Footwear designer Rafi Balouzian has never been one to follow the fashion pack. In an age of mass production, he still does it by hand here in the U.S.
For more than a decade, Balouzian has been producing Cydwoq, a collection of men’s and women’s comfort-driven footwear that mirrors the foot’s anatomy for a barefoot walking experience.
In the tradition of his family, veterans of the footwear industry in Armenia, Balouzian has a passion for Old World production techniques: His shoes are handmade to order by a group of artisans in a small factory in Burbank, Calif. And his natural approach to shoemaking also comes through in his use of anatomically minded silhouettes and eco-friendly components.
Considering the labor-intensive nature of his footwear, Balouzian keeps a tight rein on distribution. The Cydwoq brand and a companion collection of dressier looks, called Vintage, are sold in about 200 specialty stores and independents worldwide. Cydwoq’s Website accounts for around 15 percent of sales. The shoes retail from $198 to $550.
Retailers say Balouzian’s bohemian-inspired creations strike a chord with consumers looking for something special. Sheryl Lukomski, owner of Shoe in New York, had such success with Cydwoq that soon after opening 10 years ago, she decided to devote her store’s mix exclusively to the brand. “The line works better on its own,” she said, noting that the shoes appeal to customers who have a developed aesthetic and are somewhat individualistic.
1. You have a very diverse background. How is that reflected in your footwear?
RB: The fusion of my architectural design background, Armenian background, extensive travels to Europe since my childhood and my life in the U.S. since 1979 has led to the unique design of Cydwoq. [Growing up], I went with my dad to shoe exhibits in Europe. I spent my childhood in Lebanon, so I have a mix of Eastern and Western cultures. All of these experiences come together to inspire my designs.
2. Are you influenced by current trends?
RB: Rather than taking inspiration from other creative minds in the fashion world, I like to take inspiration from [my personal] experiences and interests. Since I was a child, I have been interested in classic and contemporary automobiles and racing, cycling, travel, architecture and skiing. I have drawn from these influences, whether it’s shapes I’ve seen in nature or aesthetics of cars, buildings or sculptures. [For example], I incorporate the profiles of sports cars with long front hoods, the sweeping roof lines of buildings, the aerodynamic shapes of planes, the air intakes of engines and the shapes of bridges.
3. Your collection has always been eco-friendly. What do you say to brands just jumping on the trend?
RB: It’s never too late. But this shouldn’t be a trend that comes and goes. It should be a philosophical direction whereby all the manufacturing and sourcing is adapted to an eco-friendly philosophy.
4. How important is customization to your business?
RB: All Cydwoq shoes are made-to-order and they can be [done] in any color, heel or sole combination. Some of our retailers have our leather swatches and special-order shoes with unusual color combinations for their customers. We also can adjust the fits according to customer requests.
5. Is it hard finding skilled craftsman?
RB: It is one of the biggest challenges in our industry because shoemaking is a dying profession. We don’t have employee turnover. All our shoemakers have been with us since we started. And we are always recruiting and training new ones to maintain our production. It takes six months to train a shoemaker. Most of our original employees are still with us. They’re very proud of the shoes they produce. [Manufacturing in the U.S.] is as important as design and comfort. And it is one of the integral parts of our character.
6. You are an avid walker. What makes a good walking shoe?
RB: The main difference is the transition from one step [during walking] to another. Our comfort concept is to shape the sole in a way that conforms to the walking mechanics of the foot. They almost push you to take your next step instead of resisting it. This eliminates the need for padding since padding dulls the direct-energy transfer.
7. How critical are a shoe’s components?
RB: The heel and sole shapes are as important as the upper design. I am always taking into consideration the relationship of the sole, heel and upper. I believe human beings are [meant] to walk barefoot. But [over the] centuries, they started using heels for vanity, especially women. We have 1-inch and 2-inch heels, but I try to make them as comfortable as possible by positioning the heels within the walking arc of the foot and making the heel laterally stable without affecting their slim profile.
8. Who are Cydwoq’s customers?
RB: They are architects, graphic artists, college instructors, nonconforming creative people who appreciate art and want to look different and who create their own style.
9. Are your hands ever tied design-wise while creating a comfortable shoe?
RB: No, because our designs can be imaginative while reinforcing the sole’s comfort. I can create new manufacturing methods to accommodate future designs.
10. What defines the right retail partner?
RB: Someone who understands the concept, quality and passion behind the brand. We have a very good relationship with our retailers, and it comes from them often being customers of the shoes themselves, as well as identifying with the independent and creative nature of the company. Only small retailers can tell the unique story of Cydwoq by romanticizing the story of a small company that designs and manufactures shoes in the U.S. and dares to be different.