5 Questions for Zuzii Founder Ryan Campbell

Ryan Campbell brings an artisan approach to the kids’ business.

Disenchanted by her experiences working for mass-production companies, the Los Angeles-based designer set out to create a collection of children’s shoes with “a soul and a story.” Working with her mom and design partner, Nickie Campbell, she launched Zuzii in 2009, offering American handcrafted leather and suede styles for babies and toddlers.

The brand, which got its start on Etsy.com but now has a thriving wholesale business, had been making its shoes in a workshop in Tulsa, Okla. But last week, the Campbells took a big step and opened their own Los Angeles production facility. “Going overseas was not an option we’d consider. But because there are so few U.S. manufacturers left, we chose to tackle operating our own factory,” Ryan Campbell said.

She noted that producing domestically enables Zuzii to continually flow new styles to its retail partners, which include Anthropologie; Steven Alan; Wonderwolf in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Eggy in Los Angeles. “We can take a shoe from concept to production to delivery in 10 days,” she said. “That allows us to keep our collection fresh in the stores and keep customers excited about Zuzii.”

Priced from $45 to $90, the line’s sophisticated styles include lace oxfords, T-strap sandals and Mary Jane shoes with details such as bows, studs and fringe. The simple, well-cut silhouettes, as well as the intuitive fit and comfort features, reflect the Campbells’ backgrounds in industrial design: Ryan studied at Savannah College of Art & Design and worked in the film and furniture industries before entering the shoe business. Nickie, at the age of 23, invented the iconic Ansa baby bottle, a product now part of the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art.

Here, the younger Campbell talks about the challenges and advantages of being a homegrown business.

How would you describe your overalldesign aesthetic?
Minimalism is the common theme. We work with materials that lend themselves to that, and we try to not overwork any one material. We find this produces a more-natural, comfortable product. There also is a strong Americana theme throughout, expressed through traditional cobbling techniques, vegetable-tanned leathers and simple prints. Because my mother and I are industrial designers, we approach each shoe design like we would [any] product. We address the constraints, and in the case of kids’ footwear, there are many. We allow things like the articulation of the ankle or kids’ desire to wiggle their toes to lead our design process and material choices.

Why is being an American-made brand so important to you?
I was educated and have worked in today’s homogenized industry of designers at desks, large overseas factories, overstocking and then ultimately liquidating. There was not an individual in this scenario who was satisfied in the end, but the cycle kept repeating. At Zuzii, our goal is to operate a domestic factory that pays fair wages and charges a fair price for our products. We believe that if our workers have a positive relationship with the products they make, they will pass on that story to the end customer. This country was built on individuals’ ingenuity, so it feels right to return to a more interactive relationship between creator and consumer.

What are the challenges in maintaining U.S. production?
We knew the quality of our product would be driven by the quality of the materials, so we’ve sourced some of the best we can find. However, U.S. manufacturing has not been well-supported, so it continues to be very difficult to source materials domestically. Our search often leads us to companies that have gone out of business or downsized to such a point that they no longer offer the item we’re seeking. It’s sad to talk to these individuals and hear their stories, but it inspires us to search harder. It brings us pride to know we’re contributing to the revival of American-made goods.

How do you balance the labor-intensive nature of the product with meeting increased demand?
Before launching the latest collection, we made sure our operation was completely scalable to meet the fluctuating demand. When considering our bottom line, the most important factor is efficiency. Being involved directly with the production of our shoes creates an ideal opportunity for us to consider production efficiency during the design process. Of course, new issues arise daily, but product development, at its core, is problem solving.

What are your plans for expanding the footwear collection?
We’ve had many requests for larger sizes, so this spring we will add sizes 8 to 13. We also are planning a new sandal line for spring, as well as a boot line for winter ’14. We’ve had an overwhelming response to our boys’ oxfords, so we’re expanding [that offering] with more masculine styles. We also plan to launch lace-up boat shoes for boys.

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