Down-under Boot Designs

After almost a century-and-a-half manufacturing boots for Australian farmers and factory workers, Blundstone has expanded its range to embrace a line of children’s boots called Blunnies.

At Christmas, Blundstone launched a child-size replica of the company’s best-selling No. 500 style that has garnered a global cult following. Initially delivered in brown and black (in children’s size 7 to youth size 1), the boot is a side-gored Jodhpur with waterproof leather and a dual-density polyurethane sole.

According to marketing manager Barry Smith, over the years Blundstone has been approached by “lines of people” wanting to turn the brand into a concept or wanting to do licensed clothing. Smith said the company acquiesced and decided to do a children’s line only after intense lobbying from retailers and overseas distributors.

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Blunnies

“The brand values that underpin our success in the foreign markets we believe are all to do with authenticity, but mainly the fact that the product is genuine,” said Smith. “It’s not a contrived product. It’s not the name of a tractor put on a boot made in a factory in China.”

Based on the tiny Australian island of Tasmania, Blundstone is not only Australia’s largest producer of heavy-duty work and safety footwear, but it’s also the country’s oldest family-owned shoe manufacturer.

The company started exporting in 1969 and is comprised of two factories and a tannery. Save for a small factory in Auckland, which manufactures for the New Zealand market; Blundstone continues to make all of its product onshore.

The company manufactures more than one million pairs of boots per year in 80 different styles.

Fifty percent of the company’s AU$50 million turnovers is derived from safety-footwear sales, with 35 percent from farming footwear and the remaining 15 percent of exports to 22 different countries. Retail fashion accounts for 60 percent of all the company’s exports.

Blundstone’s evolution into a fashion brand came first by word-of-mouth — the natural extension of oyoung Australians traveling around Europe and the United States wearing Blundstones. Australian surfers, in particular, are credited with pushing the brand on the West Coast of the United States.

During a four-year period, Blundstone produced almost 20 different short-run fashion variations on the Blundstone theme, including a No. 500 in white leather, as well as blue-suede and high-leg versions in various leathers.

“[The fashion boots] weren’t particularly successful,” Smith said. “In our opinion, [they] cut across the brand’s values, and although the leading edge of fashion was very important for the hype and publicity, it’s not where the sales were.”

Tony Stacey, CEO for the past 27 years, said, “The important thing was establishing the brand as a brand — a genuine brand, a classical brand.

“People had been coming to Australia for years and were aware of our product,” she continued. “But it was the sort of interest that was generated at this time — where workwear became high street fashion — that started to establish the brand. We’ve built on that a lot since then, but that was virtually the start of it.”

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Picking up the Fashion Gauntlet Once Again

The company is now picking up the fashion/leisure gauntlet once again.

Last year, a product-development manager was appointed to oversee the launch of a series of new product. Blunnies was the first to roll out, along with a range of safety footwear for working women, a line of sandals and hiking footwear.

“Our expertise is making footwear, ” said Stacey. “We do a line of Blundstone socks, Blundstone belt, and Blundstone shoe-care products, and we may well extend that in the future. But it’s important that whatever we do carry the sort of character of the brand and the character of Blundstones.”

Blunnies have been selling well, according to Ian Scandrett of Sydney’s Hylands Shoe City, a 1,000-square-mile shoe emporium, specializing in comfort and safety footwear; that is the largest single retailer of Blundstones in Australia.
Blundstones account for 35 percent to 40 percent of the business in Scandrett’s industrial-footwear department and 10 percent of his overall sales volume, which amounted to 50,000 units

“Blundstone’s an icon,” said Scandrett. “It’s reached that status now — there’s no doubt about it. It’s certainly up there with RM Williams and Vegemite.”

Scandrett said that no matter which way Blundstone chooses to go, the company would do well to heed the experience of another workboot brand which made the fashion crossover: Dr. Martens, whose local distributor unsuccessfully attempted to take the brand from niche retailers into the mainstream overnight.

“[Dr. Martens] opened up into [the] Myer/Grace Bros. [department-store chain] and [the] Big W [discount department-store chain], and the company immediately, within a season, had devastating results,” said Scandrett. “People just didn’t know where to buy the original Docs. You could buy these locally made ones for $79, with the English ones sold for $145. So they destroyed the brand by fiddling with it.”

Blundstone, on the other hand, has been more cautious, according to Scandrett. “[The company doesn’t] jump quickly. If anything, they’re probably overly cautious. I think they’ll be [around] for a very long time.”

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