In the Studio WithKooba’s Abbe Held

Kooba’s co-founder and creative director, Abbe Held, opens up about the shoe launch and plans for future growth.


11:15 a.m.: After making my way to the buzzing Garment District to see Kooba co-founder and creative director Abbe Held in her studio, I enter the warm oasis of the company’s West 36th Street offices. Following a quick tour, we head upstairs to the main showroom, where the spring collection sits. It includes bags in all shapes and sizes and a plethora of sandals and wedges in canvas, leather and cork. “You know what’s great about the shoes?” Abbe says. “They’re comfortable! [Our footwear designer] worked on a low enough pitch that I can walk all day in them.”

11:45 a.m.: We reconvene in Abbe’s office, a grand windowed corner space with a gallery of colored pictures from her two daughters, Paige (5) and Devin (9). One reads “World’s Greatest Mom” in multicolored crayon. When asked whether either of her girls might eventually work for the company that she started with her mother, Bonnie Kooba Held, in 1998, Abbe laughs, saying, “We built something that we love, and this is a family business. I hope at least one daughter follows in my footsteps.” But a pushy mother she is not. Laid-back both in life and in her design aesthetic, Abbe aims to create wearable bags, and now the shoes follow the same philosophy.

12 p.m.:
Abbe begins her morning meeting with the Kooba team. First topic? The holiday giveaway promotion “12 Days of Kooba,” which just launched on Facebook. Anyone buying a full-priced item on the Kooba website is entered to win, with one winner each day. The brand’s sales rep, Angela, notes that sales are on-track for the holidays and that after a November promotion, the company more than doubled its sales. Abbe suggests upping the e-blast reminders for the promotion and then the conversation turns to deliveries. A shipment of bags is being re-stuffed at the warehouse later in the week and Abbe mentions that she wants to check them before they are shipped to Nordstrom and other retailers.

12:30 p.m.: Discussing pricing in the contemporary market, Abbe says, “Where we sit, the leather is usually less important than the design, but we’re all about quality leather and details.” Priced from $195 for flat sandals to $425 for a peep-toe wedge, the shoes are made in Italy from Italian leathers, although Abbe admits that might not be sustainable from a cost perspective. “I would consider us more ‘cheap designer’ than ‘contemporary’ because we’re more sophisticated than our price suggests.” Abbe describes the brand’s trademark as “well-made shoes that are on-trend but not overly designed.”

12:45 p.m.: The team from One Source Visual Marketing Solutions arrives for a meeting about the lookbook for the upcoming season. Abbe first reviews the spring ’11 edition. “The overall piece, I like,” she says. “No one is going to pick it apart like I will. But for the photography, I like everything to look natural, like you captured a moment in time, not posed.” The team asks Abbe how she would describe the Kooba woman, to which she replies, “It’s not about uptown or downtown. It’s a sensibility. It’s a woman who likes fine details, is independent and has her own sense of style. She buys something because it’s special to her and she likes that when she puts it on, she feels good, not because it’s a name. It shouldn’t look like she’s trying too hard. It should be effortless.” With this in mind, the consensus is to design a lifestyle-themed photo shoot with a model wearing bags and shoes for different occasions, but all exhibiting the same “Kooba” sensibility.

1:15 p.m.: We move into the studio and greet Eileen Shields, who is now designing the Kooba footwear. Eileen says her goal with the collection is “to take the shoes out of shoes.” She explains that she and Abbe want to deconstruct the footwear by removing tongues and linings to capture the rich suppleness of well-worn, glove-like shoes. Their inspiration for fall ’11 is combining hard and soft elements, such as molded vachetta with soft nappa leather and a skinny leg with a wider pull-on opening. Today they are refining toe shapes with Sharpie paint pens and editing the fit by cutting leather and wrapping pieces around their legs, clamping with binder clips to see the changes. “From paper sketches to real-life prototypes, there is really no comparison,” says Eileen. “The way the leather drapes, there are so many nuances. You have to deconstruct each style and then put it back together. There is a pure evolution of design happening here.”

1:45 p.m.: Abbe redirects our attention to the handbag collection to finish the modifications on those samples as well. “We drape everything before we send it back to the factory so they can copy the draping,” she says. “Otherwise it gets made in a very formulaic way.” Eileen adds that she has never seen this level of care go into everything, from testing the leathers to scrutinizing the samples. “It’s not just about getting it done on time, but getting it done beautifully. We don’t cut corners at all.”

2:15 p.m.: Back in Abbe’s office, our conversation turns to the future. “I really see us as an accessories/lifestyle brand. Sunglasses or jewelry would be great. That would be a natural extension of our brand,” Abbe says. As for a design dream? “I love furniture and home accessories,” the designer admits. “I would love to design for the home. But for now, I’m focused on our bags and shoes and doing that in a real and meaningful way.” As for how she chose to move into footwear, Abbe says, “I always wanted to do shoes, but I don’t like to do anything halfway, so it had to be the right time.”

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