FN is celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month. Observed from September 15 to October 15, the occasion recognizes the histories, cultures and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. FN invites you to follow along as we shine a light on Hispanic-American shoe designers and entrepreneurs making big waves in the fashion industry.
You may recognize Flor de Maria Rivera’s polished pumps and glittering sandals on the feet of A-listers such as Kylie Jenner, Ariel Winter and Normani. While Rivera has always had a passion for heels, her journey to becoming a shoe designer wasn’t always so clear-cut.
After migrating from Lima, Peru to the U.S. at the age of 14 with her family, Rivera attended the University of San Diego to study journalism and Spanish. She went on to have a seven-year career as a sports producer, anchor and reporter in San Francisco for major Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univison.
“When I first came to the states, I didn’t speak any English,” she said. “It was definitely a hard position to be in, but I think it helped mold me into the person that I am today and prepare me for what was to come.”
Her tenacity, coupled with the devastating loss of her father to cancer she says, served as the real tipping points in her decision to make a major career change. She quit her reporting job in 2007 and began working as a Major League Soccer publicist in the Bay area, a job that involved styling athletes for on-screen appearances.
It was that clientele that convinced her she had a true eye for fashion. As a result, she created her own bilingual blog called Flor de Maria Fashion in 2010 (one of the first bilingual fashion blogs at the time), spanning topics from style and beauty to travel. And the next year, without any job prospects in sight, she quit her PR role and moved to New York to build her contacts in the fashion industry — leading to collaborations with publications like Cosmopolitan for Latinas and People en Espanol.
“Through that whole time, I always knew in the back of my head I wanted to have my own shoe brand,” Rivera said. “But at that point, I wasn’t ready. I felt like my blog was a stepping stone to where I wanted to be.”
Indeed, it was. A section of the blog called “Shoe of the Week,” in which Rivera would promote some of her favorite shoe styles, started to garner attention and ultimately led to her “a-ha” moment.
“I was getting booked for TV and magazines to talk about shoes. And I thought, this is the time to learn. I owned over 500 pairs and was spending thousands of dollars on designer heels, but still couldn’t find what I was looking for.”
For Rivera, that missing niche in the market was heels that were high-quality, comfortable and affordable.
To create such styles, Rivera put a pause on her blog to learn the art of shoemaking. She attended Arsutoria, a top shoe school in Italy (her time in the country served as the inspiration behind her second collection) and completed a business entrepreneurship at Stanford University. She also utilized her social media channels to get feedback from her followers about what features make a great shoe, before officially launching her eponymous label in 2019.
Paying homage to her roots, Rivera’s first collection is inspired by Peruvian culture. Her self-titled Flor sandal, offered in four rich hues with glittering crystals on the straps, pays tribute to the Tumi — a small metal object often hung inside Peruvian homes to symbolize good luck. Rivera also says her silhouettes include nods to the colorful Andes mountains and Peru’s southern Nazca lines, a group of pre-Columbian geoglyphs etched into the sands of the Nazca desert (which, when viewed aerially, seem to form unique images to the naked eye).
“Peru has so much history and is rich in design, from its natural wonders to manmade structures. For me, it was so important to go back to my culture with my creations,” she said.
Another source of inspiration for the designer? The female figures in her life. Rivera credits her mother, who apparently was never seen leaving the house without heels on, for instilling the designer with a love of shoes. (Since I was three years old, I remember walking around the house in my mom’s pumps,” she recalls.) The line also includes a style named after Rivera’s 94-year-old grandmother, Isabel.
Like the women in her family who’ve helped shaped her journey, Rivera also refers to her shoppers as “queens.” And every pair of shoe is titled with a female name, embodying the empowering ethos that’s effervescent throughout her line.
“As soon as they put my shoes on, I want my customers to feel like they can conquer the world,” she said. “They are confident, hardworking and can do anything they want.”
Rivera recognizes that for any woman, “conquering the world” is made easier when she’s comfortable, too. The designer creates her own lasts for a more customized fit. Her shoes also feature padded insoles and have heel heights no higher than 3.9 inches.
“I’ve worn thousands of pairs of shoes, and know firsthand that while a 5-inch heel is alluring, it can be painful to walk in,” she said. “I want women to be able to wear my shoes at least eight hours a day, in a silhouette that still feels sexy.”
They’re also versatile. Each pair comes with a set of interchangeable straps of different lengths and materials, such as leather, suede or PVC, to switch up the look.
Although all her styles are handmade in the U.S. with luxe materials sourced from Italy and around the world, Rivera is able to keep her prices lower following a direct to consumer model. They start at $245 and top out at just under $400.
The self-funded ecommerce label, which has garnered celebrity fans, boasts a 90% customer retention rate. Although the brand’s sales took a hit during the height of the pandemic in March (just four months after the company launched), Rivera says that sales from the past five months have been stronger than ever. The pump-sandal hybrid called the Kelly, which launched in early September as part of the designer’s third collection, sold out in two days.
After hosting a successful pop-up shop in San Francisco in February, the pandemic also forced Rivera to postpone opening pop-ups shops in eight more cities across the country, including New York, Miami and L.A. She plans to resume these efforts in 2021.
Rivera’s label currently includes 11 styles, from strappy sandals and pumps to mules and a pair of knee-high boots. The designer released a new sandal on Wednesday, with four of its sizes selling out in 24 hours. More styles from the third collection are set to drop in the coming months.
Today, Rivera continues to appear in fashion and beauty segments for various TV networks while dropping new silhouettes, designing for upcoming seasons and continuing to build the brand’s social media presence (its Instagram has amassed over 48,000 followers). In addition to opening pop-up shops and brick-and-mortar stores down the line, Rivera hopes to offer scholarships to other burgeoning female designers, especially those from minority backgrounds.
“At the end of the day, my motto is all about helping other women, just like the women in my life supported me. As an immigrant in this country, I feel I have a duty to uplift my culture and those who come behind me.”