(In a new series, “How I Did It,” FN profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)
After college, Daniella Shevel left her hometown of Johannesburg and moved 8,000 miles away to New York in pursuit of her dream job as a shoe designer.
But unlike the movies and TV shows romanticizing the fashion capital, the recent graduate learned Manhattan’s hard truth. With no prior education in the footwear industry, Shevel had to find a way to make ends meet.
Fortunately, what she lacked in experience, she made up for in determination — and soon enough, she landed her first job in digital marketing working for fashion brands.
Now, at 29 and with her share of connections in the industry, Shevel has successfully launched her namesake shoe brand, worn by the likes of celebrities like Hayley Kiyoko and influencers such as Mary Leest, who boasts 1 million followers on Instagram.
Here’s how Shevel did it.
What was your dream job growing up?
“I was always focused on academics while in school and thought I’d probably follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a doctor. However, on the other hand, my mom was an interior designer, and at an early age, I was exposed to her creativity when she was working late into the night on mood boards, colorways and fabrics. I suspect this subconsciously had an impact on me as I’d help her choose and play with color, texture and proportions.
“I was about 17 years old when I fell in love with shoe design. I walked into a luxury shoe store whilst visiting America from South Africa. As I browsed the store, I was completely drawn to their sculptural beauty as much as they were also a fashion piece and statement for women. I immediately bought the book on Jimmy Choo’s story, and that was it. My dream job was to work at Jimmy Choo or for a luxury fashion shoe brand.”
What was the toughest thing you did or the biggest sacrifice you made to break into the shoe industry?
“One of the toughest things that I remember was flying to Italy in the middle of winter and taking my designs around the industrial parts of Italy from one factory to the next and looking for a factory that would understand my styles and aesthetic, produce top-quality products and get them to agree to work with me. Most factories are hesitant of new designers, as we can’t fund big production lines, and it’s a financial risk for them, as well. Finding a factory means they also have to believe in you, and I remember being so nervous as I presented my line to each factory, feeling vulnerable and completely out of my league. I had to face rejection and keep going.”
What was the craziest thing you did to get your business going?
“I moved to NYC not knowing anyone — to get one step closer to my dream, and as they say in Yiddish, I had the ‘chutzpah’ or the nerve to quit my job without any formal shoe design background and pursue my dream.”
What was your big break?
“My big break was finally finding the right factory that would make my shoes with the quality I required. Prior to that, I had worked with two other factories that didn’t work out due to lack of quality and financial issues on their end, so I couldn’t even get into production or to a final product. It was really hard and deflating.
“The shoe industry is also very interesting in that it feels like a closed community. People don’t want to share their factories and who they work with, so breaking in takes a lot of commitment, tenacity and having a thick skin.”
Describe the defining moment that solidified to you that you had broken through.
“It took just over a year to get my website and the business, including production, launched. Just to get to that point had felt like the most challenging thing I’d ever done, and many businesses won’t even make it to this point because it is very difficult. When I launched my site and saw my first order come in, I knew I was finally on track.
“I’ll also mention that getting stopped in the street by strangers asking where I got my shoes from is always a special moment and still makes me pinch myself each time it happens. I get very shy, but inside it feels good to know that people love what you are creating.”
What has been your biggest disappointment?
“In the beginning, I would listen and take to heart advice from people who told me that I had no business to be doing what I was doing and that I wouldn’t even get my company off the ground because so many people would take advantage of me due to my lack of experience as a young person and a woman. This postponed my decision to pursue my dreams, and I wish I had started sooner, but I am grateful that they prepared me for the worst. Now I have a business and dream that I get to live and breathe every day.”
What’s the one thing you do every day to be successful?
“No matter how tough a day can be and the things that can and will go wrong, I always think of one thing that I am grateful for. Whether it’s looking back for a just a second and seeing how far I’ve come or maybe thinking about the one design that I’m excited about for the new collection or being thankful for my family who are very supportive.
“It’s also important to always have an outlet like meditation, exercise or an outside activity that also allows you take time away from the day to day, because when it’s your baby, it’s all you think about. I like to work out in the mornings, watch Bravo shows some nights to tune out, and if I’m having a rough day, I like to call someone like my mom, dad or one of my four siblings, who are close to me, even if it’s just to vent or hear their voice.”
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to break into the shoe industry?
“Define in a very specific way why you are passionate about this industry — not just that you love shoes. Taking a course, not necessarily a whole degree, on how to make shoes is also something I would recommend, as you learn a lot about construction and how to communicate your designs.
“Also, if you don’t have a formal background in shoes, as was the case for me, don’t underestimate the current experience that you have and how you can leverage that in your business. The shoe industry isn’t only about design; there is so much more and so many places you can add value.
“Expect a roller coaster ride. Be tenacious. Don’t give up — ever.”
The next big thing in footwear is …
“Direct-to-consumer is definitely gaining momentum in today’s digital and social world, where brands don’t necessarily need big retailers to get their product out there. It also allows brands to be more flexible with product releases and removes some of the red tape and bureaucracy for new brands.”
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