Looking around, it’s difficult to miss the explosion of fantastic plastic footwear that has suddenly colored the marketplace. Every five years or so the plastic shoe comes into vogue, and as with this season, editors perk up to herald its return to summer. The difference this time around is that while copycats are finding a fresh spirit in plastic, the original, Melissa, is simultaneously taking the world by storm with high-end plastic shoes.
It was only a matter of time for the 40-year-old Brazilian footwear company to make the leap from cool regional brand concept to global category dominator. The co-branding pioneer that collaborated with Vivienne Westwood and Patrick Cox way back in the ’80s when collaboration was a little conceived brand extension idea–has seen its stock rise significantly in North America in the last two years. The 21st-century image of the brand that was first inspired by fisherman shoes in the South of France sees a batch of new collaborations with Zaha Hadid, Isabela Capeto, and J Maskrey as well as fresh new projects with Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier (both of whom designed for the brand in the ’80s).
In our travels to Brazil over the last decade, we’ve witnessed Melissa’s growth strategy at work. Realizing the goldmine they were perched on, seemingly overnight, the brand began to up their visibility. Distribution began in America in 2005, Galeria Melissa, their retail/exhibition space opened on Oscar Friere in Sao Paolo in 2006, and a global strategy to sell what the company describes as “pop luxury” was born. Brands like Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton started to co-opt Melissa’s design philosophy, with Jacobs launching a gladiator style inspired by a version Gloria Coelho designed for the Melissa. Meanwhile for Louis Vuitton, Jacobs mined the Melissa Scarfun and Melissa Dreams styles to inspire a similar wedge for the luxury behemoth’s S/S ’07 collection. The ascent for the line (and trend) took hold when the 2008 recession arrived. “When it hit and women realized all the fluff they were buying, we were in an unique position to offer style, design, fashion at an affordable price that resonated with our clients,” explains Melissa’s US CEO Michele Levy.
Sensing the market opportunity, designer brands and fast fashion retailers alike descended on the affordable plastic shoe trend for the spring/summer season. Givenchy’s chain-link jelly sandal in navy and grey are nearly as ubiquitious as Diane Von Furstenburg’s Aya jellies. The Roberto Cavalli croc printed version and the studded option from Jimmy Choo are earmarked for holidaymakers from Sardinia to South Hampton, and ditto for the version from Tory Burch. F Troupe’s bathing shoe is a super-minimal take on the style, and no-frill selections are available everywhere from Topshop to Express. Melissa’s top-selling style of the season outside Brazil are the corallo zig-zag styles co-designed with the Campana Brothers and the fashion-forward Lady Dragon pumps with the heart fashioned by Westwood.
Levy isn’t worried about the imitators who see jellies’ re-arrival as a trend. “Melissa is a pioneer in its field and is unique in design, technology, and comfort. We are the only company in the world dedicated exclusively to the manufacture of plastic shoes for the last 40 years. We can make them like nobody else. Quality in design, fashion, eco-friendliness is our motto. That you don’t find in China.”
Melissa believes that plastic is the best medium to communicate technology and renewal. In other words, Levy sees plastic as a movement.