When we were first introduced to M.Gemi in March 2015, the retail landscape looked quite a bit different than it does now. Department stores weren't looking so dismal, and companies weren't tripping over themselves to win the attention of Generation Z. But with the widespread industry upheaval has come an opportunity for "disruptors" to swoop in and outrun those issues facing more traditional properties.
M.Gemi, which came courtesy of Rue La La founder Ben Fischman and a veteran shoe merchant, entered the market two years ago with plans to do for direct-to-consumer Italian-made footwear what Everlane has done for basics. The brand had no trouble finding buzz early on, with consumers, editors and investors alike drawn to its weekly drops and frequently updated colors and fabrications. The price wasn't a bad selling point, either: It promised high-end, Italian-made women's shoes for a fraction of what they might cost elsewhere.
It didn't take long for M.Gemi to deliver. In the last two years, it had carved out a plum position in the — already very crowded — direct-to-consumer footwear market, and is still expanding greatly. Just last month, M.Gemi announced that it had raised $16 million in a Series C round to power its next steps; according to Business of Fashion, the brand has doubled its sales each year since its launch, with $50 million in annual revenue estimated for 2017.
With its regular releases, M.Gemi both anticipated and is capitalizing on a moment in retail — that of drop culture — that we at Fashionista have been charting since its earliest Supreme days. What, exactly, makes us what to shop a drop so much? NYU Stern School of Business Associate Professor of Marketing Adam Alter told Fashionista last month that it all comes down to the scarcity principle.
"[A drop] doesn't conform to traditional fashion release timing, so it's unpredictable and, therefore, the products seem scarce," said Alter. "Scarcity makes them desirable because they aren't available to just anyone — they're only available to people who happen to be tuned in to the product's release."
The more frequent the drops, the more tuned in with the brand consumers are required to be. In today's age of hyperconnectivity, this is easier than it sounds, and M.Gemi has built an extremely loyal fanbase upon this very concept.
"The level of engagement and the return rate was much higher than we originally projected, and we really think it's due to the uniqueness of the product and the frequency of the range," Co-Founder and Chief Merchant Maria Gangemi tells me over the phone from the company's Italian headquarters just outside of Florence. "I think she's buying with more frequency, because we're really focused on her needs at that time. We're dropping products every Monday. That was the original premise, to create footwear that there wasn't a lot of assortment in. And I think she's really responding to that."
Gangemi, who founded M.Gemi with Rue La La's Fischman, grew up in Sicily, where she was surrounded by boutiques on cobblestone streets and where the shoes were always handmade, always rare. Gangemi explains that she believes the best shoes and handbags are still being made in Italy because, simply, that's where the craftsmanship and heritage is. But fewer brands are making products in Italy now and instead, are taking their production elsewhere to cut costs. This has led many of those workshops around which Gangemi grew up to go out of business.
While M.Gemi's shoes have always been made in Italy, the company has expanded its local design team, many of whom cut their teeth working for premium brands. Cheryl Kaplan, the Boston-based co-founder and president of M.Gemi, tells me that the brand doesn't just draw inspiration from Italy, but that's where the team lives.
"They travel, they're at the shows, they're watching what's on people's feet and then also looking at what's selling in the U.S.," says Kaplan. "We make our shoes very close to when we sell them. We're not doing full seasons at a time, and because we're launching shoes weekly, we can really react to what's working and what's not."
This has allowed for M.Gemi to produce just about in real-time, with a 30- to 60-day turnaround. "In July," says Kaplan, "you may still want sandals, you know?"
After the success of its women's line, M.Gemi launched a tighter, more curated assortment of men's footwear this past March. Gangemi explains that for men, the brand is focused on timeless essentials, like drivers, Chelsea boots, loafers and moccasins, whereas its women's products can be more trend-driven. The men's sneakers, priced between $228-$278, are performing particularly well.
As M.Gemi has gotten into a groove with the most important element of its business — the product, of course — its next big project is to tackle branding, which, to start, it's doing with an Italian favorite: gelato. Starting July 21 and running through Labor Day, the brand is taking a retro-style gelato truck up and down the East Coast and hired "vacation masters" straight from Instagram to staff the vehicle.
"We love the flexibility and agility that this allows us to have," says Kaplan. "We have our pop-ups, which are semi-permanent locations, but then these special, experiential pop-ups help to bring it to more people."
Like its fellow direct-to-consumer competitors, M.Gemi's business model is e-commerce-based, but it has found great success with its New York City pop-up, or "Fit Shop," on Wooster Street in SoHo. A second Fit Shop is coming to Boston this month, too, as that's where the company's corporate office is located, and this time, it's permanent. With M.Gemi starting off entirely online, Gangemi says, it was essential for the brand to get the fit perfect for their clients.
The pop-ups also allow for the M.Gemi team to have an interface with their shoppers. Gangemi tells me about a woman from California who, on a recent trip to New York, came to the SoHo store directly from the airport. She was there for an hour and a half with Gangemi, trying on shoes that she normally would not be so sure about.
"She's a lawyer, and she had bought a shoe from us that's called the Rivista, which is a 65-millimeter heel. But she wanted a sexier evening pump, and she became so engaged, because it gave her the opportunity to try on things that she normally wouldn't wear or normally wouldn't have selected for herself. But she was so happy with the results."
Looking ahead, M.Gemi sees an opportunity to expand its men's business and perhaps pivot into accessories, too — but they're taking it one Italian patent leather pump, and this summer, teaming scoop of gelato, at a time. "It's not in the plans right now, but maybe in the distant future we'll take all of this special information and speciality — which is leather — and evolve it into small leather goods and other accessories," says Gangemi.
I guess we'll just have to check back in another two years.