In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.
When CarLeisha Garner decided to pursue a career in fashion, she never envisioned stepping into footwear. Armed with a degree in apparel design from Kent State University, in 2012, she landed a job at the former Jones Apparel Group, eventually moving into its shoe division.
Today, Garner, 35, is senior designer for fashion-comfort brand Aerosoles, a role she took on last May. ‘When I first started, I wanted to work for a high-fashion brand, but as I [continued] in the industry, I enjoyed doing commercial product,” said Garner of helping everyday women look fashionable.
For Aerosoles, Garner fit the company’s goal of connecting to women of all backgrounds. “Aerosoles has been making shoes for women of all sizes, races, ages and orientations for over 30 years,” said Jenny Dwork, VP of marketing and digital at Aerosoles. “We look to support the women who do it all, and that woman comes in so many different faces and forms. Aerosoles thinks about its employees in much the same way, and we look to bring in fantastic people with diverse points of view. Carleisha brings experience, style, precision and enthusiasm, and is a very important part of our product development team.”
While she feels right at home at Aerosoles, other African-Americans may not share her positive experience. “It’s tough to break in,” said Garner, who said roadblocks can even occur during the interview process. “I think we’re innately more connected to people who look like us, although it can be an unconscious decision.”
Garner’s footwear expertise is preparing her for a future endeavor — launching her own apparel line. “I now think what [apparel] someone would wear with the [shoes] I’m designing and how to accessorize,” said the designer.
Here, Garner talks about her passion for fashion and never giving up on her goals.
What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry?
“I actually fell into footwear design. I went to Kent State University, majoring in apparel design. When I moved to New York, I took a position as a production assistant for Jones Apparel Group. While it didn’t allow me to be very creative, after about 18 months, I got more involved in the product side. I [then] applied for a transfer to footwear and got a position as a product development coordinator for the 9&Co. division. Since it was such a small brand, I got involved in sketching and design and worked my way up from there, eventually becoming a designer at Nine West.”
Looking back on your career to this point, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
“First, last summer, I graduated from LIM College with a master of professional studies in fashion merchandising and retail management. [Next], it’s working as a senior designer at Aerosoles, where I have creative control over the design process. I feel I was able to reach my goal a lot sooner than I had expected.”
As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
“I’ve been fortunate to have had managers that have been wonderful in teaching me [new] things, especially since I didn’t have any [formal] training. However, at a [former job], I felt after reaching a certain level, I hit a roadblock. [A manager] there said I was too aggressive when speaking with customers and [colleagues]. When I’d ask for more clarification, she was unable to provide it. I felt it [might] have been her personal feelings [toward me] because I was a minority. [At that point], things promised to me were taken away.”
What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the shoe industry?
“Looking around, there aren’t a lot of African-Americans, and [therefore] it’s tough to break in. Since the shoe industry has a lack of African-Americans, the person you’re interviewing with may unconsciously be more comfortable with a different [type] of candidate. I think we innately feel more connected to those who look like us.”
What is the best advice you would offer other African-Americans looking to break into the shoe industry?
“Keep trying. Continue to apply for jobs. If you can’t get your foot into design right away, just get your foot in the door of the company you want to work for. My work ethic and dedication is what opened the door for me to be in design.”
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