Generations of Canadians have grown up wearing Sorels in the winter, crunching through the snow, confident that their thick vulcanized rubber bottoms and felted inner boots would keep their feet warm. This summer, Sorels will hit the beach for the first time, trading insulated interiors for sandals and canvas shoes.
It’s a remarkable evolution for the iconic winter brand. In 2000, its owner, Kaufman Footwear, a 93-year-old firm based in Kitchener, Ont., was bankrupt, killed by warm winters and a stagnant product line that was more Model T than millennial in its styling. Columbia, an outdoor-wear giant from Oregon, bought Sorel and set its designers loose on the brand, with one caveat: don’t mess with its cold-weather reputation. “Sorel is forever linked with a spectacular heritage that is all anchored in Canada, so we’re very mindful of that. It’s tried, true, proven and tested,” says Mark Nenow, Columbia’s global VP of footwear. Still, it needed to broaden its male-dominated customer base. And that meant shifting its reputation from sporting-good staple to a fashion must-have. In 2005, they started that move by morphing the brand’s leather-and-rubber 1964 Pac into the Joan of Arctic line of tall leather lace-ups that combined Sorel’s famed performance with colour combos that were anything but utilitarian. Then came boots with brightly patterned waterproof shells that perfectly coordinated with coloured rubber outsoles. And fall boots. And rainwear. And shoes.
Sorel isn’t alone. Virtually every company known for its winter boots is expanding into other seasons for one inescapable reason. “You can’t rely on the weather anymore,” Ingrid Muroff, La Canadienne’s vice-president of operations, says bluntly. “You need footwear to take you through all seasons.” So in addition to its Montreal-manufactured waterproof leather boots, the firm has sold a spring line for more than a decade. Muroff admits it hasn’t been easy getting consumers to link a perilously high platform wedge with La Canadienne, since “people associate us with winter boots.” The warm-weather line is available only from its website and flagship store.
That’s also true of L.L. Bean, a 100-year-old mail-order firm famous for hunting boots. Though it’s offered more adventurous footwear since 2010, such as a suede platform sandal in teal and taupe with a four-inch heel, the U.S.-based retailer is still known primarily for its conservative styling.
For Sorel, the escape from its male, winter-only niche has paid off. As the product line changed, the fashion industry started to pay attention. “Globally from 2010 to 2011 we doubled our editorial coverage and about 98 per cent of that was in fashion titles,” reports Kimberly Barta, Sorel’s global senior brand director. High-end retailers like Nordstrom in the U.S. and David’s of Toronto now sell its footwear. The Bay’s women’s footwear buyer, Thalia Tserevegou, stocks Sorel in 75 stores because its designs have demonstrated “that winter boots are evolving from functional footwear to a statement piece.”
Sales tripled from $48 million in 2008 to $150 million last year. While 60 per cent of purchases are in North America, the rest of the world is catching up—European growth more than doubled last year. And whereas five years ago men outbought women 60-40, that ratio has now almost flipped. The new hot-weather offerings, aimed squarely at the 20- to 30-year-old female demographic, should continue that trend. Consumers will be hard-pressed to identify some offerings as Sorels, especially the “summer boot” that boasts cut-out sides and a toe thong, and comes in faux zebra skin. There are echoes of the brand’s heritage in other options, such as canvas shoes that have thick vulcanized rubber soles. Indeed, Nenow points out, the homages go back further than the 53-year-old Sorel. When the designers combed Kaufman’s archive, they discovered the firm’s old, often daring shoe designs and took “cues that spread back 60, 80 years ago.”
After summer comes the critical fall season, when women peer inside closets and head out to shop. With looks as varied as a cable-knit legwarmer wedge boot and a sleek four-inch rain boot, Sorel is more than ready.