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M.Gemi Feeds Our Luxury Shoe Addiction With Affordable, Italian-Made Heels

The fast-growing fashion startup sells Italian-crafted shoes for a third of what luxury brands charge. Here’s how they do it.

Many shoe designers put out new collections only twice a year–perhaps launching strappy sandals in the spring, and boots in the fall. M.Gemi, a direct-to-consumer luxury shoe startup, has totally nixed that model. It drops a new pair every single Monday. This week, for instance, it debuted a $198 slip-on sneaker made from crushed velvet, a material that seems to magically change color under different lights.

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The idea is for customers to wake up on a Monday morning to an email featuring the latest shoe. If a customer likes it, she can get it in time for a party or a date that weekend. “We don’t expect our customers to buy a new shoe each week,” Cheryl Kaplan, M.Gemi’s president, said at an event today at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. “But it gives them something to look forward to and keeps our conversation with them going.”

When Maria Gangemi and Kaplan founded the company two and a half years ago, their vision was to deliver luxury Italian-crafted shoes to customers faster and cheaper than any other brand on the market. A pair of Prada, Jimmy Choo, or Christian Louboutin shoes will run you upwards of $700. Gangemi believed she could get shoes made in the same exact factories to customers at a third of that price.

“I was convinced that the internet would allow us simplify the process and make it more efficient,” Gangemi, now the company’s chief merchant, says.

[Photo: Pedro Arieta]
Cheryl Kaplan, who was previously ran Rue La La, was tasked with bringing high-quality shoes to a bigger audience. The pair settled on a strategy. Rather than selling through retailers or investing heavily in brick-and-mortar stores, they would sell their shoes on a website, releasing new designs every week. Cutting out any middle-man costs would allow them to sell handcrafted shoes at lower prices, with most shoes running between $200 and $300. “We decided we would be a luxury brand in everything but the cost,” Kaplan says. “Our customer service had to be top-notch; even the boxes the shoes came in had to be beautiful. But we wanted to deliver all of that at a fraction of the price of other luxury brands.”

It’s a Hit

Since the brand launched in March of 2015, it’s been growing at a fast clip, generating millions in sales and establishing pop-up outposts in Boston and New York. And that growth is only set to continue with its recent influx of cash: It recently raised $16 million in Series C with investment from Forerunner Ventures, which has also funded brands like Jet and Glossier, bringing M.Gemi’s total funding to $47.2 million.

Most of that money will be used to expand the brand’s presence online, rather than through physical retail. Kaplan believes brick-and-mortar stores have an important role to play, but not necessarily as a place to sell shoes. Through crunching a lot of data, Kaplan discovered that New York and Boston were M.Gemi’s top markets, so it made sense to have a “fit shops” in those places. They would give existing customers an opportunity enter the brand’s world and see the shoes up close, while also winning over new customers.

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[Photo: Pedro Arieta]
The key, Kaplan says, is to make the online-to-offline experience as seamless as possible. If a new customer comes into the store to try on five pairs of shoes, a stylist will set up an online account and put those five shoes in the cart, so that the customer doesn’t need to search for them when they visit the M.Gemi site. When an existing customer enters the store, an in-store stylist can pull up their account so they are already aware of that person’s shoe size, style, and preferences. “They will know, for instance, that you have a bunion or that your left foot is larger than your right,” Kaplan says. “These are things that a personal stylist would know.”

But by being circumspect with its brick-and-mortar expansion, M.Gemi can invest more heavily in the shoes themselves. Gangemi is constantly scouring Italy to find the best family-owned workshops in towns cities like Campania, Toscana, and Marche. Many of these craftsmen have spent their whole lives making shoes, and their families have been in the business for two or three generations.

These workshops often work with many brands, but as M.Gemi expands, it is able to take over more and more of the production, and in some cases, even become their sole brand partner. “The fact that we are able to place orders throughout the year makes us a more attractive partner in some cases,” Gangemi says. “Some luxury brands would come into the workshops, place an order, then disappear. With us, they know that we can keep them working all year round, so they know they can hire staff and continue to pay them.”

Kaplan says that one of her biggest challenges is communicating this complicated story of craftsmanship and quality to customers who are just coming across the brand for the first time. They might see a $300 shoe and not fully understand the value they are getting. “I wish I could send Maria [Gangemi] to every customer’s house to explain the process,” Kaplan says. “But since we can’t do that, we try to explain it as best as we can on the website, through videos, and in stores.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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