When it comes to gender parity, the past year has certainly made one thing clear: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a regressive effect on equality.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the coronavirus threatens to roll back the last 30 years of economic progress for women. For one, women in general are shouldering more childcare responsibilities and household work than their male counterparts. What’s more, traditionally female-dominated industries like retail, leisure and hospitality have been hit particularly harder than other sectors.
In a tougher-than-ever job market, an increasing number of women are turning to entrepreneurship to forge their own path forward. But even for those who have been in the fashion and footwear sectors for years, female business owners have had to dramatically shift their strategies to adapt to the so-called “new normal.”
Here, FN speaks with 15 female shoe entrepreneurs — one who started her company just three months before the outbreak touched down in the United States, another who is celebrating her 10th year in business this fall and more — about finding purpose, achieving the ever-elusive “balance” and championing other women, especially at a time of crisis.
Marisa Sharkey, co-founder, president and COO of Birdies
As the COVID-19 outbreak made its way into the U.S., Birdies became an unlikely beneficiary. The brand’s slides and slippers — designed for at-home entertaining — squarely fit into the casual and comfy categories that have continued to perform exceedingly well in the work-from-home era.
On the unexpected opportunities presented by the pandemic: “Over time, what we did see was that our product actually lent itself well to people’s new reality. We launched Birdies initially to provide a comfortable and stylish solution for a slipper at home. All of a sudden, we were faced with this unique world where we were at home, [and] the business did well. In November, we had our best sales month ever at Birdies, month over month and year over year, which was so exciting. We had planned the business conservatively and saw that, while we survived 2020, we feel like we really have a lot of momentum for 2021.”
On the balancing act: “I have two daughters — eight- and 10-year-old girls. I became the full-time educator as well as the full-time entertainer. That was a big issue. For many of our team members, that was a big issue as well. We had to figure out how to accommodate that… [But] whether you have kids or not, there was complete uncertainty, and it felt like a time to step away from this sales mode. I personally learned to flex my different styles to what our teammates were facing. We’re still going through this, but I feel like we’ve developed a really good working style within our team to accommodate people’s schedules and challenges.”
Kay Sides, founder of ROAM Footwear
In 2018, Sides founded ROAM — a brand that uses recycled materials to create its shoes and promises a portion of sales to go toward giving at-risk children an opportunity to explore the outdoors. Since the brand’s launch, about 75 third-graders from an east Los Angeles elementary school have been taken by Sides and the brand’s team on hikes with Yosemite tour company YEXPLORE.
On handling unexpected surprises: “The one thing that did change [for us during the pandemic was] I had four members of my team give birth! They were all so courageous, and [I] felt so grateful everyone remained healthy. I really allowed each of them to transition on their speed and just really tried hard to show up for them all in any way that I could, reminding them that you can be a mama, kick ass and have a life.”
On sustainability: “This is the one area that we were actively working on pre-pandemic, and this came to a standstill. We are back on it. We have part of our shoes that are recycled but have been working on being completely sustainable and traceable … We also have a strong integrated service aspect to our brand, where we take as many kids as we can outside to have a game changing experience in nature. We had so many experiences planned pre-pandemic but of course everything had to be cancelled and same for this year. We chose to donate to a number of key organizations that were really showing up for kids and their families and are doing the same for this year as well.”
Theresa Ebagua, designer and founder of Chelsea Paris
Ebagua, who was profiled last month as part of FN’s Black History Month Spotlight series, has been running her footwear brand for roughly eight years. Recently, she presented her latest collection at the Black in Fashion Council’s fall ’21 Discovery Showroom during New York Fashion Week. But it hasn’t always been smooth-sailing for the designer, who’s had to adapt her business amidst wholesale challenges, retail bankruptcies and the COVID-19 health crisis.
On how the pandemic has changed business relationships: “It has been quite challenging. Deadlines are not being met due to various restrictions in Europe. Our sample and production timelines have slipped, and we’re having to compromise and work hand-in-hand with the factories, suppliers, retailers and consumers. Some relationships have become more intimate, and in some cases, relationships have become a bit strained. Post-pandemic, I’m going to take a ‘thank you’ trip to my suppliers that have supported us throughout this pandemic and both repair, where needed, and celebrate those relationships.”
On what Black female entrepreneurs need today: “I would love to see more Black female-owned businesses thrive. Collectively we can use our platforms and influence to spotlight these businesses. I’m enthused by initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge and propose we create more avenues like these to provide Black brands, especially female-led ones, with much-needed exposure. Beyond generating an audience, we have to invest in Black communities — they are bursting with creativity and house the next generation of Black female entrepreneurs.”
