2021 marks FN’s fourth year of presenting its Black History Month Spotlight series, which shines a light on some of the remarkable executives, entrepreneurs and designers in the shoe industry. As part of our ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business, we will continue to amplify the voices and stories of Black movers and shakers who are worthy to be recognized all year round.
Theresa Ebagua had her a-ha moment on a flight back to Los Angeles. She had just departed her mother’s funeral in London, and emotions were running high. On the plane, as she was reading a magazine, Ebagua — who has an MBA in IT infrastructure and worked a nine-to-five tech job — happened upon a story on footwear designers.
“I was like, ‘This is what I should be doing,'” she said. “Life is short. I’ve always been captivated by shoes, and I realized then that I should be following my passion.”
That was back in 2010. Fast forward to today, and Ebagua has been running her footwear brand, Chelsea Paris, for roughly eight years. (The label was named after her two daughters, Chelsea and Paris.) Her shoes have been spotted on A-listers like Beyoncé, Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner. They’ve also appeared in Fashion Week presentations as well as on the shelves of renowned retailers like Nordstrom and the late Barneys New York. Plus, she recently signed a partnership to sell her shoes exclusively on online marketplace Shopbop.
But it wasn’t always smooth-sailing for her: Shortly after the death of her mother (who, along with her father, had urged a young Ebagua to get her undergraduate degree in computer science), the Nigerian-born and London-raised talent quit her job — “my husband thought I was joking,” she said — and booked a one-way ticket to Milan to attend its famed Arsutoria School, whose notable alumni include designers Sarah Flint and Chloe Gosselin.
Following her graduation, the school helped Ebagua arrange a one-year apprenticeship at family-owned factories in Tuscany, where she learned “the entire series of shoe-making,” she said, “from product development and pattern-making to how to develop shoe lasts and dye leathers.” She added, “It felt like a whirlwind to be able to create a business out of a childhood dream.”
Ebagua’s inaugural line officially made its debut in Paris for the autumn/winter ’14 season, when she said she received about 240 or so orders. Those orders more than doubled when she signed a partnership with Barneys. “They wanted 500 or 600 pairs,” she said. “That’s what brought my brand to the American market.” Then in 2017, as she described it, “my business grew at such a rapid pace,” and she was producing 5,000 pairs of shoes within a single season as part of wholesale deals with chains like Nordstrom.
Instead of feeling elated, Ebagua admitted she was overwhelmed. “I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t fully understand the business yet,” she said. “I had just finished school and this apprenticeship, and now I had to learn how to run a fashion business.” She was also apprehensive about embracing her heritage in her styles and felt pressured by wholesalers and investors to appeal to a larger consumer base. “I felt that my designs were being diluted based on what they wanted,” she said, “so I took time off to reassess.”
Ebagua went on hiatus, and as she was figuring out her next steps, Barneys famously went out of business. (The brand was absorbed by department store Saks Fifth Avenue following the sale of its intellectual property to Authentic Brands Group.) That led Ebagua to rethink Chelsea Paris’ business model. She transitioned from a wholesale-dependent brand to a primarily direct-to-consumer company. She also took more liberties with her shoes because, as she explained, “there’s a message I wanted to tell with my colors, my prints and my designs.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic touched down in the United States and its impact has been disproportionately felt by minorities and, in particular, people of color. And the Black Lives Matter movement was reinvigorated following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more Black people at the hands of police. Following that series of events, Ebagua said she felt that her brand took on a deeper meaning.
“My experience as a Black designer is twofold: There’s my experience pre-pandemic, when my voice was lost,” she said. “Now, with the pandemic and the social justice movement, us Black designers are reclaiming our voice.”
She added, “There’s been an overwhelming lack of unity and understanding in the country lately, and as a woman of color, it’s really affecting to witness those fractures in our country. But the summer gave me hope: Seeing the youth marching for equality and justice makes me excited for the future. It inspired me and gave me more courage to speak my truth and own my identity.”
In supporting her community, Ebagua has pledged to contribute 10% of proceeds from sales made on her website this month to Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group with seven million members and considered the nation’s largest organization fighting racial injustice today. Her philanthropic work, however, extends back years: Every month, she donates a portion of proceeds on her website to organizations with links to her home continent of Africa.
“I would like to see more Black-owned businesses, but we need to invest in Black communities,” she said. “There’s so much creativity and talent that remains untapped because they don’t have access to good mentoring and good education. But this job cannot be done in one day. We need a collective effort to break down system racism and inequalities in America.”