This time last year, Vasque was hard at work trying to right the ship. At the time, president Bryce Wernsman revealed the outdoor brand’s big challenges, which included daunting inventory woes and a bloated product assortment.
Today, Wernsman said Vasque — which is owned by Red Wing Shoe Co. and turns 60 next year — is “mid-flight” through a “multiyear reset.”
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“We’ve made tremendous progress on a variety of fronts,” Wernsman told FN. “We’re trying to get this brand in a position where we can better service both our [wholesale] customers and consumers, a position where we can take a modern approach to product and how we think about marketing.”
To ensure the reset is successful, Vasque has made a notable investment in talent since Wernsman took control in September 2020. This includes several new hires and promotions in key areas, such as its product creation team. “Those people are starting to make a huge impact,” Wernsman said.
The first addition to Vasque’s product team was Scott Kendall, a veteran of New Balance, Wilson Sporting Goods and Puma, who was hired as its designer in June 2021. From there, the brand tapped Jessica Sandrin to fill its product line merchant role in July 2022, and Austyn Dunham joined as product developer in February.
Vasque has also strengthened its marketing team, with Jamie Kvamme — a Red Wing veteran — coming over in April as its director of marketing. Wernsman said Vasque is at work bolstering Kvamme’s team with channel marketing resources and is actively interviewing candidates.
Included in Vasque’s reset plan was a dramatic reduction of SKUs, cutting its product offering by 60 percent. This move, Wernsman said, has already proven beneficial.
“From the internal-facing perspective, it’s improved the productivity of our manufacturing. That’s allowed us to get better support and resources from our primary factories. Also, it’s allowed us to pursue new factories,” the exec explained. “When you have a product line that is bloated and unproductive, it’s hard to manage internally; it’s frustrating from a manufacturing standpoint. Cleaned up and tight, you can start to drive volume behind your key product families or franchises. Now, it’s easier for us to work with our partners to design bigger and better programs for the future.”
What’s more, because Vasque finally has its product mix under control, Wernsman said the company was able to bring on a second manufacturing partner.
This reduction of SKUs has also allowed Vasque to implement a franchise-building strategy. Wernsman said that building franchises will reveal growth opportunities for Vasque and identify new areas of the market where the brand could compete.
“We’ve spent a lot of time cleaning up our in-line product. We were lacking a point of view, whether it be through innovation, color, design language,” said Amy Peck, director of product creation for Red Wing Lifestyle Brands, which includes Red Wing Heritage and Vasque. “We’re approaching it with a modern take because our consumer is demanding that — sustainability, lightweight, enhanced comfort. These are all expectations that our consumer has told us. We’re making sure we’re modernizing but not alienating the core consumer of our in-line product.”
Wernsman added, “We’ve got the best product pipeline the brand’s ever had.”
Vasque’s retail partners seem to agree. Wernsman said the brand has opened more than 300 new wholesale accounts in North America in 2023. This includes a presence in large national accounts that Vasque has not historically done business with, as well as outdoor specialty stores and the family sit-and-fit channel. Also, Wernsman said Vasque is now in six new countries across Europe, and the company has reset its relationships with distributors in Asia.
“We’ve opened more new distribution this year than the last two to three years combined,” Wernsman said. “We’re excited because we’re building a solid foundation and expect to see significant growth come from it as [the industry gets] back to normal ordering behaviors and inventory positions.”
New Product Direction
Having long catered to hardcore hikers, Vasque is set to debut its most versatile designs to date.
“There are people who are traditionalists. They want a leather boot, they want it to be heavy duty and overbuilt in many ways. And then there are people who want to go outside, be comfortable and look good while they’re doing it — and they’re not willing to sacrifice on performance,” Wernsman said. “Our big idea was to answer the question, ‘How do we make a more approachable outdoor shoe for people who don’t need traditional, heavy duty boots?’ We’re happy with the approach we’ve taken to get us there and with our launch into this [light hike] category.”
Peck added, “Full transparency, we hadn’t had a consumer-centric category kick off at Vasque. Traditionally, our brand loyalists are hardcore hikers. But getting closer to the consumer allowed us to get here. [Light hike] is crowded with a lot of great competitors, but if we think about who we are, we’ve been doing this for over 60 years, so we deserve to be there just as much as any other brand. The consumer drove our insights. They want product they can hike in, they can potentially run in, but it doesn’t scream ‘equipment.’ It’s highly versatile and it’s inclusive. That’s been really important to us.”
