The success stories of both TOMS and Warby Parker have been written and written again, but there are two companies in their shadows that deserve your attention as well: Tortoise & Blonde and BucketFeet.
Founded just four years ago, eyewear brand Tortoise & Blonde has toured the country with musicians, received backing from Urban Outfitters and began building shop-in-shops in multiple Manhattan UO locations. BucketFeet, founded in 2011, has partnered with retail giant Nordstrom, counts Crate & Barrel founder Gordon Segal as an investor, opened a flagship brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Chicago and will launch a summer pop-up in Manhattan later this month.
Tortoise & Blonde's first shop-in-shop in downtown Manhattan.
I was introduced to these companies a few years ago while creating the official style segment of the South by Southwest Music Festival. My goal in creating this, then called Style X (read "Style By"), was to celebrate emerging brands that weren't getting as much attention -- and didn't have as much money -- as their well-known competitors. We had runway shows and speakers like the Man Repeller and Huffington Post's own Anya Strzemien, but the heart of the showcase focused on pop-ups and up-and-coming brands.
Perhaps more than any other brand, Tortoise & Blonde benefitted tremendously from early SXSW exposure. The eyewear company was founded around the same time as the well-funded startup Warby Parker, but Tortoise & Blonde's founders had a much deeper connection to people's eyewear choices. While Warby Parker has been led with design and New York cool, Tortoise & Blonde was led by a successful optometrist, Dr. Steven Weisfeld, who serves as CEO with his son Evan as partner.
"We participated (in SXSW) very early in our company's lifecycle, which was great because it made us start thinking more omni-channel. The e-commerce space was crowding rapidly and it was a great differentiator when raising capital and building out the brand," said Evan, who ditched a high-paying finance gig to launch Tortoise & Blonde with his father. "We have also seen a higher conversion rate of prospects we meet at events and pop-ups that go on to purchase online versus ads purchased on Google and Facebook."
Tortoise & Blonde initially met Urban Outfitters on their "Store on Tour" in the fall of 2011, about six months after its launch at SXSW. By the next year, the company launched a program of pop-up shops at existing and opening UO store locations across the country. In June 2013, Tortoise & Blonde launched its first permanent shop-in-shop with UO in their Noho store in NYC and will open two more Manhattan locations in the coming months at the Fifth Avenue and Herald Square UO stores.
"We are firm believers that brick-and-mortar will never truly be replaced by e-commerce. Customers still need to be assisted with purchases, especially with a product like eyewear," added Evan, who serves as chief operating officer for the young company.
BucketFeet, based in Chicago, is co-founded by CEO Raaja Nemani - who also left the finance industry to start the company - and Chief Artist Aaron Firestein, who discovered his passion for artist-designed shoes while traveling in South America. Today, the company has a growing roster of artists around the world who design shoes that cater to everyone from skateboarding teenagers to soccer moms. (I recently purchased a pair designed by New York artist Jayson Atienza.)
BucketFeet's flagship shop in Downtown Chicago.
With international reach and a passion for creativity, SXSW was the perfect platform for BucketFeet to raise awareness for its mission to put artist-designed sneakers on the feet of millions.
"SXSW is a unique event and one that fits within the culture of BucketFeet. It's not about sales, it's about connecting with creative people from all industries: tech, music, art, fashion, food," co-founder Firestein said. "Pop-ups and in-person events have been huge for us. We are a footwear company, so giving people the opportunity to try on and feel our product is priceless.
"We want people (artists and consumers) to see BucketFeet as something much larger than just a shoe brand, and there's no better way of doing that then by interacting in person."
Despite a world where it seems it's e-commerce everything, the role of pop-ups and brick-and-mortar has not fully declined - as evidenced by brands like Tortoise & Blonde and BucketFeet, and more importantly, by the investments of retail kingmakers like Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom. The ambitious model of TOMS is easier said than done, as is getting tens of millions in venture backing as Warby Parker has done. But what emerging brands like Tortoise & Blonde and BucketFeet demonstrate is that there exists a new path to fashion and retail success that looks a bit like the old path: one face-to-face interaction at a time.