The Inspiration Behind Nina Payne

Gabriella Hiatt has always been a dancer at heart. Not only does the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based founder and designer of burgeoning footwear brand Nina Payne perform regularly with modern dance company Douglas Dunn & Dancers, but her designs reflect a lifetime love of the art form.

“Nonverbal communication is a whole side of a person that often gets ignored,” said Hiatt, who launched Nina Payne in 2011. “I get the most inspiration when I’m moving, and that says something about how [humans are] wired.”

Hiatt has been dancing since age 6, and the influence is strong, from the name of her company — Nina Payne was an American vaudeville dancer during the Jazz Age — to the performance-inspired flats, low-heeled booties, oxfords and loafers in her collection.

The shoes retail from $160 to $260 and are available at independent accounts in the U.S. and Canada, as well as on Nina Payne’s e-commerce site.

“The kind of shoes I like are very comfortable and facilitate movement, and I’ve always loved the style and silhouettes of dance shoes,” Hiatt said. “[My footwear designs were] connected to dance from the beginning, both for aesthetic and functional reasons.”

Born in New York but raised in San Diego, Hiatt returned to the Big Apple at age 18 with dreams of making it as a performer. A year later, she decided to further her education at SUNY Purchase and then The New School, studying art history.

“I continued to dance more peripherally for different choreographers,” she said.

After college, Hiatt, who has always had a love of shoes and a self-described quirky fashion sense, took a job in product development with Ralph Lauren’s textile and tabletop department, where she learned about sourcing and design. After about two years there, she moved on to manage artist Vito Acconci’s studio.

“[Acconci] is known for his performance art, but he also designs a lot of public art and larger-scale projects, and he doesn’t just let ideas sit in his head, which I felt like I was doing all the time,” Hiatt recalled. “That inspired me to start thinking about the shoe idea.” Hiatt soon found a factory in California, where she learned the ropes of the footwear industry.

The name Nina Payne pays homage to a personality Hiatt came across by chance. “I like collecting performance-related artifacts from the past,” she said. “I was looking through a magazine from the 1920s and saw a two-page spread on her. They wrote ‘Nina Payne is sweeping the nation.’ How funny that this person who seemed to have this vibrant life, at least for that moment, is now ostensibly forgotten. I just wanted to use this idea of her, which is not entirely filled in.”

Although Hiatt still takes three to four dance classes a week and performs a few times a year, footwear is her main focus now, she said. What started as a line of low-priced canvas ballet flats now includes a variety of constructions with metallics, suede and geometric patterns.

And her inspiration is apparent throughout her work. She has even created several YouTube videos that spotlight her own feet doing jigs in Nina Payne footwear. Another video series, “Artists in Payne,” featuring professional dancers performing in Nina Payne shoes, is in the works, as well as a choreographed footwear presentation and a flipbook-style lookbook.

Still, Hiatt said, she doesn’t limit her designs to her passion for movement.

“I don’t want to get constrained by the connection [to dance],” she said. “I’m much more interested in seeing how [these styles] can evolve. But I do think there will always be a through-line. You won’t see me doing out-of-this-world platforms. The pedestrian thing — comfort — I’m into that. And I can’t imagine veering too far away from that. You never know, but right now, I like to design shoes that I want to wear.”

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