To appease the modern outdoor consumer, Vasque created Re:connect, which is a range of light hikers created to complement the brand’s core hiking line. The first Re:connect style to launch is the Here, which will debut in a low and a mid-height in both men’s and women’s sizing.
Vasque described the Here as a lightweight, comfort-driven look created using sustainable materials. The shoe features 100 percent recycled polyester mesh on the uppers, with 85 percent recycled polyester on the webbing and lace, and heel counters made with 60 percent recycled content. The uppers sit atop high-rebound EVA midsoles made with 20 percent sugarcane, as well as Bloom EVA footbeds and the brand’s R2T outsoles with aggressive Xlite lugs for multidirectional traction.
The Vasque Here Low and Mid will arrive on Sept. 6 via Vasque.com and will retail for $130 and $150, respectively. After its debut, Peck said Vasque will continue to tell new color stories on the Here into 2024.
And on Sept. 20, Vasque — with Huckberry as its lead retail partner — will release limited-edition colorways of the Here Low and Mid. The brand will deliver the “Adventurine” and “Moonless Night” versions of the Low for both men and women, and a Mid “Adventurine” look for men.
Looking ahead, Vasque will expand its Re:connect collection next year to include the Now. “If we use old-school run talk, the Here is faster and snappier, and the Now is a bit more stable, maybe a little simpler,” said Peck, who previously worked with Kendall at New Balance.
In terms of materials, the Now features 100 percent recycled ripstop mesh uppers and 100 percent recycled content internal fit sleeves, as well as high-rebound EVA midsoles made with 20 percent sugarcane, plus the brand’s R2T outsoles.
However, if you were to ask Peck, she would say the most compelling story of the Now is the upper.
“The Here, it’s highly transparent, really breathable, very open. The Now will be a ripstop. It’s breathable, but aesthetically, the ripstop material brings them very far apart,” Peck said. “Where Here is a bit faster and more fashion forward, Now will be toned down. It takes color extremely well and tells a nice material differentiation story. It’s going to be a vehicle for a lot of fun stuff for us.”
In spring ’24, Vasque will release the Now in three colorways. In the latter part of the year, the brand will deliver a version of the Now with Gore-Tex and also plans to drop special make-ups (SMUs) and limited-edition iterations replete with reflective hits and bold colors.
Vasque is also confident Re:connect will attract female consumers in ways the brand has never been able to before.
“Internally, we call [the Re:connect consumer] the ‘Nurtured Naturist.’ If we think about what they like to do, it’s mostly female, which was really fun for us,” Peck said. “Most of our hardcore hikers are male, north of 45. She falls in between that 30-to-45 range. What’s really important is she is not brand loyal, which offers an opportunity for us. She buys off of looks. We focused a lot on what she did for a wearing occasion. She’s outside just as much as the hardcore hiker, but over small stints of time. What an opportunity for us to design a piece of footwear that could go with many different outfits or many different uses.”
Wernsman said Vasque historically has been fairly close to a 50-50 split when it comes to gender. However, with inventory issues in recent years, hindering its ability to meet consumer demands for lighter and more modern footwear options, that has moved to 70-30 in favor of men.
“We’re not happy with that,” Wernsman said. “The target is to make sure we’re, at the very least, 50-50, with certain products skewing male and certain products skewing female.”
Peck added, “We’re looking to grow our women’s piece of the pie like everyone. Right now, there’s a huge opportunity within women’s footwear.”
Although there’s buzz around the product with its retail partners, Wernsman said orders are not where Vasque would like them to be — which was to be expected.
“We launched our newest, most innovative, most differentiated product in the height of an industry reset. When you look at the fall ’23 sell-in numbers, all of our partners are still sitting on inventory, so preseason orders were lower than usual,” the exec explained. “From a business results standpoint, it’s not where we want it to be, and that’s OK, because from the beginning when we launched this category, we knew we would rather have a slow, steady, healthy build, versus a big flash in the pan. We’re not trying to capitalize on fleeting trends. We’re trying to build products that can stand the test of time.”
He continued, “We’re happy with a slow, strategic start if it means we’re building a strong foundation and building for the future. We suspect that will happen. Ultimately, everybody suffered with orders this fall, but we’ll get through that like everybody else.”
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