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How Today’s Hottest Shoe Designers Plan to Stay on Top

Brands like Amina Muaddi and Mach & Mach captivated shoppers this year with sparkly heels, but can they cement long-term success?
The colorful heels of Mach & Mach have captivated post-pandemic shoppers.
The colorful heels of Mach & Mach have captivated post-pandemic shoppers.

This year, for the first time in Moda Operandi’s decade-plus history, its two best-selling footwear brands weren’t from luxury megabrands. Instead, the accolade went to two independent labels: Mach & Mach and Amina Muaddi.

Shoppers are flocking to Amina Muaddi for her colourful $1,000 shoes featuring a signature flare heel, while Georgian brand Mach & Mach has developed a cult-following for its $1,200 crystal-encrusted bow heels.

“I love the sparkle,” said Ilana Roberts, a stay-at-home mother in Boca Raton who recently bought a pair of black Mach & Mach heels. “Coming out of the pandemic, we all wanted to feel good, to feel seen, and these are so glamorous. The hot pink ones are on my list next.”

The recent popularity of colourful shoes from independent labels like Mach & Mach and Amina Muaddi, as well as Paris Texas, Arielle Baron, The Attico, Ancuta Sarca and Pīferi speaks to the current hunger for novelty footwear, said April Hennig, chief merchandising officer at Moda Operandi. Searches for “glitter” and “sparkly” boots across the internet increased 83 percent in October, according to Lyst, and over the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping weekend, sales of heels spiked 248 percent, according to data from buy-now-pay-later company Afterpay.

Novelty footwear, however, is surging in a category that is still in the midst of its post-pandemic recovery. While luxury footwear sales grew 25 percent this year over 2020, according to NPD Group data, sales of luxury heels are still down 9 percent compared to 2019 as consumers continue to prioritise comfort. And though labels like Mach & Mach have proven there’s a current appetite for unique footwear styles, that alone won’t guarantee long-term growth, especially since the National Retail Federation predicts shopping sales will cool down next year.

“You can only sell so many items of one particular style,” said Brian Ehrig, partner at consulting firm Kearney. “Even if you’re trying to dominate a specific niche category of luxury heels, you need to find new ways to feed that cycle.”

Footwear designers are working to ensure future growth by limiting distribution of their product and further iterating on signature splashy designs so that shoppers keep coming back.

A Limited Distribution Model

Sisters Nina and Gvantsa Macharashvili, who are based in Tbilisi, Georgia, launched Mach & Mach in 2012. The brand has continuously dropped collections of footwear, clothing and accessories, but it was the 2019 introduction of their crystal bow shoes that finally gave the brand global momentum. Mach & Mach’s sales grew 2000 percent this year, the company said.

Throughout the brand’s history, Mach & Mach has been cautious about distribution, often giving the 100 wholesalers it works with a limited amount of inventory. Amina Muaddi, whose footwear has also ballooned 150 percent in sales this year, credits a similar limited distribution strategy with helping the brand’s popularity explode during the pandemic.

“We are always selling half of what we’re being asked,” Muaddi said. “Buyers are interested, but you don’t want to… distribute a lot. Because it’s so easy to get bored nowadays with the product.”

The strategy is helping these small labels compete against billion-dollar footwear giants.

“With limited distribution, you can’t find them anywhere, which is part of the allure,” said Hennig.

Emphasising wholesale partnerships has also helped these small brands reach larger audiences. Muaddi is launching her own website next year, but the Mach & Mach designers say they don’t have plans to operate their own direct-to-consumer site at all, preferring to spend their time and resources on the design process instead.

“As an emerging brand on the worldwide market, working with the biggest top retailers… is beneficial,” said Gvantsa Macharashvili. “They do the work, which is important for us.”

Iterating on the Novelty

Eye-catching novelty styles have helped these brands break through and soar to sales success, but they may not be enough to cement a brand’s long-term prospects. And while retail experts like Ehrig say there will continue to be “fierce demand” for novelty footwear in 2022 due to the return of big events, it won’t last forever.

Anticipating those changes in consumer demand is key for brands who rose to fame for one hero product, as they can often struggle to scale beyond it.

“At some point, you max out the potential in the footwear category, and that’s when the business plateaus,” Ehrig said.

Some brands move into new product categories. Muaddi expanded into handbags last September and Mach & Mach is set to launch fashion jewellery this February.

But many designers who saw demand pick up this year plan to continue leaning into what made them a hit in the first place. Paris Texas, the footwear brand from founder and creative director Annamaria Brivio, saw sales grow 30 percent this year. Going forward, Brivio said she’s going heavy on “crystals, bold colours and iridescent materials.” The Mach & Mach team is also expanding its best-selling footwear styles; debuting new silhouettes, heel heights, and other hero embellishments like pearls.

Other designers are using data to iterate with their footwear designs. The designer Autumn Adeigbo just launched footwear this fall, manufacturing her jewel-studded platform clogs in small batches. It’s a method that she says can ensure success without getting stuck with excess inventory.

“It’s about testing,” Adeigbo said. “Once we know what does well, we can reintroduce the styles and others through the next round.”

But brands who are known for novelty footwear need to eventually expand into more mainstream styles, said Bonnie Takhar, the former chief executive of the now-defunct footwear label Charlotte Olympia.

“We had shoppers buying ice cream cone, croissant heels, but we… needed to bring in a product that would feel less intimidating across the luxury spectrum,” Takhar said.

Hennig said brands are more likely to bring in new and existing customers if they stick to a specific design feature, like Muaddi’s heel or Mach & Mach’s crystals.

“Develop a signature design detail that’s yet to be seen in the market and is really easy to identify,” suggested Hennig.

Of course, being known for a specific detail leaves a brand open for knockoffs. Muaddi said she’s patented her signature heel, and has also taken legal action against some offenders, but noted that the dupes can also help fuel hype around a brand.

“It’s helped my brand become even more mainstream,” Muaddi said. “It motivates me to create novelty and create new things they’ll want to copy next.”

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