They might be very young for the industry, just three years old to be precise, Heel & Buckle from England are one of the few brands who decided early on to enter the Indian market rather than wait for a decade or more to expand across the globe and then come to India. However, the modus operandi the brand adopted for India was a little different as compared to what they did at their motherland where the brand is more into offering tailor-made and customised shoes.
Flagging off with a quick introduction on the brand, Dhiraj Bathija, Joint Managing Director – Naaysa Lifestyle Pvt. Ltd. shares, “The Heel & Buckle story is about the pursuit of excellence in footwear. Since its inception, the brand has been driven by one simple premise – elegance begins with the shoes. Unlike other brands that spend more time and money building symbolic value, Heel & Buckle has always emphasised identifying and sourcing fine quality footwear, and bringing to its customers the luxury of choice and of bespoke services. Which is why Heel & Buckle differs in the formats it operates in different markets. For instance, we operate as bespoke studios in Europe, but as a multi-brand concept in India.”
Launched in 2011 as a bespoke studio in London’s Hampstead, Heel & Buckle started off as a studio that only customised its services via ateliers in Italy and Spain. Ever since, the company has tried to remain true to its roots, even under its new format in India. As for the current retail footprint, Heel & Buckle has 3 stores globally – bespoke studios in London and Geneva, and a multi-brand store in Mumbai, India. Talking about the target audience, Bathija shares, “Our target audience comprises men and women from ages 18 and up. We tap individuals who understand the importance of dressing well, who realise that one can be as subtle or as dramatic as they want, but still never compromise on elegance. I would say our target audience is the affluent, upwardly mobile, well-travelled Indian customer.”
So, what led the brand to consider India as a market early on in their journey? Bathija answers, “In January 2012, during a trip to India, we noticed the lack of quality footwear, especially the almost near absence of fine hand-crafted shoes. That India is a huge market is common knowledge, but we were quite surprised to see just how nascent the retail scene is here. Nearly 16 months of research and due diligence were put in before we launched our first store. We travelled across the top metropolitan cities in India, visited the key shopping malls and other shopping hubs, and spoke to potential customers and friends.”
Adding on to the learnings they came across, Bathija shares, “India still has a huge gap in the market when it comes to quality footwear. Due to the high import taxes here, customers pay nearly 1.5 times for a high street product, than what they would in London or New York. So, instead of launching a bespoke studio here, like we run elsewhere, we decided to start off as a multi-brand.”
The brand has entered the country in partnership with Naaysa Lifestyle Private Limited (NLPL). In terms of manpower training that justifies the exclusivity and niche element the brand has to offer, Heel & Buckle staff go through a rigorous training programme, arranged by one of their Geneva based directors. Bathija shares, “We are very selective about the staff we hire – each one has to have a certain personality trait that appeals to us, in addition to impeccable manners and sales skills. But the one thing you will notice about Heel & Buckle is that our staff members are not robots; they are very personal and warm in their approach towards customers, and enjoy building a rapport with them.”
A walk-through at the store
Spread across 675 sq. ft of space, the store extends a 100 per cent English look and feel the moment you step in. Bathija adds, “Heel & Buckle’s design philosophy is very old world English, with a touch of Mediterranean glamour to reflect the brand’s Italian and Spanish collaborations. Our stores are always very woody, with warm ambient lighting that oozes sophistication and elegance.” The colour story followed is that of brown and gold, which also happen to be the signature colours for the brand besides blending perfectly well with their wooden fitted store design.
Sharing further details on the interiors, Bathija says, “Our interiors are crafted to capture sophistication and elegance. We have used only yellow lights to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. We also have two luxurious chandeliers held with black velvet ribbon located at two central points in our shop area. The dark wood flooring and cream satin couches add to the warmth and high-end feel. As an additional touch, we are also using antique ceramic foot-warmers and typewriters that help us capture that essentially English grace. Mixed into this we have used accessories, gold blocks and wooden tray to draw the eye towards our hand-crafted footwear.”
Adding a breath of fresh air and extending a mesmerising feel while at the store, the cash counter always has fragrance oil that infuses the whole store with its welcoming scent. Behind it, there is a leather panel with brown wallpaper and the Heel & Buckle logo in gold. Adds Bathija, “As an extra touch, we offer our clientele water and custom-made chocolates that are always on hand. Our staff always wears gloves while servicing a client.”
In terms of sourcing the materials used for the interiors, the brand is honest enough to share that the material that was easily available here or proved to be a challenge to be imported from abroad was sourced locally but then some material that was quite specific and needed customisation was sourced directly from London.
In terms of expansion, by 2013 year-end, the brand shall expand its footprint to North Country Mall at Mohali, which is a strategic move of looking beyond the big cities – again a step that no international brand takes early on in their journey in India. Commenting on the help they would like to see extended from the government, Bathija says, “Reduced import tax for the Indian market and faster logistical turnaround times would take India’s retail space to a new level of opportunity.”