Sarah Flint, founder, designer and CEO of Sarah Flint
Contingency planning — and being an online-only business — gave Flint the ability to complete customer orders at a time when brands and retailers across the board were seeing coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions. While 2020 was a year of preservation, Flint is ready to expand with new products and into new categories (recently launching a line of silk scarves) in the year ahead.
On international sourcing amid a pandemic: “Being a ‘Made in Italy’ footwear brand was certainly a challenge in the beginning. Our factories are primarily in the Lombardy region. In the beginning, we had to deal with figuring out factory closures and changing shipping by boat to air. While it hasn’t been without its challenges, we’ve been able to adapt and pivot quickly. Our bestselling style was already a flat (the Natalie), and we already had more casual styles in the assortment. We also launched slippers and house shoes … The biggest thing, as well, is that we’re a direct-to-consumer business. We didn’t have massive store closures where we were dealing with canceled orders. We were able to respond in a different way.”
On resilience and why innovation is more important now than ever: “The biggest thing that any entrepreneur — female or male — can focus on is what you can uniquely provide for your customer. Times of crises can often provide intros and solutions that need to be made as lifestyles change. What is missing out there? What value you can provide to your customer base? … Be relentless. It takes a huge amount of discipline, thick skin and courage to push forward. Any business founder will find huge challenges at the beginning. You have to be OK with the ‘nos.’ Eventually you’ll get some ‘yeses’ at some point. If you don’t ask, it’s always going to be a ‘no.'”
Libby Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Sea Star Beachwear
Ahead of the spring, Fitzgerald is set to debut its collaboration with Frances Valentine next month. The line features a vintage-style floral print, which appears on Sea Star’s signature Beachcomber espadrille, as well as other silhouettes.
On learning to pivot your business quickly in times of crises: “When the pandemic hit, we were fortunate enough to be able to pivot our marketing message from ‘travel and resort’ to ‘home and comfort.’ Also, by investing in our DTC business, we made up for lost wholesale revenue when stores and resorts remained closed and grew our online sales by 60%. We began 2021 in a very strong financial position, poised for growth with the resumption of a more normal environment.”
On how the pandemic has strengthened the importance of entrepreneurial collaboration: “The collaboration [with Frances Valentine] was nurtured and developed in the darkest days of the pandemic. Elyce [Arons, founder of Frances Valentine] and I felt strongly about wanting the collection to be whimsical, bright and happy. We are optimistic that our customers will want to feel good about their wardrobes and themselves when the health danger has passed, and we can begin to enjoy friends and family in a safe manner.”
Elyce Arons, founder of Frances Valentine
Beyond the collaboration with Sea Star, Frances Valentine recently moved to a new location on Madison Avenue in New York City. Arons is also recognized for having co-founded the clothing brand with the late, legendary designer Kate Spade.
On how the business was faring before and during COVID-19: “Not surprisingly, our DTC channel drove the business last year, though retail did unexpectedly well — considering months of closures and curbside pickup … We did see softness in the first quarter of 2020 due to the pandemic, but we successfully pivoted through and increased our business by 52% in 2020 over the past year … Our customer really responded to the joyful spirit of our designs and our attention to quality and detail.”
On trusting your gut if you want a career in the footwear industry: “Make sure you have a good amount of experience in the business of footwear first. Work for several other companies before you jump in. Aside from that, go with your gut. You will receive advice from everyone, and you are your best consultant.”
Paule Tenaillon and Marine Braquet, co-founders of Nomasei
A few years ago, Tenaillon and Braquet — both veterans of Parisian luxury houses including Dior, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy — met in a luxury shoe factory in Venice. Together, they launched sustainable footwear brand Nomasei — just four and a half months before government-mandated lockdowns disrupted the budding business. Now, the two are looking for silver linings ahead.
On the struggles faced by female business owners: “As fairly new female entrepreneurs, we sometimes feel like we are a bit less confident than the men we know in similar roles, but we often have more things to juggle than those male counterparts. For example, Marine had a baby a week ago (Feb. 22). She worked until a few hours before giving birth, checked her emails a few hours later and is back to work less than a week after, with baby in the arms — and, still, she’s working because we are such a small company that can’t replace her. Most men will never have to deal with this type of situation in their business. They will not have to face this kind of choice or no choice … In general, being a woman in the business world still often means you have to fight harder than a man to prove yourself and show your value. As we continue to grow the brand and eventually look to raise money, we certainly do have concerns about how that will unfold.”
On building a new business amid the pandemic: “We have slowly continued to grow through all of this with continued hard work and a true sense of purpose. The fashion industry must change its operations and work to put sustainability first. We are excited and encouraged to see so many like-minded, new, independent brands — many women-owned — with similar values, goals and practices as ours … We must stand together. It is hard to be a female entrepreneur and launch your own business, but it is doable.”
