Paul Evans shoesIt is a good time to be on the hunt for men’s shoes.  While 2009 through 2012 saw a rush to market for online men’s suits, 2013 and now 2014 are seemingly all about shoes.  Launched last year, the founders of New York-based Paul Evans are betting that, like suits, men will get comfortable with buying dress shoes online.

Co-founders Benjamin Earley and Evan Fript officially launched the Paul Evans brand last August, though their efforts began about a year and a half prior, when the two began speaking with consultants and going to the New York and Las Vegas tradeshows to network and find potential manufacturers.

[Like the socks? They are from Washington, DC-based Nice Laundry.]

The company is funded by a group of investors “consisting primarily of guys in their 20s,” said Fript, who serves as CEO of the company. The fledgling brand went through a small seed financing last year to fund their first few factory orders.

At $350 a pair, their line isn’t exactly cheap, but the two thought they could exploit a gap in the market for affordable luxury in the form of Italian-made leather shoes.

“We are offering very high quality and stylish shoes at a very attractive price point,” argues Fript, who sent over a pair of their cap toe “Cagney” shoes for Modern Fellows to review.

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Manufactured in the Alicante region of Spain by a family-owned factory, the shoe is Goodyear welted and constructed from French calfskin leather uppers with blind seam stitching, matching leather soles and leather lining.

Dress shoes, like suits, could pose a hard sell online. While outfits like Zappos.com long ago proved that free shipping both ways and stellar customer service will get customers to click for footwear, most e-commerce shops carry brands with which men are already familiar.

You can’t walk into your local department store and try on shoes from Paul Evans or other new digital shoe labels such as Awl & Sundry, the Shoe Snob and Jack Erwin – at least, not yet (though Paul Evans does work with several mostly-New York headquartered menswear brands, including our friends at online tailoring startup Black Lapel).

Fript recognizes that only focusing on one distribution channel limits a brands exposure – he observes that, “we understand that some people prefer to purchase in person after physically trying the product” –  but acknowledges that the company is too young to focus on multiple distribution channels at the moment.

Shoppers at Paul Evans and other shoe startups may also be frustrated by low inventory and limited sizes, a function of their young company and slow march to scale.

Still, Fript says that “business is great,” and they are working to replenish stock after running low or out of a number of their initial, limited inventory. “Part of our strategy was launching with a limited range to test the market,” explained Fript. “We saw which styles resonated with our customers and which sizes we needed to focus on.”

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For now, Paul Evans offers the Zappos.com industry-standard free shipping and free returns and quick customer service.  The pair have their heads down to develop their e-commerce distribution channel while building inventory and expanding offerings.

Down the line, “we will absolutely begin doing pop-up shops, trunk shows and eventually a guide shop,” Fript explains.

As for the shoes, they are as good looking in person as they are online, which is to say, they’re gorgeous.

They seem to run a little small – the 9M Fript sent over fit well even though I normally wear a half-size smaller – and are true to width (that is, they are not more or less narrow than most other medium-width shoes. Other brands’ regular width shoes – Allen Edmonds comes to mind – tend to be narrow.)

Of those competitors who are springing up alongside them, Fript says, “the beautiful thing about fashion is there really isn’t competition,” and points to a number of customers who have purchased all three of their initial styles as proof.

Surveying the market, Paul Evans has planted itself in an area where there is some but not a lot of competition – Italian-made dress shoes that stand out for their intricate detailing, bold colors like oxblood, and subtle touches like burnished finishes.

“We love seeing new brands pop-up,” Fript suggests, “because it validates the e-commerce business model.”

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