How Sorel Won Winter By Making Rugged Boots Girly
A boot once known as an essential for rugged outdoorsmen has gotten in touch with its fashionable, feminine side—and sales are spiking.
Sorel boots, distinguished by their polar bear logo and warm lining, this winter turned up more often than ever on the feet of fashion-conscious, urban women. The brand enjoyed a staggeringly successful cold weather season: Sales rose 40 percent in the final quarter of 2014 as women raced to get their hands on a pair in the fall and early days of winter. In 2014, Sorel sold more than $166 million worth of boots, slippers, and liners, nearly a 30 percent jump compared to the previous year.
Sorel's transformation was sparked by a decision that executives at parent company Columbia Sportswear made in 2008. The brand was “stuck,” says Mark Nenow, president of Sorel and the Columbia footwear vice president who oversaw Sorel’s makeover. Years of disappointing sales gnawed at Nenow and his team. “We were all kind of screaming from the rooftops: We’ve got to unstick this thing,” he says. To do that, the company reoriented Sorel to "make this about women, women, and women," Nenow says. "We’re going to make it about style, we’re going to make it about premium, we’re going to make it about design, we’re going to make it impossible to ignore.”
The rise of Sorel is part of a larger trend that's getting fashion types to embrace brands once deemed utilitarian. Canada Goose's pricey lines of winter parkas and coats are worn by scientists at the South Pole and by stylish folks in fashion capitals such as New York and Paris. L.L. Bean’s signature “Duck” boots—handmade leather and rubber boots beloved by loggers and farmers—are now so popular among city dwellers that the company hasn't been able to keep pace with demand.
Sorel’s classic, $140 Caribou boot falls into that category. Made from nubuck leather and vulcanized rubber, the boot is seam-sealed and waterproof, with nine millimeters of felt insulation to keep feet warm in sub-zero temperatures. While the boot remains popular, Sorel now also sells an assortment of more feminine styles, including its full-grain leather Joan of Arctic wedges and the Toronto, a tall, heeled boot made of oiled suede that sells for $180.
Those sleeker styles are a departure from Sorel’s roots. Developed around 1960 by Kaufman Rubber Co. (later Kaufman Footwear), a Canadian manufacturer of footwear and clothing, Sorel became popular among such blue-collar workers as fishermen, hunters, and miners. The Sorel brand was successful, but Kaufman struggled to stay afloat in the 1990s and finally declared bankruptcy in 2000. Canadian workers relied on Sorel so much that retailers experienced a boot shortage that winter as manufacturing halted. “Most of them are shocked,” the owner of an Ottawa shoe store said of his customers at the time. “They all want to know, ‘How is it possible? How could it possibly happen?’ They’re just stunned.”
Enter Columbia. The sportswear company acquired Sorel in bankruptcy for $8 million. Under new ownership, Sorel chugged on quietly for about seven years until Nenow began the revamp in 2008.
Sorel had to alter shoppers’ perception of the practical boot. In 2009, it unveiled a new, feminine aesthetic with ads in Vogue magazine, and in 2011 Sorel bought double-page ads in Vogue, Nylon, and Lucky. Its “Get Your Boots Dirty” campaigns in 2012 and 2013 featured successful, creative women making Sorel-clad strides in business and design. In 2014, Sorel focused on its SorelStyle campaign. Jenn Rogien, a costume designer for such shows as HBO’s Girls and Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, styled regular women in looks for fall—chic, fashion-conscious outfits that work for everyday life, not trudging through snow banks.
Sorels are also now available at upscale department stores such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and Lord & Taylor, along with some specialty boutiques, in an effort to ensure Sorel's prominence in fashionable, mainstream outlets. In 2014, it opened its first stand-alone store in New York’s Meatpacking district, and the company is considering opening more shops, Nenow says.
Combined, the strategies worked. In 2014, Sorels were seen on the feet of models, celebrities, and fashion editors at New York Fashion Week, and Vogue dubbed the boots "the surprise must-have of the season." Such websites as Refinery29 and Fashionista recommend Sorels in their collections of best winter boots. Sorels have been seen gracing the feet of Blake Lively, Hayden Panettiere, and Elle Macpherson. Sorel even keeps a Facebook album of famous folks wearing the boots.
Sorel is looking to break into footwear for warmer weather and plans to expand into outerwear, with parkas and bombers going on sale this fall. Even as it goes after new shoppers, Sorel's boots are still available at farm stores, outdoor retailers, and athletic stores such as Dick's Sporting Goods. The cross-sectional strategy means Sorel can continue selling to both worlds: the utilitarian worker and the fashionable urbanite. "We’re all about becoming less seasonal, and becoming more and more important to her beyond winter, beyond snow boots," says Nenow. "We’re getting there. I wouldn’t say it’s slow, but it’s a methodical march."