Nelli Kim has been in the fashion industry for 20 years. But her journey to entrepreneurship began in 2014, on a volunteer trip to India. “I was really inspired by this idea of how can I do more and be of service to others, but doing what I know how to do. My gift is not to be a social worker or a doctor.”
The retail veteran, who at the time was a VP and DMM of footwear at Bergdorf Goodman, followed that idea spark to first Anthropologie and then Caleres, where she began to learn about building and scaling a brand as GM of the Vince, Via Spiga and Diane von Furstenberg shoe lines.
But it was an unexpected health crisis that revealed Kim’s ultimate purpose.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and that was a seven-month journey of surgery and chemo and all of those things,” she recalled. As a result of her treatments, Kim developed chemo-related neuropathy, which is nerve damage that causes tingling, numbness or pain in the hands and feet. “You hear a lot about the hair loss and the nausea, but the neuropathy was kind of unusual. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Even following her recovery, when Kim returned to the office “after months of wearing Uggs and sneakers and Birkenstocks,” she found that her typical work shoes were no longer comfortable. “It really set this light bulb moment off in my head, and I thought, this is a problem I can solve,” she said.
In 2019, Kim left her role at Caleres and has spent the past two years researching and developing Rēden, a direct-to-consumer footwear brand built with orthopedic functionality and a fashion aesthetic. The label’s first styles are shipping this month. They consist of four looks: an ankle-strap flat and loafer for women, and a men’s loafer and lace-up. Each retails for $195 and is equipped with the brand’s proprietary arch-supporting orthotic insole, plus other comfort features such as memory foam heel cups and rubber outsoles.
To develop the shoes’ comfort technology, Kim worked with Dr. Holly Johnson at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and consulted with other footwear health experts who specialize in everything from orthopedics to reflexology. When it came time to delve into the production, the industry veteran leaned on her past connections, recruiting a former Caleres colleague to consult on the design and signing with a factory in India that she had worked with at Anthropologie.
To fund the venture, Kim launched a Kickstarter campaign in March, which has raised over $65,000 — well above the $25,000 target.
Kim said Rēden looks to fill a white space in the market. “In the designer world, which I’ve lived in for so long, the things that people care about are aesthetics and brand and quality — comfort usually isn’t part of that equation,” she explained. “Then you have orthopedic shoes, which are built to be comfortable and are very functional, but they don’t necessarily look like something that I would ever want to wear.”
At the same time, the brand seeks to focus on classic closet essentials that can take customers through every aspect of their lives. After debuting with four styles, Kim aims to next add a boot and sandal, but might not expand much further. “This is not about designing every style under the sun,” she said. “It’s about drilling down to the core of what that person needs in their wardrobe.”
She added that there is a precedent for keeping the line lean, based on the success of other DTC brands such as Allbirds, Rothy’s and Everlane, who launched with one — or a few styles — and have grown slowly.
Kim noted that through her Kickstarter campaign, she was able to identify the most popular styles and colorways to guide her first production run. “I’m not just buying blindly — I have like actual data behind why I’m buying.”
The other advantage to being self-funded, she added, is the freedom to achieve her philanthropic goals. In keeping with that moment of inspiration in India, Rēden is donating half of its profits to charity. To start, the brand is partnering with the American Cancer Society, but Kim aims to rotate charity partners going forward.
And in a truly full-circle moment, she hopes to one day use her brand to benefit the people she first met on that 2014 volunteer mission. “After the trip, I cofounded a nonprofit that still works with the same community of women and children who were rescued from sex trafficking. It would be great to partner with my factory to provide employment for some of those women after they’ve been rescued.”