How Shoe Designer Nayla Atallah Launched Her Namesake Brand in the Middle of a Pandemic

It was week after the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold in the United States that Nayla Atallah debuted her eponymous shoe brand.

As the outbreak spread from coast to coast, the Miami-based designer opted to move forward with the line’s launch on March 27. Born and raised in New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 health crisis in the country, Atallah was determined to persist with a plan that had been months in the making.

“[It] was not an easy decision, but I decided to launch because I strongly believe in the long-term viability of our brand and our mission,” she told FN. “In the midst of a pandemic where people are shopping less, we believe that they will be more discerning of what brands they are buying from, making sure they buy from brands that they can feel good about. We believe we are one of those brands.”

For Nayla, the name of the game is sustainability and design: The brand uses eco-friendly and innovative materials to create its footwear, from pineapple leather and fish scales to wild rubber sourced directly from the Amazon. (All soles of Nayla shoes, as well as the straps on a couple silhouettes, are made of wild rubber, which is native to the sprawling jungle.)

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Seeking to build a brand rooted in social and environmental responsibility, Atallah visited the Amazon Rainforest in 2018, when she met a community of tappers who reside with their families in the tropical rainforest and make a living through rubber-tapping. The tappers extract latex that is naturally produced by the wild rubber trees, which are then left alone to regenerate. (The trees do not need to be cut down to extract latex.) She also employs a female-owned factory in Peru to produce her sandals in small batches.

Then the shoes hit her direct-to-consumer website — with a charitable element: Last month, 10% of all sales were donated to the New York Presbyterian Hospital to assist health-care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Now, as national unrest over police brutality continues to galvanize the country, Atallah is donating 10% of proceeds to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and No Kid Hungry. In the future, she said she would like to give back to The World Wildlife Fund, whose mission is to help preserve the Amazon rainforest.

“Giving back to charity was always part of our mission,” she said, adding, “There are so many challenges that come with starting a brand: development issues, production issues, supply issues, factory issues, delivery issues, quality issues. You need to be able to problem solve and adjust quickly. If you believe in what you are doing and are passionate about it, nothing should get in your way.”

Here, how Atallah is forging ahead in unprecedented times.

What drove you to launch your business amid the pandemic?

“The crisis already has us questioning the ways in which we live, work and consume. We are empowered by the belief that we can be a part of a wave of companies who are offering solutions, rather than contributing to problems. Launching was an act of faith in our values.”

Why is it critical to forge ahead with a new venture right now?

“Our global community will go back to normal, and we want to do what we can to play a small part in raising awareness for what the future of fashion looks like.”

Have you changed your launch/early business strategy based on what’s been going on in the world? Why or why not? 

“We had to slow everything down and protect the safety of our workers. Like most retail businesses in this pandemic, people cannot see or try our products in person as we originally planned in our rollout. Our adjustments, however, have been positive ones, too: We have ramped up our social media presence (@_shopnayla) and also quickly turned our charitable efforts to support coronavirus relief efforts. Our overall business strategy has remained intact as we had always planned on selling direct-to-consumer to start — to have a better understanding of who our customer was and what was important to them and grow organically based on what our company stands for.”

Nayla Atallah, shop Nayla
Atallah meets with members of the Amazon Rainforest’s rubber-tapping community in 2018.
CREDIT: Nayla

What challenges are you facing as a business?

“Not being able to travel to develop the next collection with my factory will be really challenging. There’s nothing like meeting face-to-face, especially when it comes to the development of physical goods, and now everything will be done over Zoom. Although this will present its own obstacles, it will teach us to be better at communicating and also be more focused with our ideas.”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned so far?

“You need to learn from your mistakes. It sounds simple, right? I started journaling all the mistakes that were made along the way and what I learned from them. This was not easy for me to do and it was hard to look at because mistakes mean setbacks either in time or money or both. But now I try to look at them in a more positive light because there is no better way to learn than from your own mistakes.”

Do you have a personal mantra as you approach your business in this unprecedented time?

“Accept challenges as a way to help you grow. We are all dealing with unprecedented challenges as a result of COVID-19, but I think that if we look at them as an opportunity to rethink, innovate and evolve, we will be better for it.”

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