A trip to India, a visit to a marketplace, and the discovery of a special shoe was the moment that sparked an idea. The shoe, purchased and gifted to his then-girlfriend, now the wife and mother of their children, was the beginning. Today, Matt Bernson is a lifestyle brand offering shoes, handbags, small leather goods, and jewelry with retailers across the country with a Tribeca flagship store. Through it all Matt has stayed true to his approach which combines luxe materials, craftsmanship and a refined aesthetic. Matt’s past experiences — wanderlust (formerly a travel and adventure writer) an eye for detail (honed working in construction at his father’s New York firm), with a business mind (business degree) — all play into his unique approach to designing shoes and building his company, smartly and organically. Trends like gladiators may come and go, but the Matt Bernson always stay true to its brand ethos, which continues to please its cult following, attract retailers year after year and lead to new adventures.
When did you launch your namesake company Matt Bernson?
We started in 2005 selling to retailers and opened our Tribeca store in 2007. Our first retail account was Wendy Foster in San Francisco, then Calypso and private label for Anthropologie. We are selling to many of the same stores today.
You started with shoes and have evolved into a lifestyle brand that offers handbags, jewelry and small leather goods. Please tell us how this expansion happened?
It’s been very organic. We are a small, focused team. We like to do limited edition in production, oversee, incubate and maintain the quality level. Our store in Tribeca has allowed us to be experimental and design product, without concern for wholesale demand. This combined approach lets the design direction evolve naturally.
Did you always want to be a designer?
I always wanted to do something creative but never thought of myself as an artistic talent. I went to school for business and finance. Fashion was not something I thought I would end up doing. It came to me much later in life.
Before I was a designer, I worked for my father’s construction company firm in New York City. That mind-set is very detail oriented and there were definitely applicable lessons from construction that I still use today. Building is a useful skill but never something I thought I could be very good doing. Before that, I was an about adventure and travel writer, living in Los Angeles.
How did you get into shoe design?
Traveling in India, I found a sandal at a marketplace, which appealed to me because it was ethnic and modern. I bought it for my then girlfriend, now my wife and mother of our children. It got me thinking about importing the shoes to the United States. At first I imported them as private label, which I actually did not know was private label at the time. In time, I convinced the first factories I met to change the style into something less ethnic and more modern.
Shoe design is so specific and you had no formal training. How do you approach it?
I could never draw a shoe in a way that you would frame the illustration. But, I could sit there with craftsmen and the factories take the leather and show them what I wanted. I learned a tremendous amount about how to construct a basic sandal by working with people who had been making them for a long time.
Where do you make the shoes today?
We make shoes in China, Brazil, and will be we are starting to make some shoes in Spain, for Spring 2016. Brazil brought a craftsmanship element to our design. From sandals to ballet flats to wedges, I worked my way up in design complexity in Brazil. In the beginning, I was traveling a I went back and forth to India, staying for 6-8 weeks at a time. Now, we make them come to us!
What are your brand signatures? Have they stayed the same as you added new product categories?
We try and stick with a very clean and subtle starting point in design, try to make something sophisticated and interesting without being distracting. Everything from our brand has to feel as if you could wear it every day. Also, I like to know that in 3 years I could pull out my designs and they will stand the test of time. The first shoes I made were stiff and not comfortable at all. So, I set out to make comfort a major focus. Cool is the easy part. Function, comfort and a design someone loves — that is the challenge and takes more of the time.
Matt Bernson is in sync with the shoe trends this season. Is this a happy coincidence?
So funny, since I’ve stated doing this, gladiators have been gone and back about 3 or 4 times. Comfort has come back in a big way and we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the same thing for scaled back, understated styles. When rhinestones and gems are in style then we are in trouble!
How did the collaboration with Hanne Gaby Odiele come about?
It happened completely organically. I’ve had a close relationship with the managers at IMG for many years. It started when we sent Gisele shoes at a photo shoot and she wanted more. I was in the IMG offices having a meeting, talking about making shoes. Hanne happened to be there and we talked about collaborating, since she has been doing styling and other things. It all happened sitting in their office. IMG has been unbelievably supportive.
How did the collaboration process work?
It took us a year and a half to complete the project. Hanne had a lot of clear ideas about things she or her friends would want to wear. Hanne has quite an advanced style perspective. From the beginning, she liked the fact that I made stuff that resonated in terms of design and was comfortable. Hanne wanted something more people could wear, which was not too out there. She was adamant everything was comfortable.
Hanne is extremely busy but she was extremely hands-on throughout the process. She is a very active vintage shopper and sent inspirations when she was on the road – wherever she was finding stuff. I let her run with it and would be in the studio be turning her ideas into more organized presentations. The results were terrific. It’s something we hope we can do again and becomes ongoing.
What was the creative inspiration behind #HGOTOGO photo shoot with Tommy Ton?
#HGOTOGO means Get Hanne’s Style To Go. We tried to capture that in the photo shoot.
Hanne has close relationship with Tommy Ton. Every time he can snap her photo, he does to illustrate what was going on in the style scene. Hanne says she designed the shoes to fit into her hectic life running between photo shoots and runway shows. She wanted her friends to be involved and what better way than a photo shoot? Who better to shoot her than Tommy?
Where is the #HGOTOGO collection sold?
Only in our store and website – we find we do really well keep things exclusive we have large following that comes directly to us.
How has the industry changed since you started?
It’s the Wild West with technology and consolidation of retailers. The model for what works has changed extremely. Whether it’s for the best or worst is still to be seen. Looking back, when we started was quite easy and a much different time. It’s a whole different conversation now. There is so much more opportunity for empowerment through the web and stores.
What’s next for Matt Bernson?
Brick and mortar continues to have strong central role in our business. Opening more stores is one of the most interesting parts of the whole business endeavor. We are close to finalizing our next store location. I can’t say where yet but it will be near New York City.