6 Must-Know Tips For New & Aspiring Shoe Designers

Things to know about designing shoes
How to take the right steps in the footwear industry.
Mario Wagner.

With more than two decades of fashion experience — punctuated by iconic red-carpet moments, celebrity sightings and support from superstars Rihanna, Bella Hadid and Chris Brown — shoe designer Pierre Hardy knows firsthand how hard it is to get ahead in the industry.

When Hardy took the stage at the FN Summit on June 6, he spoke about the growing list of tough challenges today’s new designers face. “What I did 15 years ago, I don’t know if it’s still possible for a young designer [today],” he said. “There was some space for independence — for originality. Now, the system is so occupied by big names [and] events that are so loud. It’s difficult to adjust — to exist.”

Pierre Hardy 2016 FN Summit Pierre Hardy at the 2016 FN Summit. George Chinsee.

Breaking into the footwear industry has always posed unique challenges. But the advent of social media, the ubiquitous nature of pop-up brands and the annual influx of fashion-school graduates seeking to be the next hot designer have created an especially crowded environment.

Nevertheless, footwear has its share of success stories. Hailed as designers-to-watch a year ago, Aurora James, Sarah Flint, and Adam and Ryan Goldston now boast distinct and sought-after brands that have garnered industry-wide praise.

So what’s it take to survive and thrive in footwear? FN reveals six top tips every new designer needs to know.

1. Learn Who’s Who
The footwear industry has a packed playing field, and there’s no shortage of designers who think they have that special something. Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of luxury boutique chain Jeffrey and designer fashion director at Nordstrom, said he is always scouting for originality and quality when it comes to new designers and their wares. “It’s in the nuances,” Kalinsky said. “If you’re designing shoes that look like someone else’s, that’s not a good thing. If you can’t figure out how to be original and inspired, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

A simple walk through one of the industry’s premier shoe shows can highlight the number — and broad range — of brands already vying for retail shelf space, according to Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America.

“All it takes is one swing through the floor of the FFANY shoe show or at FN Platform in Las Vegas to see that there is a lot of competition,” Priest said. “There are a lot of people who think they have the best new design or that they’ve solved some issue on comfort and fashion, or that they have found some new material that is ethical or is sourced in an ethical way.”

In a saturated market, originality is key, B. Riley & Co. LLC analyst Jeff Van Sinderen noted. “Differentiate yourself from peers,” Van Sinderen said. “You may not be better at everything than the peers you compete with, but you can be different and you can stand out from the crowd.” Design hopefuls should also research and explore concepts that already exist within the field before touting claims of originality.

2. Develop Relationships & Alliances
The art of networking is more complicated than ever before. Developing strategic alliances requires a multifaceted approach, and it’s crucial that designers get the basics right early on, according to experts.

“Building and maintaining relationships is critical,” Van Sinderen said. “But this is easier said than done. Networking has to be taken step by step [in order to] foster the relationships that mesh best with a designer’s personality and style.”

Priest also suggests new designers connect with industry professionals by joining or volunteering with organizations such as the FDRA, the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) and Two Ten Footwear Foundation, as well as the footwear charity Soles4Souls Inc.

Whether a designer is launching a line or joining an existing brand, alliances can serve multiple career-boosting purposes. Ryan Flynn, design director at Umbro Footwear Division USA, joined the 90-plus-year-old company in 2015 and has already found that strong business relationships — and a willingness to listen to all feedback — are essential.

“We formed some amazing partnerships and did our best to consider every bit of feedback with an open mind,” Flynn said of the brand’s effort to relaunch its lifestyle footwear program, which began earlier this year. “When a brand is over 90 years old, everyone has their own perceived view of it, and it has been very instrumental absorbing all the stories out there.”

3. Business Basics
The FDRA estimates that 99 percent of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported. Meanwhile, shoe tariffs are among the highest on any consumer good — averaging 11 percent but reaching as high as 67 percent for certain types of footwear.

Although it may not be feasible — or even desirable — for designers to understand every aspect of the gritty business side of things, a working knowledge of elements such as sourcing, production and supply-chain logistics can be a game changer. Priest notes that the U.S. government currently has more than 400 ways to tax footwear — an understandably daunting list for new designers.

