(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.)
When Ariana Grande asks for shoes, you give her shoes — straight from your own closet if needed.
That’s exactly what Ruthie Davis did when the pop superstar requested a pair of boots for the shoot that was to land the cover of this December’s Billboard Woman of the Year issue.
“She’s my size, and she wanted a shoe,” the designer put it simply. (Grande is widely thought to be a size 6, while Davis borders between 8.5 and 9. The shoes used in the shoot were a European size 39, Davis said.)
It wasn’t the first time the diminutive yet powerful vocalist has worn Davis’ shoes. Just last month, Grande’s “Breathin” music video featured her in a different pair, coincidentally also from Davis’ personal shoe closet.
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But getting to this point — the one where A-list celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Zendaya regularly wear your shoes — was no straight shot. Davis worked in a number of senior-level corporate positions, including Reebok, Ugg and Tommy Hilfiger, before launching her namesake footwear brand in 2006.
Twelve years later, she’s still a niche name in the industry — and she seems to prefer it that way.
“I love what I do. I’m excited every day, like a kid in a candy store,” she said. “People have this idea that when you start a shoe brand, you want to be the next Manolo [Blahnik] or [Christian] Louboutin. But they already exist. I’m not going to be that big potentially; I have my thing, and I’m happy.”
Here’s how the designer found her sweet spot.
How did you become interested in the footwear industry?
“I was the youngest of six kids, and I was the shortest. When I was around 10 years old, my older sisters bought me a pair of baby platforms that my mom didn’t even know about. I used to hide them in my backpack on my way to school. All of a sudden, I was as tall as my sisters, and I felt equal. I never looked back.”
Describe your big break.
“At each of my corporate jobs, I had pinnacle moments that made me feel good about where I was, but I was always looking for the next. When I launched Ruthie Davis, a pivotal moment was when Beyoncé started wearing my shoes — that’s always going to be an aha moment. Then it was with certain accounts, like when I got into Neiman Marcus. Then the awards, like receiving the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s [Footwear Designer of the Year] award in 2014. Now I’m working on my collaborations. I’m the kind of person who is never going to feel successful.”
What would you have done differently?
“In hindsight, I probably would’ve left corporate sooner than I did. I get very invested in what I’m doing. When I was working at Tommy Hilfiger — between trips from Brazil and China, Vegas and the trade shows — my husband stopped me and asked, ‘Is your goal to be president of Tommy Hilfiger’s footwear division or be Tommy Hilfiger?’ I was like, ‘Tommy Hilfiger.’ And he said, ‘You’re not getting any younger.’ That’s when I put the wheels into motion and told my boss I wanted to start my own brand. Luckily, they kept me on for six months as a consultant until they found my replacement. I’m glad my husband did that.”
What was one of the big roadblocks you’ve hit along the way?
“My fall/winter ’18 shoe collection. There was a month we had really low sales, and I thought, ‘Why? These are great shoes.’ I realized it was because nobody had a reason to go to the website because I had nothing new. My website is 50 percent of my business. So now I’m evolving how I’m doing business. I’m trying out this new idea, and hopefully it’s going to work.”
What’s the one thing you do every day to be successful?
“I see outfits as art. I either hang mine up the night before or spontaneously put it together with a shoe in mind. If I go for a run in the morning, I’ll think about the outfit that day. Once I get that together, I’m pretty good; a lot of the stress goes away. I don’t like to not feel put-together.”
What’s the next big move on your agenda?
“I’m designing a ‘Little Mermaid’ collection with a focus on sustainability [as part of the Disney Princess x Ruthie Davis line]. I was up in the University of Delaware with these people making shoes out of mushrooms, and I told Disney I wanted to use students from the university to help with this idea. Disney loved it … millennials and Gen Zers want the authenticity and story behind a product; they don’t just want a shoe or sweater.”
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to break into the shoe industry?
“If anyone calls me for advice, I say, ‘Work for a big company before you start yours.’ I think it’s valuable to learn the footwear business. It’s very technical and expensive. I spend 10 percent of my time designing and 90 percent running my own business; the creative part is just a little piece of it. I tell interns, ‘You’re not going to be drawing shoes all day; you’re going to learn to run a business.’ More and more in this world we live in, you can’t be just one thing — you have to be multifaceted. You have to have thick skin to do this. You can’t see setbacks or roadblocks as a negative; they’re a learning experience.”
What’s the next big thing in fashion?
“To me, the future of fashion is where entertainment and design come together. I’m a big believer in collaborations. They’re going to take new forms and evolve. We’re going to see more and more interesting collaborations — not just by a designer and a big-box brand but also more intersections between the entertainment industry and fashion or the tech industry and fashion. It’s going to cross-pollinate more, and we’re going to see more pop-up shops and experiential retail.”
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