WHEN entrepreneur Benny Chee first launched a pair of soft leather shoes for women in just one shape in 2016, he was told that his business would fail.
"People said the shoe wouldn't sell, that Singapore is so hot, and it's hard to maintain leather. Plus, who would buy the same shoe in different colours?" he said.
Six years on, his footwear brand Anothersole is not only thriving, but it has expanded rapidly in Singapore and around the world.
By end-December, the brand, which started out selling its shoes online, will have nine retail stores here. Five of them were stand-alone stores that opened during the Covid-19 pandemic – a period when bricks-and-mortar retailers were moving their business online, rather than opening more physical outlets.
Anothersole opened its newest store at Vivocity in October. Two more are set to open at Bugis Junction and Wisma Atria in December.
The brand's total online sales have doubled year on year since the pandemic, Chee tells The Business Times. This was driven by a global shift in dressing behaviours, as more people began dressing casually due to work-from-home arrangements, he said.
"Women stopped wearing heels as there was no longer a need to go to office, so they chose comfort over everything else. We're about casual fashion, so it was the right place and right time for us."
One product, many colours
When Chee first got the idea to build a new footwear brand, he had one goal: to create a "ubiquitous flat shoe" that every woman should own.
"Back in those days, shoes were known to be stiff and hard," he said. "We wanted to create a shoe that would fit like a glove, that you could travel anywhere in."
The failure of his previous business venture had taught him a valuable lesson in product-market fit. Chee had previously founded Chocolate Schubar, a wholesale distributor of high-fashion shoes, which retailed through franchisees in Europe and Asia.
"We were producing brilliant designs that were simply not comfortable. The franchisee ended up losing a few million dollars, and that spooked us," he recalled.
It took Chee and his Anothersole co-founder, Phoebe Charn, three years to come up with Anothersole's signature lace-up leather flats, which he describes as "slim, soft and malleable". The flats came in one shape, and were available in seven colours.
Back then, it was uncommon for a new shoe company to launch as a digital-only brand, as consumers still preferred to try on shoes at physical stores before making a purchase, Chee recalled.
"We decided to bite the bullet. If you really have conviction that your product works, then offer refunds and free exchange -- which is what we did," Chee said. Anothersole began retailing its shoes at Tangs' department stores in 2017.
Pop-ups have been key to the brand's growth in Singapore during the pandemic, said Chee.
With the retail industry hit hard in 2020, he took the opportunity to lock in lower rental rates and shorter lease agreements for pop-ups with landlords, who were more "willing" to negotiate contract terms.
"I never wanted to do (offline) retail because I was worried that they would cannibalise my sales at Tangs," he said. "But we soon realised that sales didn't go down... our existing online and offline retail channels held steady throughout the pandemic."
This gave him the confidence to convert some of the brand's existing pop-up stores into permanent spaces, such as its first flagship outlet at Paya Lebar Quarter which opened in December 2020. It had originally been planned as a one-year pop-up.
Today, Anothersole's lace-up leather flats for women are available in more than 100 colours. Its sales in Singapore are split almost evenly between online and offline retail, said Chee. Including the brand's two stores in Tangs, he plans to have 12 physical stores here by end-2023.
Another sole for male consumers
Having “banked on the success of one shoe” for six years, Anothersole is now ready to move into product diversification – and reach out to the male consumer too, said Chee.
Next month, it will be launching a new line of sustainable sneakers made from ethically-sourced leather and recycled plastics for both men and women. This marks its second shoe range – and its first for men – after its signature lace-up leather flats.
"We want to embrace more shoe silhouettes for existing customers, and also adopt sustainability as a company focus," said Chee. The brand launched a line of eco-friendly mini bags spun and woven from recycled plastic bottles in April this year.
Anothersole will also concentrate on further expanding into the US, its biggest market. More than 80 per cent of its online sales come from the US, followed by Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
It will set up a warehouse facility in the US by March next year, which will allow the brand to fulfil online orders in the country under three days, instead of a week, said Chee. Its shoes are manufactured in China and Vietnam, and shipped internationally from Singapore.
The brand also opened a pop-up at multi-label department store Showfields in New York in September. This is the first step in its go-to-market strategy for the US, said Chee, who hopes to open a flagship outlet there in the future.
"The US is the way to go. They are very big on sustainability, and the Gen Z consumers are all about brands with a purpose," he said.
Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.