After a brief career in London’s banking industry, Kajal Ruia traded financial reports for fashion trends.
Last December, the 26-year-old from Manchester, England, opened Ruia, a high-end women’s shoe boutique, in New York’s Soho neighborhood. The store focuses on handmade styles from hard-to-find international brands.
Ruia was inspired to launch the business after she discovered that many of her favorite footwear brands were not sold anywhere in New York. “I had done a lot of shoe shopping in [the city] and kept finding the same brands everywhere. I didn’t see any of the labels I knew from back home in the U.K. or from my travels overseas,” she said. “So I decided to bring them here.”
Facing stiff competition, Ruia tried to give her boutique a fresh point of view. “I thought it would be a bit silly to compete with stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. I wanted to take a different approach,” she said.
Ruia offers a selection of small Italian, British and Portuguese brands, including Baldan, Loriblu, Cleo B, Lislie Yeung, Luis Onofre and Dibrera, most of which can’t be found anywhere else in the country. And within those lines, she makes a point of picking more unusual styles. “The shoes are really more statement pieces, not so much everyday pieces,” she said, noting that prices range from $325 to more than $1,000.
Ruia’s vendors said her decision to carry collections not widely available in the States is important. “I really admire Kajal for straying from the typical brands stocked in department stores,” said Cleo Barbour, designer of Cleo B. “Her customers [can be] secure in knowing [they] won’t bump into someone else wearing the same shoes, which is a great feeling.”
Designer Lislie Yeung agreed. “[Ruia’s] customers know they’ll always find something exciting or new,” she said.
To bring an even greater sense of exclusivity to the merchandise, Ruia stocks only a single size run of each shoe. “We don’t do half sizes, so it’s only six pairs per style,” she said. “It definitely makes customers feel like they’re getting something special.”
While the boutique’s limited stock is a big part of its appeal, Ruia said it sometimes makes for disappointed customers. “It can work against us, when we don’t have a size in the shoe a customer wants.” Still, she pointed out, the fleeting nature of the merchandise makes customers all the more eager to come in as soon as new styles arrive.
Seeking to create an intimate atmosphere, Ruia intentionally chose a small space for the boutique. “I wanted the store to be cozy like a home,” she said. She collaborated with a local architect on the design of the 650-sq.-ft. shop, located on bustling Mercer Street. The interior has a feminine, vintage-inspired feel, with crystal chandeliers, patterned wallpaper, lots of mirrors and silver and glass accent pieces. Shoes are displayed atop old-fashioned white tables, dressers and armoires, as well as on ornate molded shelves that Ruia created by cutting up picture frames. The store’s mezzanine level houses a lounge area, outfitted with comfortable seating and a TV, where customers are invited to relax and have a cocktail or cup of tea.
For customers looking for more personalized attention, Ruia offers private consultation services. “Some women bring in specific outfits to try on with the shoes,” Ruia explained, “or we’ll pull styles in a customer’s size and have everything laid out and ready so she doesn’t have to browse the whole selection.” Ruia also allows customers to book the store for private events, from baby showers to book clubs. “I really want people to think of the store as their home.”