Brown Shoe took its second leap into Asia in less than a week late Tuesday (19 June) when it announced that it would open more than 500 stores in China through a joint venture in which it will hold a 51% interest.

Brown will work with Hongguo International Holdings, a leading Chinese footwear marketer, to launch more than 400 Naturalizer footwear stores and department store shops - more than 100 carrying its Via Spiga brand - in the next five years.

Hongguo will hold the remaining 49% of equity in the venture, to be called B&H Footwear Company. It will operate from offices in Guangdong province, where Brown currently has a sourcing operation with nearly 600 employees.

The first Naturalizer stores will open this autumn in markets including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzen. Via Spiga is to be introduced next year.

Just last Thursday (14 June), Brown said it would expand the Naturalizer brand to more than 40 retail units in Japan through an agreement with Regal Corp, which currently operates eight Naturalizer stores in the Japanese market.

"The debut of Naturalizer and Via Spiga in China represents a significant milestone in Brown Shoe's initiative to reach a global audience with our portfolio of compelling, consumer-driven footwear brands," said Ron Fromm, chairman and CEO of Brown Shoe.

"This joint venture combines Brown Shoe's strength in brand-building and marketing with Hongguo's established shoe network and operational expertise in the retail industry in China. Together, we are committed to bringing Chinese consumers stylish shoes from brands that are loved and trusted worldwide."

Hongguo has two women's footwear labels of its own, C Banner and E Blan, and through a separate wholly owned subsidiary, Jiangsu Unity, distributes women's footwear under brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Hugo Boss and MaxMara.

Its products are sold through a retail network of 726 points of sale. Its manufacturing facilities can produce 2.7m pairs of shoes a year. Converted from the Chinese yuan, its 2006 sales translate into US$78m, 83% of it derived from retailing and the rest from contract manufacturing.

"Naturalizer represents a new category of shoes that are in step with the changing preferences of Chinese women," said Chen Yixi, chairman of Hongguo.

"While there always been an appreciation for the latest footwear trends, more and more women in China want to feel comfortable while still wearing fashionable shoes."

With sales of more than $2.5bn, Brown's retail properties include Famous Footwear. In addition to Naturalizer and Via Spiga, its wholesale divisions markets brands including LifeStride and Buster Brown, both of which it owns, and, through licensing arrangements, Dr. Scholl's, Etienne Aigner and Carlos Santana.

By Arnold J Karr.