment of all; more than handbags, apparel, watches, jewelry and fragrances.

However, Camilla’s enviable success can mostly be attributed to perseverance, an incredible work-ethic, great design and pragmatism about merchandising and pricing her collection for the downturn. In our second CEO Talk, we caught up with Camilla to learn the secrets of her success.

BoF: Briefly, tell us about how your sales have gone for S/S 2009. In which markets are you experiencing the best results?

For Spring/Summer 2009, our US orders are up 300% and UK and International orders are up 200%. We now have over 50 stockists worldwide.

CS shoes have a had a couple of fake starts (due to manufacturing/delivery issues) so I’m thrilled to finally witness a nice spurt forward. It’s just odd that it happens at a time when the market is supposed to be at its worst.

BoF: So, what’s your secret? To what do you attribute your recent growth spurt during these tough economic times?

Camilla Skovgaard S9003.1 It comes down to two good sales agents and a favourable price point compared to the competition. Also, SS08 had a very high sell-through in stores (AW08 had just delivered when we began taking orders for SS09 take orders). Word seemed to spread quickly with some buyers.

Product-wise, when there is a recession, people want something special that they consider an investment – not too classic and not too trendy – and CS shoes fall right in between. For example, my cut-out ‘biker’ sandal continues to get orders in its 3rd season. Escapism probably also plays a role – after winter you want colour – and if there’s an economic crisis you want to be cheered up, especially if you’re spending money!

In the end, I want CS shoes to be more about a feeling and style rather than short-lived trends. Goods age too darn quickly if they are too trendy, which is why I admire brands like Rick Owens and Bottega Veneta.

BoF: How have you managed to keep your pricing so competitive while upholding the quality of manufacturing?

Trial and error! I initially produced for 2 years in Italy and it was, for me at least, rife with set-backs due to failed deliveries one way or the other. There’s a sense that most of the factories there are struggling and are not in a position to provide the kind of support newer brands need. I could not see a future for me there unless I was owned by a major luxury group, which would guarantee timely delivery and high-quality production.

So, I moved production to China a year ago, after having had a few tests done. I had the exact same shoe done in China and Italy for comparison and agents could not tell the difference. Italy may have a certain sensibility that China is yet to feel, between the lines on some levels, but they have already taken over several other areas and the gap is closing. By the way, I still use Italian materials all way through and ship these out to China. The leather companies in Italy are still good to work with.

Admittedly, the first factory I had in China wasn’t the right partner for CS shoes, but they were my entry into the country and I learned a lot. CS shoes are now finally with the right partner starting with SS09. It was my first China factory that actually called them and recommended me as they thought I was talented and they liked my organized paperwork.

The sample collection I received from them was the best one I’ve received to date, including those from Italy, with regards to finish, consistency, and packaging. Best of all, they were on time! I can’t wait to get the deliveries out to the stores at the end of January 2009.

As for quality and price, while the factory has its own Quality Control managers, I still go before delivery time myself to check as many boxes as possible. From next season onwards, CS shoes will have its own QC person in the factory. Finally, prices are kept more realistic once you are able to meet the required minimums at the factory.

That said, when working with China for manufacturing, you surely have yourself another full time job with shipping related matters alone.

BoF: The luxury shoe segment has been experiencing significant growth in recent years, displacing the bag as the statement accessory. Do you think this will continue?

I think it will continue for a good while. There’s a generation shift underway with new designers and style identities. Contrary to any other garment, shoes actually affect how you feel and walk.

Furthermore, particularly in times of recession, the fact shoes retail at around half the price of statement bags makes it a little easier to swing the credit card.

BoF: Finally, what advice do you have to offer to other emerging fashion businesses as we enter this period of economic contraction?

Plan ahead. Face all the things you don’t want to face but which nonetheless will be crucial for a successful final outcome.

Offer different price points in your collection, and make sure it is well-balanced and merchandised by providing combinations of units/wearability (day/going out). For example, if you do platform shoes then it’s probably not wise to do 80% of collection on platforms.

Also, decide if you want editorial acclaim or if you actually want to make money. Striking a balance between the two is, needless to say, the ideal.

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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  1. A lot of very solid advice!

    Anjo from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  2. Who writes the Business of Fashion?

    Debi Anderson from Staten Island, NY, United States
  3. It’s nice to read a little good news in these troubled times.

    I’ve designed and produced shoes in Italy for many years, and I’m currently developing collections for other brands in China. Both countries come with their own unique set of challenges, however there is a big difference in the end result.

    There is no substitute for fine Italian craftsmanship. Having said that; the strong euro and recent volitility in currency fluctuation has forced many brands to produce in China. I too have had some very good results in China, however at the end of the day, they’re still just Chinese shoes (My Ferrari may be parked in the garage for the moment while I’m forced to drive an economical Prius, however I’ll never be convinced that the Prius is in fact a Ferrari).

    Still, there is potential in China. It’s a labor pool which produces a product at a significantly lower price-point than Italy. Will the world settle for Chinese quality footwear? Is this the ” new luxury”? This remains to be seen. As we plow through this economic crisis with a never-ending “doom and gloom” report from retailers, it’s quite possible.

    My eyes still know the difference between an Italian shoe, and a Chinese shoe. Once you’ve driven a Ferrari, nothing is quite the same.

    It’s a curse.

    I want to wish you continued success. You are very talented, and I’ll surely keep an eye open for more good news.

  4. I really appreciate Camilla’s honesty. Whyle a lot of brands attach “made in italy” labels to the products manufactured in china, she just told the truth! and yes, George, there is a difference between italian shoes and those manufactured in china, but what about the shoes with “made in italy” label and actually produced by numerous chinese factories located in italy? Camilla have found the good balance between price and quality, great respect!