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One to Watch: Isa Tapia

Isa Tapia is attracted to opposites.

“It’s the duality of [my personality],” the designer said. “Part of me wants to be a practical person, and then the other part is the crazy side of me.”

Tapia’s penchant for contrast is also reflected in how she approaches her eponymous women’s brand, which bowed in fall ’11. The label, which retails for $400 to $600, runs the gamut from a monochrome patent leather flat to a lace-up 4 1/2-inch sandal in black suede and hot-pink snakeskin. “I design the collection almost as two separate groups,” Tapia said. “There’s a part of me that wants a shoe I can wear with everything, and there’s another part that wants to wear a beautiful shoe that gives me an edge, and I’ll work the outfit around it.”

The strategy seems to be working. The emerging brand, overseen by Tapia and two New York-based staff members, retails at Saks Fifth Avenue and Kirna Zabête in New York, and the label is hitting shelves at Bloomingdale’s for fall ’12.

“We love that the Isa Tapia line is high fashion but also accessible from a wearability standpoint,” said Brooke Jaffe, fashion accessories director at Bloomingdale’s. “For example, she has a signature sandal done on a mid-heel that is so fashion-forward. We like her use of materials and color. Each shoe has something a little bit different about it, and right now, [Bloomingdale’s is] really drawn to collections [like hers] that stand out and don’t look like everything else.”

Originally from Puerto Rico, Tapia attended Parsons The New School for Design in the late 1990s, which led to a two-year internship at Marc Jacobs that took her to Italy for the first time. A year before she graduated, Tapia joined Oscar de la Renta. When she expressed an interest in shoes, the company sent the fledgling designer to Florence to learn the footwear trade from top to bottom. “Both Marc and Oscar shaped my experience because I was part of [the design teams],” Tapia said. “I wasn’t on the sidelines; I was really able to see the whole process.”

Her most recent position was a three-year gig as design director of accessories at Ann Taylor, for which she still serves as a consultant. Tapia said that experience, which included designing everything from jewelry to shoes, gave her insight into merchandising and women’s shopping habits.

But not everything has come easy for the emerging designer. She first attempted to debut a footwear line in 2001. It sold at Saks for one season. “At that time, [shoes] were either really high-end or they were contemporary, and there wasn’t an in-between,” Tapia said. “I was after making shoes that had great materials and Italian leather, but were manufactured [outside] Italy so I could retail a little lower and make it more accessible. No one had been doing that, though, and the stores didn’t understand it.”

The second time around, Tapia came to the table with strong designs and a tightly honed vision. Case in point: Her spring ’13 styles were inspired by a trip to Weilin, China. “It’s a part of China that’s really beautiful and natural,” the designer said. “There are women who do handwoven embroideries. My [spring] collection is about the embroideries and the town, mixed with the aesthetic and some of the colors from the first collection. The embroideries are all sourced from Weilin. They have birds and all different flowers, and they are about prosperity and happiness.”

As for the label’s future, the designer said she prefers to set realistic expectations. “Every season we are growing, and when the time is right, I would love to do bags and other leather goods,” Tapia said. “It just depends how quickly we get established. Maybe it will happen soon, and maybe it will take longer.”

Isa Tapia
Age: 33
Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Earliest inspiration: “My mom. When I was growing up she always had her nails done and wore shoes that were in style. She was about taking care of yourself, taking time to get dressed and having a point of view.”
Fashion icon: Kate Moss. “She loves fashion, but she doesn’t take it too seriously. That’s important to me.”
Personal style: “It changes according to my mood. I have fun. If I’m going to wear something really dressy, I like my hair messy and I’ll wear flats. If I’m wearing jeans, I’ll do my hair or wear a dressy top. It’s a little bit of high and low and everything in between.”

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