Jessie Randall, founder and chief creative officer of Loeffler Randall
Last week, after 16 years in business, Randall opened up shop at 10 Prince Street in New York City. It marked the brand’s introduction to brick and mortar — at a time when physical retail has been challenged by the COVID-19 outbreak and an accelerated shift to digital.
On debuting her store amid the pandemic: “We had a very strong 2019, and at the start of 2020, we were projecting it to be our best year ever. We signed a lease on our first-ever store, and planned to open it in May 2020. Then March hit, and everything changed. I’m so proud of how we pivoted and stayed on track. We added more casual items, like our first ever slipper, and interestingly enough, our occasion shoes like the Penny continued to be our bestseller. We hit our revised store opening date and opened as planned last month in SoHo. Our business is currently running 30 points higher than last year; we’re off to a great start.”
On the challenges she’s faced as both a mother and a female entrepreneur: “I love to collaborate and work closely with my team, so being remote this year has been a challenge. But it was also an opportunity because we have learned new and even more efficient ways of working. Also, being a mom of three, like so many others, I am feeling overwhelmed at times. There is no separation between home and work and now school. So it’s a lot to try to manage, and things like remembering my son’s recorder for music class are definitely falling through the cracks.”
Julie Kuo, co-founder of Avre
Avre launched in November 2019 — just three months before the pandemic ground the U.S. to a near-halt. But with manufacturing based in China, which was already hard-hit by the outbreak at the time, the startup was forced to rethink its next steps. Kuo believes her brand — which is an acronym for Authentic, Versatile, Responsible and Empowered — is here for the long haul.
On managing a startup in COVID-19 times: “COVID has impacted our business as far as being able to get up and going and building the brand visibility that we would’ve wanted to have in normal circumstances. The shutdowns and limitations in social activities, as well as people’s mindsets and their ability of even purchasing nonessential items, had a major impact. We knew worldwide that everyone was living in fear. For us to be insensitive to that and continue pushing product didn’t seem right, so we needed to take a step back and reevaluate when we could start selling and marketing again… Now, we have new SKUs and products we’re designing. Long term, Avre wants to be a lifestyle brand.”
On being an Asian-American female entrepreneur amid the recent anti-Asian attacks: “The racism, the hate — it’s not just this year. We’ve had it; it’s just that it was never spoken about. In general, Asians, by culture, are a little more quiet and timid, and that’s why it was never acknowledged. Being a female Asian entrepreneur, it was really difficult for me and my sister. Our family has been in footwear for 40 years now. When we wanted to start this, people didn’t think we had the credibility because of who we were. These are common things women have to face because it’s a male-dominated industry, but we had parents who gave us a really good foundation, and we had that support. But this racism against Asians is something that we face, and it’s only coming to light this year, but it’s not something new.”
Angela Scott, founder of The Office of Angela Scott
October will mark Scott’s 10th year in business, but despite a pandemic, she remains optimistic. The brand plans to launch into the new category of boots and expand into leather goods, particularly bags. But it’s the brand’s charitable initiatives that Scott is proudest about. (The Office of Angela Scott will also be donating 100% of proceeds from purchases made online on International Women’s Day, March 8, to the American Association of University Women.)
On celebrating 10 years in business during COVID-19 times: “Last year was one of the hardest years, but because it was universal, it didn’t feel like we were outliers. The entire world was dealing with it, so it felt like we were going through this together. Although we’re still in a pandemic, and we’ve still got challenges to overcome, I think it’s going to be like a renaissance. It’s a serendipitous thing, and we’re quite lucky to be able to celebrate it this year.
On philanthropy: “With COVID, you stopped thinking about yourself, and you started thinking about others. Even though our sales dropped in March and April, we gave back. I felt like, if we were having it bad, others were having it worse, and it was the right thing to pay it forward and take care of others. We started a program where we gifted nurses with sneakers, and then as the year continued, we gave larger donations to organizations like Girls Inc. and Women in Need NYC. To mark our 10th year anniversary, we will be donating $100,000 a year for the next 10 years for a total of $1 million dollars to nonprofits that support women and young girls. If we’re saying that we’re a brand for women who mean business, we should not only provide shoes for them to stand tall in, but we should financially support the empowerment of women.”
Barbara Borghini, founder of Gia Couture
Borghini is overseeing the upcoming launch of GIA/RHW, a footwear collection in collaboration with model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The line, which is slated for an exclusive launch on FWRD.com on March 15, includes four styles handcrafted in Italy and inspired by the beauty of nature.
On developing a footwear collection with Huntington-Whiteley in the middle of a pandemic: “Working with Rosie made me forget sometimes the situation we are all in. I was very hands-on getting to know her and living the dream of developing the collection around her style. I admire Rosie as a woman and an entrepreneur — and her impeccable taste. It wasn’t a traditional design process, as we worked entirely over Zoom, although the development process was extremely smooth and easy as she brought so much of her experience to the process. I feel very connected to her because of this unique experience.”
