Calleen Cordero is keeping it local.
The California native and head of the high-end footwear brand of the same name has carved out a place in Hollywood by producing from her own neighborhood factory, staffing it with local workers and using her flagship Los Angeles boutique as a testing ground for new designs.
“People are interested in making a smaller footprint and staying closer to home,” said Cordero, 44, who bowed the line in 2001.
Cordero’s collection, which features hand-sculpted wooden bottoms and molded leather soles on flat sandals, towering wedges and sleek booties, also has secured a following with the locals. Celebrities from Cher to Renée Zellweger have worn her designs.
Now, the designer — whose footwear retails for $290 to $900 — is taking strides to evolve the brand. For fall ’10, Cordero is broadening her mix with leather vests, hand-carved wooden rings and belts and cuffs for men. Clothing is slated to debut for spring ’11, with an offering of washed linens and leather apparel.
Sold in about 200 doors, including Barneys New York, Cordero hopes to expand in 2011 with a branded New York boutique and showroom. Factory relocation plans also are in the works, with the label moving into a 12,000-sq.-ft. facility in North Hollywood. With double the space, Cordero is considering hosting a runway show during L.A. Fashion Week in early 2011 and eventually opening a 2,000-sq.-ft. showroom there.
Here, the designer opens up about working in the Hollywood foothills and how the down economy benefited her brand.
1. Why is California a hub for handcrafted footwear?
CC: Back in the 1970s, California was known for its wood sculpting. I’m not sure what culture started woodcarving. The men I am working with are Lebanese, and Mexicans do a lot of it, too. [They] are creative and expressive people who know how to work on woods. It is so complicated and is an artistry I’m really proud of.
2. Where do you recruit your shoemaking talent?
CC: They come to me from factories that have closed, or they’re related to people already working here. We started off very small and now have about 45 people. I wanted to build a company with that family element and didn’t want to be corporate. Most of my workers have been with me for more than five years, and they know exactly what I want. I’m not doing every little piece because they are so good at what they do.
3. How has the economy changed things for American manufacturing?
CC: It’s to our advantage. It’s hip to support the U.S. because so much business has been lost here. My customers also want to do more [business with me]. The price of importing Italian product is getting more difficult [to accommodate], and what [retailers] can do with me is create. I’m accessible and work with people on design and respond to fill-ins. I’ve actually found more business coming my way.
4. Has consumer demand been affected during the downturn?
CC: People in the U.S. are really starting to think about the footprint we have on the world. Supporting the local economy is at the core value of what people want. Knowing something is made here makes sense to a lot of stores.
5. What’s the biggest benefit of running your company from Los Angeles?
CC: I’m in my factory every day and have so much control. I can dream about my product and have it created in 24 hours. When your product is produced overseas, your work can be lost in translation. Mine can be fully expressed down to every detail, so I’m very spoiled. I get to create my environment.
6. Are there any drawbacks?
CC: The biggest challenge is having a factory where I only manufacture for myself. If I were manufacturing for other people, it would be easier [to keep] my employees working 12 months a year. I’ve thought about [producing for other brands], and it’s terrifying. I’ve spent 10 years developing my techniques, and I would be making direct competition [for myself]. It’s a catch 22, so we have to be extremely strategic.
7. What’s your ultimate goal as you grow the brand?
CC: People are trying to do more and be more, but I want to do less. I want to create the most beautiful, soulful shoes, make my price point even more exclusive and have more interesting things. Eventually, I want to move into the couture level, but still maintain [my current] core Calleen Cordero collection. I’m so inspired by how Coco Chanel and the House of Fendi started. I want to create a really serious brand with gorgeous leather gowns and boots for $20,000.
8. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the footwear industry over the last decade?
CC: There are so many trade shows, and it’s getting harder to work with the customer. You can’t sustain [your business] off shows alone, and I’m looking at new ways of doing business. I’ve also become really strict on terms. I’m a small company and can’t afford to not get paid. Now I take a 20 percent deposit and [require] the balance before I ship.
9. Aside from shoes, you also make bags and other leather accessories. Why did you expand this way?
CC: I always loved that idea of having different categories, but it also has been a part of the strategy for keeping my factory alive. Maybe someone can’t afford to sell a $500 shoe, but they can afford the cuff and headbands and still have the look. It’s a good way to build brand awareness.
10. How does being made in Los Angeles set your business apart?
CC: It’s very hard to knock me off because it’s made here and has a very distinctive look. [Retailers] write their own sizes and pick their own colors. The same shoe can be detailed in so many different ways, and my stuff becomes like collector items. They are definitely special.