Stepping in the Right Direction: Harlan Brandon, footwear designer

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For Harlan Brandon, the sole of his shoes is indeed the soul of his business and right now the two, Brandon’s soul and his business, are kickin’ it. Brandon, 51, is the owner of the Harlan Brandon Footwear Collection, a Montclair, N.J., designer shoe company. Revenues for the company topped $750,000 in 2005 and Brandon expects sales for 2006 to approach the $1 million mark. 

“The shoe market is a multi-billion dollar industry and was virtually an untapped market by African-American entrepreneurs,” he says. “I went from designing shoes for other major footwear companies to becoming the first African-American shoe designer in a major retailer.” Brandon’s shoes can be spotted in the men’s footwear section at Macy’s stores across the region. The national retailer is a major client, accounting for about 80 percent of Brandon’s total sales.

According to figures from the trade publication, Footwear News, and from Target Market News, which tracks African-American spending, African-American men and women spend more than $4.5 billion annually on footwear, including designer, sports and casual styles. While that figure suggests a market worth tapping, Brandon’s transition from corporate designer to independent business-owner was slow in the making. After spending more than 15 years as a senior designer for FILA USA and other brand-name footwear companies, Brandon became disenchanted with what he describes as the ways of the corporate hierarchy. He began to explore career options that would allow him complete freedom and creativity. “I was tired of making other people rich and not enjoying the complete success of all of my work,” he says. “I decided it was time to strike out on my own.” 

Armed with a marketing degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York and some coursework at the Parsons School of Design, plus the knowledge, skill and tenacity acquired from years of experience in the business, he set about making what he expected to be a successful and lucrative foray into market. Investing about $20,000 of his own money to secure the bare-bone basics, he officially launched the Harlan Brandon Footwear Collection in 1998. He estimates that his total start-up costs exceeded about $300,000 in the first few years of the company’s existence. Today, his client list includes celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington and the founder and former chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, Bob Johnson.

While the company is stepping in the right direction, some challenges never go away, Brandon says. For the HBF Collection, the two most relentless are keeping current with innovations in the industry, particularly technological innovations, and securing capital, he says. “I’m constantly exploring ways to enhance and maintain the business side of Harlan Brandon Footwear. The product and name recognition are established [but,] maintaining a steady cash flow is always an issue,” he says.

With the Internet changing the speed at which business is conducted, as well as expanding the reach of businesses, Brandon plans to offer an online service for customers to order shoes. He is also looking to secure government contracts through minority procurement programs. He recalls that at one time his shoes were sold in Army and Air Force Exchange Service outlets, which provide merchandise to U.S. soldiers, airmen and their families stationed worldwide. Designing combat boots for the military and federal prison system is a potentially lucrative business, he notes. “There are countless opportunities out there for entrepreneurs who are willing to explore and learn about all the things necessary to maintain a successful small business,” he says. “This includes becoming certified as [a minority and/or woman-owned enterprise].”

Harlan Brandon Footwear (www.HarlanBrandon.com) is marketed primarily to African-American men between the ages of 25 to 34 and sells for between $90 and $125.