How to make it in fashion and footwear today? Throw out the old rules — and stay the course, even when the going gets tough. That’s how today’s emerging designers are navigating the still-shaky waters of the industry’s fast-changing new normal. From shifting retail strategies to supply chain challenges — and an imperative on sustainability — a group of imaginative and agile creatives are charting new territory in the footwear and fashion industries.
After skipping a year, FN has once again compiled its annual comprehensive — but not exhaustive — list of 14 emerging talent paving the way in footwear design a post-2020 world.
FOUNDER: Titi Adesa
BASED IN: Lagos, Nigeria, and London
MADE IN: Italy
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: After studying and practicing pharmacy, Adesa turned to her passion of footwear, studying at Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion and traveling to Italy to learn shoemaking from the artisan level. “I went straight to Milan to decamp and just did it the old-fashioned way,” said Adesa. “I took Italian classes so that I could go to the factories. I ended up finding a factory that was willing to allow me to learn [shoemaking]. For a year and a half, I would visit them any time I could, on the weekends, to learn about all of the shoe components.”
IN RETAIL: Level Shoes, with a mix of wholesale and direct-to-consumer.
DESIGN NOTES: Taking inspiration from family and travels, Adesa incorporates her Nigerian heritage into her designs. The FaFa pump, for example, is inspired by her grandmother. “She would always dress up really fancy to go to our house on Sundays. Every time she would say in our language ‘(something) Fafa,’ which means ‘sophisticated’ in the Yoruba language,” Adesa explained. “It kind of stuck with me, and when I wanted to create a pump that was very elegant, I thought of her.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Balancing the need for adaptability in an ever- changing business and market while still ensuring the core elements of the brand remain a key focus,” said the designer.
TOP STYLES: The Agra, a pump with a laser-cut leather detail at the vamp, and the S’oké mule.
SEEN ON: Jennifer Hudson, Andra Day
SOCIAL STUDIES: 13.1K on Instagram @titiadesa
DESIGNER: Ancuta Sarca
BASED IN: London
MADE IN: Italy
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: After studying ready-to-wear design in her native Romania, Sarca moved to London, where she worked at womenswear brands such as Ashish and Meadham Kirchoff. The designer launched her brand at London Fashion Week in 2019, after partnering with Fashion East on a collection of upcycled heels that utilized Nike sneakers as part of the shoe uppers.
IN RETAIL: Browns, Ssense, LN-CC in London, Farfetch
DESIGN NOTES: “I was just making shoes for myself at first,” said Sarca. “I had this idea of upcycling, and I was just mixing things together, using shoes that I wasn’t wearing anymore.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Definitely finding stock and suppliers. And the lack of staff. I have to do a lot of things myself right now.”
SUSTAINABILITY: “When I started, I just mixed together vintage heels with trainers. They were like objects of art — they weren’t that wearable. I wanted to do them properly, so I started working with a small factory in Italy. We created a structure for the shoe using deadstock, creating everything from the sole to the heel, linings and bindings out of waste materials. Now we are looking for suppliers that have the deadstock to use. It’s not as obvious as before, but it’s all still upcycled,” said Sarca, whose merchandise comes with a note to retailers that each pair will be slightly different given the limited supply of materials. “They are happy with that. I think a few years ago, retailers might not have been as understanding of this idea.”
TOP STYLES: The sneaker mule, an upcycled hybrid style that was originally done with deadstock Nike Cortez shoes
SOCIAL STUDIES: 38K on Instagram @ancutasarca
UP NEXT: A soon-to-be revealed capsule collection with one of the brand’s retailers, which will include both shoes and ready-to-wear pieces.
Mach & Mach
DESIGNER: Nina and Gvantsa Macharashvili
BASED IN: Tbilisi, Georgia
LAUNCHED: 2012, with U.S. retail picking up in 2020
MADE IN: Italy
IN RETAIL: Moda Operandi, Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Level Shoes, LuisaViaRoma, Ounass, Browns and Tsum. The brand just launched with Nordstrom for fall ’21.
DESIGN NOTES: Signature rope-like crystal bows, pearl and jewel heels define the sisters’ ultimate fantasy shoes.
INSPIRATION: “Footwear is the love of our lives,” said Nina. “It can entirely change a woman and her look. It can make her more confident as well. Beautiful shoes can elevate anything you wear.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “2020 was the biggest challenge as it was so disruptive,” said Nina.
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: “It has been nine years and nine months since we created Mach & Mach,” said Nina. “There was no breakthrough moment for us. It was all gradual growth for us and we have been through all stages of development.”
TOP STYLES: The double-bow pumps, an ankle-strap with a pointed toe and crystal- embellished bow detail that has taken over social media feeds.
SOCIAL STUDIES: 370K on Instagram @machandmach UP NEXT: The sister designers have launched both ready-to- wear and handbags for the spring ’22 season, with pieces full of crystal embellishments, bows and cutouts, echoing their ultra-fantastical, Cinderella-like heels. Next season, the brand will unveil a jewelry line, rounding out the sparkly offerings.
