Like a kid in a candy store: That's what describes a shoe designer's first visit to the company's leather printing and embossing plant in College Point, N.Y.
From exotic leopard and python materials to embossed polka-dot and paisley patterns, designers can take their pick. The family-owned business, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is the onlyremaining printing and embossing operation of its kind in the U.S. that offers such diversity of product, according to owner Richard Lipson, whose father, Sam Lipson, founded the company. 'We don't have direct competition,' Richard Lipson said. 'No one else does everything we do. We're unique and specialized.'
Although the majority of Rainbow's product offerings are leather based (with materials such as cork and vinyl making up the remainder), the company does not tan its own products. Instead, it works on finished leathers bought from suppliers around the world. 'We buy all the ingredients and cook them up to create our own special leathers,' Lipson explained. And if designers still can't find what they're looking for among Rainbow's assortment, the company's product development team will work with them one-on-one to create custom designs.
While Rainbow's manufacturing facility is anything but high-tech, with just 10 employees and some machinery dating back 70 years, the company never misses a beat when it comes to keeping up with emerging global fashion trends. "When we hear polka-dots are hot, we pull out our polka dot embossing plates," Lipson said. With the capability to do a variety of patterns on both leathers and non-leather materials, Rainbow supplies the footwear, accessories and furniture industries. And although little footwear production is currently done in the States, shoes still account for 70 percent of the company's business. The company refuses to divulge its client roster, but Lipson said the list reads like a who's who of the shoe industry, with designers often tipping off one another to the company's treasure trove of materials. Unique products, flexible turnaround times and no minimum order requirements have all contributed to Rainbow's longevity in an increasingly competitive and volatile business. In fact, sales have been up 20 percent each year over the past two years, And although the company recently has been forced to raise its prices due to increases from its suppliers, Lipson said these costs have paled in comparison with those of comparable European goods.
Here. Lipson shares Rainbow's fashion and business strategies.
EN: You're celebrating 25 years this year. What has been the biggest change in the components industry over the years?
R L: Without a doubt, it has been the quick and steady shift from domestic production to overseas production. The way we have been able to survive and thrive in this environment is to offer a wide and unique variety of products. In addition, we cater to the remaining domestic manufacturers and provide quick service to our international customers by being in close proximity to a major airport.
FN: What are some of the challenges to remaining a privately owned domestic business?
RL: Our biggest challenge is balancing the demand for our products with our ability to produce them in a timely fashion. We have to react quickly to increase production when needed and to have sufficient material readily available to fill orders.
FN: What types of leathers do you work with most and why?
RL: We use a great deal of pigskin in our production because it prints well, is available in many colors and can be used for production in shoes, handbags, apparel and belts. Also drum-dyed naked cowhide because it burnishes wetland vie get a deep embossing with our many fashionable engraved plates. In addition, applying patent- look finishes has been an important part of our business in the past couple of years.
FN: What trends will be key for spring '09 and looking ahead to fall '09?
VG: Citrus-yellow, snake combos and patent leather are all still holding strong [for spring]. Also, treatments on cork and burlap are big, following the whole eco conscious trend. As far as fall '09, it's still a little early to tell. Out I think the whole gray thing will remain hot. [The color] is very sexy when mixed with anthracite and a splash of white for shock value.
FN: From where do you get your trend and fashion direction?
RL: We get direction from a lot of different places. We are lucky that our customers travel quite extensively all year round and bring back things they want us to make for them, so we are always on the cutting edge. We also get direction from European magazines and. quite frankly, from the voices in our own heads. One of us might use one of our existing transfers and put it on leather, or try a new one from Europe on suede. If we like the outcome, we leave it as is [or work on it some more]. And it's often a group effort. We'll show [an ideal to someone else and then he or she throws in 2 cents and then it's on to someone else for his or her opinion, and the next thing you know, we have a beautiful product. We all work by a combination of instinct and spontaneity, which adds a lot of drama into the mix, helping to make the job more fun.
FN: What is the most memorable print request you've ever had?
RL.: We made a custom plate for Nicole Miller using her Icons for [the leather interior] of a limited-edition GM
Cadillac that was auctioned off for charity. As you can imagine, the specifications for this project were quite stringent.
FN: In a tough economy, does the footwear industry tend to go more classic with its prints or a bit wilder to capture the consumer's Interest?
RL: It can go both ways. A lot of our customers don't want to compromise, and the most creative will not. The newest and trendiest customer will be more bizarre than ever to hold the consumer's interest, whereas the more successful, established company will pull back and remain simple and classy because the store that is buying the goods is dictating to them the price they will spend. That's the real issue: Will Macy's buy the same shoe that has been selling like crazy for them for two years straight or get frightened and say. -Sorry, we can't buy that shoe because of a recession; even though the shoe is a proven success. Everybody is afraid to step out of the box and take a chance
FN: What percentage of your footwear business is in non-leather materials?
RL: Rainbow Leather is still largely a leather house known for printing and embossing leather, but we have added printed and metallic cork, vinyl and burlap. These non-leather materials can account for between 5 percent and 10 percent of sales during the spring season.
FN: You supply to other industries besides leather. Is there any crossover in the materials?
VG: We work with every aspect of the fashion industry, and we also have been dabbling in the interiors industry. It's very important to have a handle on interiors, especially when there is a recession, because people are still willing to put money into their home during this time. Handbags and shoes go hand in hand, and yes, similar materials show up in both categories. The most consistent trends for fall are colors such as charcoal, light gray, white and a mix of different shades of pewter and anthracite, as well as all types of snake and boa.