How This Company Wants to Be the Warby Parker of Shoes

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Many—if not most—women have a weakness for fancy footwear. M.Gemi, a direct-to-consumer luxury Italian shoe label, was created for them. The brand, which launched in March with a website and mobile app, is named after one of its founding members, the Sicilian-born chief merchant Maria Gangemi, and is backed by $14 million in seed and Series A funding.

“The beauty of shoes is the client,” says founder Ben Fischman, who previously introduced flash-fashion-sale site Rue La La. “She is obsessed with them. She’s got an insatiable appetite for shoes. We think obsession and insatiable appetite create great business dynamics.”

M.Gemi is the latest in a long line of startups similar to Warby Parker, the eyeglass pioneer in the online direct-to-consumer space.

“Our idea at the time, and now in execution, was to partner with these incredible Italian factories, design beautiful shoes of the highest qualities and, by working directly with these factories and selling directly to the consumer, pass along savings,” says Fischman, who last year set up Launch, the Boston-based incubator that developed M.Gemi. “We’re the only company in the world that is releasing new collections of Italian shoes every single week.”

Most women buy shoes with regularity, says Fischman, who keeps offices in Boston as well as in Florence, Italy. Indeed, the average American woman will own 268 pairs in her adult life and spends more than $20,000 on shoes in her lifetime, according to a 2014 study commissioned by OnePoll.

M.Gemi has developed several ways to encourage repeat purchases. The brand introduces three to five styles every Monday. (The line is manufactured in about 10 Italian factories, some of which specialize in particular silhouettes, like driving moccasins.) The designs are promoted on social media and via a friends-and-family campaign that Fischman will expand with swipe-based feedback.

“A critical part of our strategy is our weekly additions,” Fischman notes. “We can get a product from design to site in 90 days. We really focus on ‘buy now, wear now.’ And we can get a read for the opportunity, decide if we want to add more and, within three weeks, get more of that product onto the site.”

Fit is consistent throughout the M.Gemi line. Different styles are built using the same “forma,” a foot-shaped mold. So once a customer finds her size, she can confidently stock up on additional pairs. Shoes range from about $128 to $298—at least half the price of designer brands such as Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik—and shipping is free both ways. The startup carries everything from stiletto-heel sandals to ballet flats to peep-toe pumps in neutrals and fashion-forward brights and prints. The styles are of-the-moment but not overly trendy; a young, professional woman could wear most of them to the office.

“At the end of the day, she’s a 32-year-old shoe lover who lives and works in a metropolitan area,” says Fischman of his target consumer.

Jamie Quint, managing partner at San Francisco-based growth consultancy Quint Growth, notes that while there are big margins in direct-to-consumer brands, the challenge lies with “building a compelling and differentiated brand. The high-quality/low-price pitch can work, but you eventually have to build a brand on more than just a price/quality trade-off. Notice that Warby Parker doesn’t even mention price as a big part of their pitch anymore; it’s not even on their homepage.”

Fischman shares this sentiment and aims to make the M.Gemi experience enjoyable—and addictive. Packaging is chic and minimalist, and in the top of every box, he notes, “there’s a card with your name on it, showing that the shoe was packaged and made for you.”

He intends to delve into brick-and-mortar next year. “We will be doing some physical experiences,” he says. “We’re working on a strategy that’s much more brand-immersive.”

And he promises other surprises in the not-so-distant future. He’s not saying, but perhaps we can look forward to M.Gemi bags or men’s shoes.