FOUNDER: Barbara Borghini
BASED IN: Tuscany, Italy
MADE IN: Tuscany, Italy
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: After studying in Rome, Borghini received masters degrees from both the Polimoda Fashion School in Florence and London’s Central Saint Martins.
IN RETAIL: The brand launched in the U.S. with Saks Fifth Avenue and has expanded to Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Intermix and FWRD. International retailers include Harrods, Browns, Farfetch and Mytheresa.
DESIGN NOTES: Borghini started her brand with the aim of rounding out the offering of everyday shoes. “I really wanted to give the modern businesswoman or active woman who wants to always look chic and put together that sense of comfort,” she said.
IN COLLABORATION: The designer has partnered with both Pernille Teisbaek and Rosie Huntington-Whitely on full collections. “Collaboration is a simple enrichment of the brand, it gives it more substance and different points of view,” said the designer, whose team is made up of more than 95% women. “It is impossible to do something by yourself. The strength is always in creating a team.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: While the lack of travel has been a challenge for Borghini, the designer found a silver lining in her many Zoom meetings. “We were able to connect with even more people across the world, something that I wouldn’t have had time to do in person.”
SUSTAINABILITY: Borghini does all of her sourcing and manufacturing in Tuscany, where she lives, using by- product leathers and testing out eco-leather options, though she noted that for her, sustainability also relates to community. “My No. 1 goal is to support and bring to an international level these amazing artisans of Tuscany, who have suffered a lot during the pandemic,” she said. “They are part of the family, and this is a way to help my local community.”
TOP STYLES: The toe-ring sandal in collaboration with Rosie Huntington-Whitely and the double-strap sandal with Pernille Teisbaek.
SOCIAL STUDIES: 148K on Instagram @giaborghni
UP NEXT: A possible foray into categories outside footwear.
FOUNDERS: Domitilla Rapisardi and Pamela Costantini
BASED IN: Tuscany, Italy, and Paris
MADE IN: Italy
EXPERIENCE: The design duo met while working as footwear and accessories designers at luxury brands. “We were at huge companies, we had to do a lot of proposals and prototypes, but no one was thinking about what was the next cycle of life for all those materials. We realized a lot of materials were just being destroyed,” said Costantini.
IN RETAIL: LuisaViaRoma, Rinascente, Galeries Lafayette, Bloomingdale’s Dubai and Kuwait, Lola Dre.
DESIGN NOTES: Costantini and Rapisardi spotlight materials and fabrics, using archival deadstock found in Italian factories. When a historical factory informed them that alarge order from a big brand was canceled, the duo used the unused materials to create “La Dolce Vita,” a capsule of slippers.
MAJOR BREAK: ”When everything was normal, factories were critical of small brands and needed minimums,” said Costantini. “But even before COVID, we found a factory — this young guy bet on us.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The decline in sales has led many stores to take more conservative product strategies, limiting the risks as much as possible by not investing in emerging and brands,” said Rapisardi. “We were very happy to have found those who decided to invest equally in realities like ours.”
SUSTAINABILITY: Using metal- free linings and leathers, plus deadstock fabric for uppers, the duo’s capsule collections emphasize the limited use of material. “Right now, the market wants exclusives and personalized products. We said, ‘Let’s do it, but in a sustainable way.’ We can do both and hopefully make everyone happy,” said Costantini. “We want to build up a community that is interested in sustainability,” Rapisardi added.
TOP STYLES: The Ade sandal, a mid-heeled mule with a flame-inspired crystal heel. SOCIAL STUDIES: 7K on Instagram @iindacoofficial
UP NEXT: A recently launched handbag and an e-commerce site in the second half of 2022.
FOUNDER: Sunni Dixon
BASED IN: New York
MADE IN: Portugal
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: Dixon studied fashion merchandising in New York and in between classes, he learned from a cobbler who lived nearby on St. Mark’s Place how to make shoes from scratch. The hobby quickly turned into creating custom footwear for the likes of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. At his day job, meanwhile, the designer was working at Eileen Fisher as a product manager — until 2020, when he decided to officially launch his footwear pursuit as a full brand.
IN RETAIL: Launching in Saks Fifth Avenue for fall ’21
DESIGN NOTES: While the brand initially started as men’s, the classic shoe styles are inherently unisex. “I don’t design for a gender in mind,” said Dixon. “I just design for the aesthetic, and that can flow on to wherever it needs to for anybody. All I have to do is provide the size.”
MAJOR BREAK: “I created a piece for Dwyane Wade and that was probably the biggest exposure, followed up with Lil Nas X,” said the designer.
SPOTTED ON: Billy Porter, James Blake, Luka Sabbat
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Growth,” said Dixon. “How do you plan growth? What does it mean? The answer became more clear to me after going into Saks. I’m not small anymore. So I’m thinking differently, working on branding, a business. I was literally cutting leathers and making shoes. That is my heart and soul, so that has been a learning curve with turning [it] into a business.”
TOP STYLE: The Reese square-toed leather boot
SOCIAL STUDIES: 3K on Instagram @sunnisunnistudio
FOUNDER: Jennifer Stucko
BASED IN: New York
MADE IN: Italy
EXPERIENCE: After working in sales and development for brands such as Valentino, Armani and A.Testoni, Stucko began to recognize the effects of fashion on the climate. “Currently, the fashion industry is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world. The more I learned about the industry’s impact on climate change, the more inspired I became to make a positive impact in the industry — to help reduce its catastrophic footprint on the planet and encourage conscious consumerism,” she said.
