May 15 (Bloomberg) -- For designers like Stuart Weitzman, the best place to sell shoes is the red carpet.
Entertainment award shows, featuring celebrities wearing the latest fashions, are an increasingly powerful tool for design houses to tout their footwear -- thanks in part to the buzz generated by social media. For a beleaguered industry that saw women’s shoe sales drop 9 percent last year, celebrity marketing is seen as a cost-effective way to generate a hit.
Take what happened this year with Weitzman’s Nudist sandal, a high-backed shoe that shows off most of the foot. After actress Jennifer Lawrence and about 40 other celebrities were photographed wearing the ankle-strap sandals at multiple events, the designer sold 25,000 pairs. Sales of that type of shoe typically run about 5,000 to 8,000.
“This is a real marketing tool for a company like ours and a product like ours,” Weitzman, 72, said in a phone interview. “It’s very important from a business standpoint and we actively go after it.”
Weitzman isn’t alone in relying more on the red carpet. Large and small fashion houses, including Brian Atwood, Vince Camuto and Jimmy Choo, are benefiting from a proliferation of award shows and the viral power of social networking.
“The celebrities are young, they are well-traveled, they are fashion-right,” 77-year-old Camuto said in an interview. “What better vehicle can you have?”
Award shows are a better catapult for shoes than other fashion items, partly because footwear is more affordable than the couture gowns on display. The Nudist sandals cost $385 to $625, compared with thousands of dollars for the designer dresses and diamond jewelry that stars wear them with, Weitzman said. Celebrity events also are less avant-garde than fashion runways -- making the products more accessible to typical consumers -- and they provide a cheaper venue than traditional advertising.
The trend represents a bright spot in an otherwise sluggish industry. In the 12-month period ended in March, women’s shoes generated $9 billion in U.S. sales, down from $9.9 billion a year earlier, according to research firm NPD Group Inc. The total women’s market, including sandals, boots and sneakers, was stagnant at $23.6 billion.
Using celebrities to promote merchandise isn’t new, though the approach has changed over the decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly lent their star power to Givenchy and Hermes. Vogue editor Anna Wintour later began putting celebrities like Madonna on the cover of the magazine, rather than just using supermodels. And Brooke Shields and Mark Wahlberg gave Calvin Klein a lift when they appeared in the brand’s provocative ads on gigantic billboards in the 1980s and ’90s.
The difference now is the Internet’s reach. Within seconds of a celebrity appearing in front of cameras, a shoe can travel the world on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. That means accessories worn by, say, Beyonce can sell out in a flash.
It helps that there are now more award shows than ever. Dozens of them are televised in the U.S. -- everything from the People’s Choice Awards in January to the American Country Awards in December. The Oscars, which aired March 2 this year, remain the most-watched event.
Due to their frequency, the red-carpet events have become less formal, said David Wolfe, creative director of trend forecaster Doneger Group in New York. That means shoes aren’t hidden behind long gowns and have a more visible role to play.
“That is one item that generates an instant response in sales,” Wolfe said in a phone interview. “Most women can certainly work those shoes into their life. You can appropriately wear those sexy shoes with blue jeans.”
Weitzman estimates that celebrity-driven exposure of his products has increased total revenue 10 percent to 15 percent. He declined to disclose the annual sales of his New York-based company, which was recently acquired by private-equity firm Sycamore Partners LLC.
Atwood, a 46-year-old designer who owns a New York-based designer-shoe business, decided to actively court the red carpet four years ago after noting the success of his Maniac covered-platform pump. Awards-show exposure lifted sales of the shoe to more than 20,000 pairs. His $665 Besame style is currently performing well, Atwood said in an interview.
Weitzman embraced the strategy after “Mulholland Drive” actress Laura Harring wore his diamond-encrusted, million-dollar shoes to the 2002 Academy Awards. While he didn’t sell those ultra-expensive sandals in his stores, his brand name was mentioned all over the world, he said.
Both Weitzman and Atwood said they don’t pay celebrities for wearing their products, though the shoes are typically free. Still, the practice of compensating stars for exposure isn’t uncommon. Anne Hathaway was paid $750,000 to wear Tiffany & Co. jewels at the 2011 Oscars ceremony, according to US Weekly.
Weitzman deliberately designed the Nudist for the current awards season. He offered the sandals in eight colors and made them in sizes he knows the celebrities wear. Then Weitzman delivered the pairs to strategic stores -- on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, for instance -- as well as to his New York showroom by December.
“Decisions on accessories are often made at the last minute,” Weitzman said. “Because the shoe is picked after the dress is actually chosen.”
Weitzman and Atwood use Los Angeles-based firms to help coordinate the efforts. Some fashion brands, like Salvatore Ferragamo, have their own West Coast in-house celebrity-relations teams, said Alison Levy, global director of brand development for Fashion GPS, a fashion technology firm. After the celebrities make their appearances, staffers for the designers spring into action, making sure everyone is aware of what they were wearing.
“It’s a huge marketing vehicle,” Atwood said. “We’ve have had shoes sell out.”
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