During the emerging talent panel at the FN Summit, Athletic Propulsion Labs founders Adam and Ryan Goldston said the latter’s education has been a critical element to their success.

adam ryan goldston APL’s Adam and Ryan Goldston at the 2016 FN Summit. George Chinsee.

“Ryan studied business in school, so I can defer to him when it comes to certain things,” Adam Goldston said. “When it comes to logistics, Ryan’s formal education has helped us. If you’re a designer who wants to get into this, if you have the skill to know how to build a business, that’s going to help you.”

Similarly, leading luxury designer Rebecca Minkoff said she urges new design talent to hone their business acumen. “Get as much training as possible, and don’t just focus on the skills that you feel most comfortable with,” Minkoff said. “In order to survive as a designer in this industry, you have to understand what goes into all parts of your business.”

4. Be Agile
Sarah Mullins, chair of the accessories design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said she urges students to consider multiple design paths within the shoe industry.

“We tell students to explore all of the positions that are related to footwear design,” Mullins said. “Students sometimes think there is only one position — a designer — but there are actually other areas related to design that could excite them and be a strong fit.”

Flexibility and open-mindedness can be powerful tools in the arsenal of any aspiring designer. “Getting my hands dirty — not only with design, but development, production and marketing — opened a lot of doors,” Umbro’s Flynn explained.

During the course of their design careers, emerging and seasoned designers will also have to shoulder both macroeconomic and brand-specific challenges. Whether product demand slows due to a stock market crisis or there is a shift in consumer trends, successful designers know how to respond. “You have to be able to move with the marketplace,” Priest said.

5. Reconsider Athletic
“This is the golden age of athletic — we’re in a hiring boom,” said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst with The NPD Group. “This is the perfect time for young folks to come in with new ideas.”

While athletic is also arguably the most competitive category in the footwear industry, Powell, Priest and Van Sinderen make a strong case for why new designers should target the field.

“Athletic and athletic-derivative categories are probably going to be among the strongest [facets of the industry] for a while,” said Van Sinderen. “There has been a tide change that favors athletic, making it a great place to focus your talents.”

Athletic firms, Powell noted, are usually larger than luxury and fashion-footwear shops, which means they can sometimes offer a greater opportunity for new designers to find their niche.

With Under Armour opening an office in Portland, Ore., and Nike Inc. in the process of expanding its campus, the prospects are only multiplying. Athletic could even be a viable starting place for designers who are certain they want to end up in luxury footwear.

“Everyone is doing some kind of athletic design — particularly the fashion houses,” Priest said. “Now that these luxury labels are diving into it, the knowledge that comes from spending time at an athletic brand can benefit a new designer.”

While Powell noted that many athletic designers have taken a “grassroots” approach to learning the field, a growing number of athletic design programs are popping up at major colleges and universities to offer formal training.

“There are a slew of schools that are focusing on design talent for athletic,” Powell said, citing the University of Oregon in Portland’s sports product design program and Pensole Footwear Academy, founded by former Nike design director D’Wayne Edwards, as examples.

6. Pick a Lane
When it comes to developing a brand identity, focus is crucial. Three years into the launch of Sarah Flint’s eponymous footwear line, her elegant yet wearable collections already count Blake Lively, Jessica Alba, Reese Witherspoon and Heidi Klum as fans. While Flint’s success today is hard to deny — her line has landed highly coveted shelf space at luxury department store Barneys — she faced pressure to deviate from her signature style early on.

“People wanted me to go in a different direction aesthetically,” Flint said during her panel conversation at the FN Summit. “But it’s important not to change your distinct point of view.”

Kalinsky also noted that new designers, with their own signature style, need to be resilient in the face of criticism and doubt. “You have to be determined,” he said. “You’re going to have a lot of rejection, and if you don’t know how to stick to your guns, you’re going to quit before the miracle happens.”

Having a hook, whether it’s creating athletic styles, dress shoes or a unique chunky heel, can be a designer’s key to success.

Once a line is ready for launch or begins to build a following, a designer should maintain a level of consistency. “You cannot be good at everything,” Van Sinderen said. “Focus on your core competencies and run with them.”