Growing up, Allison Gettings never felt the pull to follow her father, grandfather and great-grandfather into the more than 100-year-old family business, Minnesota’s Red Wing Shoe Co. That was OK: Her dad encouraged her and her brother to find their own paths.
For a while, she did. She studied psychology at St. Olaf, and after graduating in 2005 went to work at the nonprofit PACER Center in Minneapolis as a development coordinator. But she soon landed back at Red Wing, working as a product manager and a visual merchandising coordinator at the company known for making sturdy boots worn by construction workers, hunters and factory laborers.
Still, Gettings knew something wasn’t quite meshing. After five years, she left Red Wing Shoes — but she didn’t quit the shoe business. Instead, at age 26, she moved to San Francisco to create her own line, called Alli Marie, for women. The goal? To make a shoe she hadn’t yet found — one that was classy and stylish, comfortable and well-made at a medium price point.
It was a humbling, exhausting time, schlepping her shoe samples from store to store, trying to persuade retailers to stock them. It was also a period of self-exploration, Gettings says. She began to wonder why her family’s business hadn’t made shoes for women in the United States.
When she asked the question to company leaders back home, the answer surprised her. It turned out Red Wing had been getting requests to add a women’s line in its classic, timeless Heritage Collection, but never had the bandwidth to launch it.
Gettings, who was 32 by then, saw an opportunity. She could continue to fill the void she’d recognized in women’s shoes, and she could come home to do it. By fall of 2016, the women’s Heritage line was released.
Fashion magazines and bloggers praised Red Wing’s Heritage boots as feminine and sexy, yet as practical and comfortable as Red Wing’s more rugged men’s line. Celebs from Lady Gaga to Oprah have worn the iconic $300-plus boots.
After successfully reinventing a men’s classic for women, Gettings pivoted in a new direction at Red Wing last fall. The company named her vice president and general manager for Vasque, a 55-year-old division that serves hikers, backpackers, trail runners and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Here’s what Gettings had to say about her career and her comfort level on the hiking trail in an interview edited for clarity and space:
Oprah is wearing your Heritage boots on the April cover of O magazine. How’d that happen?
My understanding is that her stylist or fashion editor got the shoes from our public relations firm and decided to wear them. She was not paid. There were a lot of comments on Instagram saying, “I can’t believe you’re paying her.” We don’t pay anyone to wear our product, ever.
You’re in charge of an outdoor brand, Vasque. As a woman and as an adult, do you prefer hiking and the outdoors or city life?
I don’t want to pigeonhole myself because I like a lot of different things. My father is a huge outdoor guy. When we would do father-daughter bonding things when I was a kid, we would go ice climbing, and go on weeklong canoe trips and any kind of camping and backpacking. I loved it. Every family vacation was centered around hiking somewhere. We did a family spring break trip in Ecuador one year where we spent one week snorkeling and scuba diving in the Galapagos and one week hiking through the Amazon. The first Vasques that I wore, my dad took me somewhere where he had business — near Davos and Pontresina, Switzerland. When he had time off we took a gondola up the mountain and hiked down. There was no path. We just found our own way.
I love going to the city and eating amazing food, shopping and going to museums. But my husband and I have figured out through trial and error that we’re not city people. We live in a small town and have a beautiful view. I’m the ultimate nerd. I have binoculars at my kitchen table that overlooks our backyard. I’m way into birding now.
How many pairs of shoes do you have?
I have about 50 pairs of shoes, and they are a mix of Red Wings and other brands, though 80 percent are Red Wings and Vasque. I also have quite a few pairs of Alli Marie [her discontinued line] as well. I have a couple pair of high heels that I haven’t worn in years, and one or two pairs of sandals for summer months and that’s it.
Your favorite brands other than Red Wing?
New Balance is doing a great job balancing athletic, comfort and lifestyle categories and, like us, they still make boots in the USA, which is great. Their products are on point.
Do you own flip-flops?
I have a pair of flip-flops. They were a gift. They’re very useful to go to the pool or whatever. I would probably never wear them to go out to dinner. I find them a little uncomfortable.
So they’re not bejeweled?