On advice for budding female entrepreneurs: “For anyone looking to break into this world, I always want to be honest about the focus and passion that it requires. On a typical day, I wake up at 6:30 a.m. I look after my family until 7:30 a.m., then I go to check on the artisans and on production development. While I am in the car, I speak with my team about logistics and other admin. After lunch, I meet with my team for the afternoon to get updates and brainstorm on strategy, merchandising, communication — all while supervising the production process and the sampling. All this to explain that anyone who wants to work in the industry needs to balance many skills — and, most importantly, have a dedicated team around them.”
Jessica Rich, founder of Jessica Rich
Over the past few years, Rich’s namesake brand — a favorite among A-listers and celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B — has continued to make moves, from inking a partnership with “Fall Girls” actress Tami Roman to debuting a line of men’s shoes. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped that expansion; in fact, Rich opened the doors to a new brick-and-mortar location at a former Giuseppe Zanotti space — in L.A’s Beverly Center — just this past December.
On the roadblocks to entrepreneurship: “I think we’re not hitting as many roadblocks because women have been the driving force in business for over a decade now. We have more women entrepreneurs than ever before … [That said,] the biggest challenge was always me being African American. I just had to work 10 times harder and prove a lot more to people in order for them to respect my business.”
On how the business was faring before and during COVID-19: “My business was pretty steady and consistent and even more productive and booming after COVID-19 because of other opportunities that I have received, such as the [opening of the] retail space at the Beverly Center [in Los Angeles] and the Black recognition [over the summer]. Of course, during the beginning of COVID-19, we were all nervous and weren’t sure what to expect … I just launched [my brand] in DSW, and I’m launching in Nordstrom this month. This is the biggest milestone of my career, and I’m very excited for the future. I want to expand to other retailers across the globe as well.”
Jaclyn Jones, founder of Californians Footwear
Jones is also the founder of sustainable footwear factory Clover & Cobbler and handcrafted artisan footwear brand Salpy. Both of her brands, as well as the factory, are based in Los Angeles.
On the made-to-order business model: “As a boutique footwear factory at Clover & Cobbler, we focus on small-batch production, and our made-to-order manufacturing process is exactly what the industry needs right now. With the uncertainty in consumer spending habits during the pandemic, brands and retailers are hesitant to take on too much inventory at once. There is a push for ordering smaller runs with shorter lead times that are more tailored to the current season and follow the active trends. Fortunately, our in-house brands Californians and Salpy operate on this same made-to-order business model. So while other brands were worried about their large levels of inventory on hand, or whether their product from overseas would even arrive in the U.S., our brands were in a much safer position. Our money was not tied up in inventory, giving us the ability to react quickly to trends, like slippers, where we could make samples, fit test and roll out small batches to sell on our website all within a month. Now, with 2021 finally here, we’re able to move forward and not worry about selling last year’s shoes.”
On the importance of sustainability at a time of crisis: “COVID has been a huge wake-up call to brands large and small about the challenges our industry faces, including ordering huge volumes of inventory, increasingly longer lead times, supply chain issues, unethical working conditions, waste and the environmental effects of cross-global transportation and pollution. The consumers is becoming more and more aware of the gap between them and the manufacturing process and is gravitating towards more transparent brands … This movement is something that has been important to us since the beginning, but to see it happening in such a major way and ripple out on a global scale definitely makes me feel optimistic about the future of our industry and our planet.”
Kimberley Byrom, designer and founder of GOYA Shoes
At GOYA, Byrom said business has remained at a similar momentum both before and during COVID-19. That’s because the majority of its customer base is composed of brand advocates and loyalists, she said, who “know and love” the product — that is, the classic menorquina sandal that’s a sartorial staple of Balearic life. (The shoes have traditionally been worn for more than a century in Mediterranean Spain.)
On silencing your inner critics and forging ahead: “Women tend to be self-deprecating and hard on ourselves. Imposter syndrome and insecurities can sometimes creep in when faced with challenges and obstructions. But, equally, starting from a step behind tends to give us great determination to prove exactly what we are capable of achieving. It is possible that a challenge that we often face is one that is inherited generationally, but I do believe that female entrepreneurship, whilst not a new concept, is one that is gaining momentum day by day and with that grows a collective confidence.”
On overcoming the fear of asking for help: “As women, we often attempt to ‘do it all’ almost as if we need to prove something, but it is really important to recognize your business support needs and look for help where necessary. If your strengths lie in creativity, but you lose grip of finances, then don’t hesitate to outsource your accounting needs early on so that you can focus on the areas of your business that need and rely on you specifically. When it comes to your supply chain and production partners, be armed with written agreements and clear production plans to ensure it is understood that you mean business and you put your money where your mouth is.”