Belgian fashion: Mad about shoes


Some people are passionate about sport, others about food. For Arnaud Vanderplancke there is one standout passion: shoes.

Arnaud is the man behind an exciting new brand of shoes, called ‘Sweet Lemon’ which are already proving popular, not just in Belgium but in other countries.

At the relatively tender age of just 28, Arnaud has risen to be general manager of Manexco, a Belgium-based quality shoe wholesaler. The company was founded by his grandfather Jacques Maniet in 1961 and Hush Puppies, the famous American brand, account for about 75% of sales.

But it is the Sweet Lemon brand launched a couple of years ago by Arnaud that they are particularly keen to promote. Around 18,000 pairs were sold in the first year of manufacture, but by last year this had rocketed to 40,000. This figure is still ten times less than for the Hush Puppies the company makes and sells, but Arnaud says the Sweet Lemon brand is catching on fast.

“They are trendy but quality shoes which are also affordable,” he says. “Maybe that is the secret of our success.”

Whereas the average price for Hush Puppies is around €79, customers pay about €140 for a pair of Sweet Lemon shoes. Arnaud says: “Hush Puppies are comfortable shoes for all the family. With the Sweet Lemon brand we are trying to produce something a bit more fashionable.”

The higher price for his new brand reflects the particular care and attention that has gone into their production.

“It is a rather complicated process – you can have up to 50 people working on one pair of shoes. You have to find the right leather and textiles, and this is something else you have to bear in mind when considering the price,” he says.

Another factor is that, while Sweet Lemon footwear is designed in Belgium (at a workshop overlooking La Hulpe on the outskirts of Brussels), they are actually made in Italy. For Arnaud and others this seemed natural as he believes the Italians, perhaps uniquely, share his passion for shoes.

“There is something about Italy and shoes. For many Italians it is almost an art form,” he declares. “They eat, drink and sleep shoes, and I am exactly the same.”

It was mostly for that reason that Arnaud, just like his grandfather when he started out, chose Italy for his shoe production. They are made at three sites, and every single Sweet Lemon shoe reflects the care and attention of the finest Italian craftsman. After they leave the factory, they are not sold direct to customers but, rather, to quality shoe shops, 75 % of them in Belgium. France accounts for 15% of sales, and Spain about 8%.

About 500 stores across Belgium and Luxembourg, both independents and large chains, sell Manexco products, including Sweet Lemon. There are some 200 different styles of Sweet Lemon alone and the new autumn collection is characterised by what Arnaud calls “warm, rich colours”.

Arnaud now has plans to expand distribution, with Germany on his immediate horizon. Shoppers in the UK, though, are less likely to be able to see the Sweet Lemon brand in their high street because Arnaud says the UK is a “particularly difficult” market to enter.

The story of Sweet Lemon is really a story about a man who, even as a young child, has always had a love affair with shoes. After completing his studies and spending a year or so in China, he joined the family business (Arnaud´s father is also heavily involved), and two years ago he decided to launch the new brand, partly because it meant the company not having to pay royalties to Hush Puppy.

“Most of our sales are here in Belgium, and I also wanted to go into other countries which, with France and Spain, we have managed to do with the new brand.”

No pun intended, but it is no mean feat as the company has made a success of Sweet Lemon on the back of a general slump in sales, mostly due to the economic crisis. It reflects his never-ending quest for perfection, surrounding himself with only the best designers and shoemakers. He is also a frequent attendee at events such as the Milan fashion show where he endeavours to seek inspiration for future styles.

I was curious as to why he chose the name Sweet Lemon.

“I wanted to involve everyone in the company in the new launch so we asked staff to take part in an online poll to choose a name. A female employee came up with Sweet Lemon, and that was the overwhelming winner, receiving 25 votes against its closest competitor with 16 votes.”

For our interview, Arnaud is wearing a pair of standard trainers, something that may have been alien to his grandfather. But, when it comes to shoe production, it is clear this entrepreneurial young Belgian is a step ahead of the rest.