(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.)
Growing up, Tamar Miller always knew she wanted to get involved in fashion.
When she graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School, she was presented with two job offers: one as a highly paid actuary, the other as a member of Macy’s Executive Training Program. She chose the latter.
“Once I realized that becoming a professional buyer was a possibility, I wanted it more than anything,” she said.
When Miller finally ended up as a footwear buyer at Lord & Taylor, she realized she was literally getting her foot in the door — the first step in a series of roles that would eventually lead to the launch of her own direct-to-consumer footwear label, Bells & Becks.
“If someone told me back then that I would eventually own my own shoe business, I’m not sure I would have believed them,” she said.
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Here, the former 25-year head of merchandising for Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Piperlime recalls her journey.
How did you become interested in the footwear industry?
“I’ve loved shoes my entire life, and I am one of the lucky few that had the opportunity to turn that passion into a career. [My past footwear roles] helped me develop a deep knowledge of the shoe category — what women want, what works and what doesn’t. In addition to the technical aspects of the shoe business, I also got to know an amazing group of passionate “shoe dogs.” Footwear has become not only my passion but also in some ways my professional family. Over time, I also became a kind of shoe dog myself.”
Describe your big break.
“I suppose my big break came in the form of one of the best jobs I ever had as the junior shoe buyer at Macy’s West working for Carol Baiocchi (former Footwear DMM/VP) and Ruth Hartman (former GMM Accessories). Back in the day, the Macy’s shoe buyers were lifers. They had all been in that role for years as shoe experts, and openings were incredibly rare … I remember seeing Carol once in the elevator — she had no idea who I was, but of course I had my eye on her from day one — and she complimented me on my shoes, which I figured was a good sign. Eventually, Carol took a risk and hired me when the Junior Buyer job came open.
I fell in love with shoes all over again, and I fell in love with the people that I got to know along the way. I also found tremendous mentorship in Carol and Ruth, both of whom have been advising and supporting me since then. I consider that period in my career to be the most formative in terms of my footwear education, and it certainly paved the road to where I am today.”
What’s the most surprising or craziest thing you’ve done to get your business going?
“After being a corporate executive for years, the idea that I would turn a corner of my house into a warehouse, pack and unpack boxes and basically transform my dining room into a postal facility was not exactly what I thought my life would look like at this stage of my career — but I wouldn’t change a thing. I love being close to the consumer and providing an insanely high-touch customer service experience. My business is small, and this enables me to do things that large retailers that have massive scale simply can’t do. So if I’m packing up boxes, writing handwritten notes to every single customer and dealing with the UPS delivery to my door, so be it. I love every day of this journey.”
What would you have done differently?
“One of the best things about being an entrepreneur and working for myself is that I get to choose who I work with. Being in corporate retail for all those years meant that I was forced to work with people that I didn’t always enjoy. As my own boss, I no longer have to suffer fools, deal with crazy politics or work with people that don’t support me or my vision. It took me a little while to realize that I get to choose exactly who I want to surround myself with. Looking back, I realize that there have been times when I hung on to people that I didn’t feel good about longer than I should have.”
What’s the one thing you do every day to be successful?
“I make at least one important decision every day. I’m super comfortable making decisions, even in the face of imperfect information. I think this skill comes from my merchant training. My style as an entrepreneur is that I tend not to belabor issues. I make a decision and move on knowing that I can always fix things on the back end if I go down the wrong path. I find that as long as there’s forward momentum, I feel like I’m making progress and getting things done every day.”
What’s the next big move on your agenda?
“Bells & Becks is a digital-first business. My strategy is to remain curated and special to ensure that the experience and the product stays true to my vision. That said, I’m thinking about select strategic retail partnerships that will enhance the luxury positioning of the brand and showcase the collection in a physical space that allows customers to feel and touch the quality and aesthetic of the shoes.”
What advice would you give a new designer or someone who wants to join the footwear industry?
“I suppose the cliché answer is follow your passion, but for me the passion is real. I love shoes and ultimately followed my passion to do something that I love deeply, even though it hasn’t always been easy. The complexity around sizing, the sheer bulk of the product and the challenges around fit make it one of the hardest businesses to get right. I started Bells & Becks because I love shoes, pure and simple. I might not have done it if I realized how challenging it was going to be at the outset, but now that I’m in it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The next big thing in footwear is…
“Flats! Consumers finally got comfortable with the emergence of the athleisure trend, but I see a shift happening where she’s looking to get polished up again but doesn’t want to give up the comfort factor. I believe that there’s a trend toward shoes that women can wear for real life — running from meeting to meeting, heading to dinner with friends, attending the school function or traveling for business or pleasure. These women still want to look and feel put together.”
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