Oh, god no. I do not own a pair of bejeweled flip-flops or bejeweled anything.
What are your favorite hiking spots in Minnesota or beyond?
My daughter is 4 and we haven’t had a lot of success where there is a set trail and you move in a linear direction of the trail, so we play outside. She loves to go biking. She’s too big to wear on our shoulders and too big for a stroller.
Why did you switch from Heritage to Vasque?
With our Heritage business there was a lot that we were able to accomplish in my time there. I felt like I had the chance to move the needle in a positive direction. And it felt like the time was right to pass that on to someone else and let them take it even farther. When I came into my role as director of product in Heritage, I didn’t have formal experience or training as a merchant in footwear. So I took it as far as I possibly could and then we brought in someone with a lot of experience and competency really running that kind of business.
A lot of Minnesotans who know Red Wing shoes may not know that Vasque is part of the same company and has been for 55 years. What have you learned from the Vasque team so far?
The first thing I did when I came on board at Vasque was to sit down with every employee who works on the team [there are 10]. I asked them all five questions. What is the most important thing to preserve about Vasque? What do you hope I do? What are you worried I might do? What are you worried I might not do? How do you stay in touch with consumers?
That was a critical way to learn about what people’s hopes, dreams and fears are about where I take this brand and how I step up as their leader. It created a safe space and opportunity to reach out to each person to get a sense for where they are and what some of their struggles might have been, and where I can step in most effectively to do the right work that they want to do.
What were their fears?
Across the board their biggest fear was that we would maintain the status quo. That’s exactly what you want to hear. This is the perfect time for me to come on board when the [Vasque] business isn’t doing great financially but our Red Wing business is doing well, so we’re safe. If the Vasque business tanks, it’s not like the whole company is going to go down. We’re not worried about that, but everyone is paying attention.
How did your Alli Marie experience help you at Vasque?
For me, this is the absolute perfect opportunity to come in because Vasque has so many things going for it that any startup does not. We have the capacity and the expertise to make really high-quality footwear and source it. That is done, locked and loaded. With my startup business [Alli Marie], I can tell you that it took an enormous amount of time and energy that we don’t have to worry about.
What do you want to do better with the Vasque brand?
We’re looking at the brand in a whole new way, like a 55-year-old startup. Who are we and what do we stand for in the world? What are our values that our consumers also have? What does our strategic brand positioning look like? How do we want to grow this business? What bases are really covered in the industry and what are the unique assets? What are values that Vasque has that aren’t fulfilled by the competition? [PayPal co-founder] Peter Thiel said, ‘Competition is for losers.’ We gotta find our own space within the market. What are the spaces in the outdoor market that are growing that we don’t have a large market share in? Finally, where are consumers headed? How are they interacting with the outdoors? Some numbers suggest the outdoor industry is shrinking but participation is high in terms of people going to national parks. It’s higher than it’s ever been. So the way people are interacting with the outdoors is shifting. We want to figure out the sweet spot so that we can show up in a way that will hopefully leapfrog the rest of the outdoor industry.
How do you see the brand changing under your leadership?
I’m not sure yet. We’re in the very early stages of piecing it together. Just for context, I probably spent the first three months doing nothing but asking people questions about the business. Once I had done that and had a sense for what people wanted about this business and what they felt was important about the business, I had more questions than I had answers so then we started the really deep exploration into the competition, the numbers. I’ve been trying to keep a fairly open mind as I go into it because I want to make sure that my own biases or singular experience with the outdoors doesn’t color the strategies that we come up with in a way that could become misguided. Maybe that’s the psychology training in me coming out. I know that my own experience and perspective isn’t enough to bring this business to where I want it to be. Everything is going to change but hopefully it’s an evolution.
What gets you up to come to work in the morning?
It’s our culture and our values. I want to see if I can do my part to bring these brands up, to bring the Vasque brand up like my dad and my grandfather did. Personally, that’s really important and meaningful to me. But also it’s important to foster a culture here where people feel like they can come to work every day and feel welcome and have the opportunity to do something meaningful. So as much as I’m building the business at Vasque, I’m also building that kind of culture.