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Live on the wedge

Unisa’s UK Sales Agent, Sam Hunt reveals all about the Spanish footwear brand’s five decades of history, legendary sandals collections and loyal customer base

Tell me a little bit about how Unisa was started.
Unisa was originally established in the '70s as an export business, exporting espadrilles and more traditional Spanish footwear overseas. After meeting, the two founder members, Antonio Porta and Carlos Musso, worked together to grow the fledgling business into what we know as Unisa today. From these small beginnings, we now have a brand that sells in 72 countries worldwide.

What was the founders' background, and what was the first collection like?
One of the founders comes from a long-tradition footwear family back in the early years of the 20th century. The other member has worked in the footwear sector since he was very young. Together with the Castañer family, another of the famous names in Spanish footwear, they formed the early Unisa footwear company. The first collection focused on what Spain is still famous for: summer sandals and espadrilles.

How were the first products developed, and what was the response?
The first collection was a capsule selection of sandals. Amongst them, we had a style we called the 'bead sandal' with a vachetta-covered wedge, alongside some other styles and espadrilles. Those few styles were very successful; the response was extraordinary. The bead sandal alone sold more than 1,000,000 pairs.

What challenges were overcome when the company was starting out?
The main challenges for the company were typical to all new companies at the beginning. True hard work was needed to compensate for the lack of proper infrastructure and financing, at least until the first orders were settled.

What sets Unisa apart from its competitors?
Design, quality and choice. We have a breadth of product in our range that I just don't see elsewhere. The range is updated every season, with us looking at the newest trends to offer our customers. Autumn/winter 2017 was more than 70 per cent new product, which is essential to keep the customer interested.
The quality and fit is second to none. We use the best leathers and materials and rigorously fit-test our shoes. It's this that really sets us apart from the high street. The knowledge that Unisa - now in its fifth decade - has is invaluable. It runs through the whole ethos of the brand. Our sales team has an incredible amount of experience to help our wholesale customers curate the brand offering for their store. We work with our customers to make sure they have the perfect range for their market.

How important is the location and history of the company to its success?
It's Unisa's long history that gives the brand its integrity. In a world where authenticity is becoming increasingly appreciated, it's an invaluable asset to the company. Spain has a well-deserved reputation for beautiful, trend-led footwear. Our head office and product development lab sits right at the heart of Spain's footwear manufacturing. They have access to the best materials, skills and technology in footwear production today.


How has the product offering changed over the years and how would you describe your current collection?
We're always challenging and changing our product offer. It's important to keep fresh and relevant in today's market. Over the past few seasons, we've introduced more sports and casual product, in keeping with modern lives. We make sure we have all the key silhouettes covered for the season ahead, whilst adding that signature Unisa detail.
Our collection for spring/summer 2017 launched with flatform loafers in greys and soft neutrals, block-heel pumps with feature heels and court shoes in every colour imaginable. As the season rolls on we focus more on wedges, espadrilles and sports sandals. With around 250 styles in the collection, we really do have something to offer everyone.

How often do you launch new lines?
We launch two main wholesale collections per year. We also trial product in season, and this is offered through our B2B portal. Our retail offering is launched on rolling basis, with new lines being added throughout the season to keep the selection fresh.

What are the current best-selling designs? Tell me about your recent campaigns.
In spring/summer, our casual sandals and formal ranges always sell well. We also have a beautiful range of coordinating bags, so our trade in those summer occasion pieces is always strong. Our casual sandals are honestly the best thing you can have on your feet - perfect for holidays or every day.
In autumn/winter we have a very strong casual boot collection, with our hidden wedge boots offering leg-lengthening practicality. Metallic boots have also been very strong, with pewter being the key colour. We've seen a move away from traditional occasion shoes in winter with our customers favouring more directional court shoes, shoe boots and over-the-knee boots. We're really excited by our campaign for autumn/winter 2017 - the model shots and accompanying video demonstrate just how dynamic and vibrant the Unisa woman is!

Which trade shows do you attend and which one works best for you?
Pure London is our main show in the UK. Our ability to offer buyers colour and material customisation for each item has popularised the brand with the boutique clients that visit Pure London each season. To complement this showcase, we also showed at the London Shoe Show in Kensington at the end of the season. Internationally, Micam is our main show and of course, we opened our beautiful showroom near Oxford Street in 2014. This is a much more relaxed environment that allows me to show the collection in a much fuller way.

When was the website launched and how does it support the business?
The UK website launched in June 2014. It's the Unisa 'shop window' that allows us to give a comprehensive view of the brand and what we offer. It gives us a direct link to the customer and is a fantastic learning tool. We often refer to our shops as 'labs' as this is where we get to trial products and learn lessons that we can then roll out to our wholesale customers.
We also have a more direct support for our wholesale customers in the form of our B2B portal. Existing customers have a login which they can use to buy directly from in-season stock. This allows them to be more reactive in season, trial new lines, manage cash flow - all of which are essential in challenging times.

What have been the key milestones in the business?
In the UK, taking the distribution of the brand back in house in 2014 was a turning point. Within a very short period we opened our flagship store in Covent Garden, the wholesale showroom and launched the B2B on our website. It was an exciting period of growth for us and laid down the cornerstones for us to grow further in the future.

How do you view the current market and what trends, both in product and in business, do you see emerging over the coming months?
Retail is a tough environment right now. It's important to give the customer new and exciting product; a reason to buy. In wholesale, we've seen a move away from customers repeating tried and tested product. They're looking for newness and individuality to entice customers to buy. It's important to stand out from the crowd in such a crowded market. I think footwear will be increasingly casual and practical, as people lead busier and more challenging lives. Even on the more formal product, attention to details such as heel height, pitch and balance will make or break a style. When you get that right, you build brand loyalty and Unisa customers are very brand loyal.

What are your future plans for the business?
We've laid the path for the future with our showroom, shop, website and B2B. It's now about maximising those resources and creating a fluid business that can react to the many challenges this retail environment can present. We're also offering more new in season product so that we can react to today's frenetic fashion market. It's about providing all the support you can to your customer base.