For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ series. For 2020, we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodberry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.
You’ve seen the shoe: The transparent PVC-inspired sandals and pumps spotted on A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and Kylie Jenner.
But chances are you haven’t gotten to know the woman behind them.
Jessica Rich, the Grand Rapids, Mich., native who first dabbled in entertainment as a PR executive then reality TV star, launched her eponymous fashion line in 2015. She debuted footwear in 2017 and, since then, has been diligently carving out a space for herself in a competitive landscape long dominated by heavy hitters like Christian Louboutin, Tom Ford and Giuseppe Zanotti.
In addition to her signature “clear” shoe, Rich said that lately she’s noticed something else is setting her aside from some of her competition.
“My greatest asset right now is being an African American,” Rich told FN. “I feel like a lot of celebs and people of influence are excited to support me because there aren’t many African American footwear designers who are in my same lane. I do see African Americans that have shoe lines, but there aren’t a lot of them. In that way, we stand out. And, [right now], we’re getting the spotlight.”
While Rich took a grassroots approach to growing her label, leaning on well-connected friends who’d often buzz about her line on Instagram, the next phase of expansion, she said, is landing shelf space at a major department store.
Despite her obvious successes, and even the current wave of buzz surrounding diversity, her challenges in attempting to go mainstream, noted the designer, prove that the industry still has a way to go until it fully embraces minority designers.
“I still deal with my own barriers,” she said. “I see different people doing the kinds of things I’m doing who are [able to get into department stores] but it’s harder for me. I still feel like I have to work extra hard and do twice the work. And I have to prove myself doubly.”
She added, “It’s like they love [me] but they don’t really love me.”
Here, Rich talks building from the ground up and how she’s helping other minority designers get ahead.
How did you break into the fashion industry?
“It all stems from me doing PR marketing. I was doing PR for other brands and all my friends were like, ‘Jess, you should give us the stuff you wear.’ So I started designing clothing. Someone gave me an idea to start a branch off of my clothing — and it was shoes. And I thought, ‘I can’t think of anything I can make. No way! How could I ever be a shoe designer?’ But after six months or so, I started [reflecting on] the look of stuff I like to wear, and said, ‘If I had a clear shoe in this design, like a Cinderella pump, that would be the hottest shoe.’”
How did you get your business off the ground?
“Everyone just wants an investor, but I was adamant about using my contacts and spreading awareness of the designs to see what kind of feedback I got first. I got one sample done and then I showed a bunch of my friends and I posted it on Instagram, and Instagram basically got my product across the whole world in a very short amount of time. The sales started coming in from there. That’s when I went ahead and produced a full run of the style and then bought inventory based on that.”
Now that you’ve found success, how are you helping others break in?
“I’m releasing an e-book around Black History Month because people always ask me how I did it and where to start. So I have this 25-page e-book that walks you through step-by-step what to do first, how I did it and the things you do and don’t need. I think that’s very beneficial because when I was starting out as a designer I didn’t know where to start as far as factories. I had to research everything on my own. I just want to give back and give people a little bit of direction because it can be frustrating, and some people [end up] giving up.”
What’s your best advice for Black designers who feel discouraged in their journeys?
“Don’t take anything negative to heart. You have to go with the flow. If you get negative criticism, turn it into a positive. If you get bad press, turn that into a positive, too.”
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