SUSTAINABILITY: Stucko’s existing knowledge of the luxury, made-in-Italy footwear scene led her to the Le Marche region, where she worked with a factory to develop leathers made of upcycled apple and grape skins (the latter of which sometimes come from the waste from vineyards) to create a durable but sleek material for uppers.
IN RETAIL: Mostly direct-to-consumer, with the exception of bridal site Over the Moon.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Launching in current conditions. “We are very nimble, and I have embraced our ability to make tactical decisions in a fast-paced environment to meet the needs of the business and the consumer,” said Stucko. “With the accelerated interest to shop consciously and consumers’ paying more attention to the authenticity, transparency, and ethicality of brands, we are in a position to flourish.”
TOP STYLES: We are selling all our styles across the board, but top favorites include our ballerina flats, ‘Camelia’ and ‘Magnolia’, our kitten heel sandals, ‘Lilla’ and ‘Lavanda’ and our classic iconic pump, ‘Rosa’. Our styles are named after flowers, always tying back to a feminine approach to sustainability and meaning of Prota Fiori which translates to “protect the flowers”.
UP NEXT: Stucko plans to roll out “For the next year my focus will be continuing to build Prota Fiori as a business that does good for the planet, beyond our shoes,” said Stucko. “We are a Public Benefit Corporation, which means we place our “purpose before our profit”. As a PBC our core commitments are to have a positive effect on the environment, implement sustainable business practices and promote women in business.”
SOCIAL STUDIES: 3.3K on Instagram @prota_fiori
FOUNDERS: Justice Bessent and Leslie Jackson-Bessent
BASED IN: California
MADE IN: Italy
EXPERIENCE: The husband-and-wife duo, who are also Navy veterans, started the brand over a $20 bet they made when Justice said he could design a pair of shoes much better than a pair his wife wanted to buy. And so he did.
DESIGN NOTES: The brand is named after Justice’s mother and is rooted in inclusivity, including its 35-43 sizing. “It’s all about the memories and moments in beautiful footwear. I want people to really understand that it’s more than shoes,” he said. “We want to be the platform where we can be an advocate for veterans. When we first started, there was nowhere for us to turn to, especially being a disabled veteran and leaving the military. We want to be able to create some place where people can come and say, ‘I need help, I need training.’ This can be a stepping stone to something greater, not only for African-Americans or veterans, but for just people in general.”
IN RETAIL: “We plan to stay a DTC brand,” said Leslie. “We have a really intimate connection with our clients and we are all about creating an experience.” The duo plans to eventually open a full-service studio with its own cobbler services. MAJOR BREAK: “It was the pandemic. I know it may sound odd, but for us, our business kind of took off during that time because it really forced people to sit down, appreciate and look at what was going on around,” said Leslie. “We had the chance to reevaluate where we wanted to go with the brand, see what we were doing prior to 2020 and plan how to do it differently.”
SPOTTED ON: Carrie Underwood, Eiza Gonzalez, Bebe Rexha
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Getting the recognition. We’re just trying to find a place for our voice to be heard. In the beginning, we would do our research and there were little to no black-owned luxury footwear brands,”said Justice.“It was upsetting to me to see all of these brands and none of them represented people like me, my wife and my family. So we decided to do something about it.”
TOP STYLES: The Dorothy, Lena II
SOCIAL STUDIES: 5.5K on Instagram @ agnesbethelshoes
FOUNDERS: Arielle Baron and Eric Best
BASED IN: Los Angeles
MADE IN: Tuscany, Italy, working with 25 factories that create different components.
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: Baron attended Parsons School of Design and had experience in graphic design and image research in the film industry. Coming from a family of fashion creatives (her father is legendary creative director Fabien Baron, and her mother is former Vogue Italia fashion director Sciascia Gambaccini), the designer is now stepping out on her own. “Growing up with so many creative people around who were working at such a high level, I was quite shy and a perfectionist with my own creativity,” said Baron. “I kept it close to my chest. But it’s time to put myself out there. It’s intrinsic and it’s in my blood to make things.” With Best’s background in wholesale — working for Lanvin and Balenciaga — he quickly signed on as Baron’s business partner to launch the brand. The two previously met in college.
DESIGN NOTES: “I wanted to create something that has a very discreet silhouette with an element of surprise,” said Baron. “That surprise came from this phantom heel that took a year to develop. It’s infinitely transformative, and the heel reflects any surface that you’re walking on, as well as refracts and reflect light.”
MAJOR BREAK: The brand debuted in Paris in February 2020, garnering a steady stream of orders. One month later, pandemic lockdowns hit and the orders were cancelled. “From a commercial standpoint, I’ve never seen a brand come into a market and get picked up that fast,” said Best. “That was a win for us.”
IN RETAIL: “We want to focus on DTC to start,” Best said. “You can only find us on our website right now. Wholesale is like a house of cards, and we need to have more control over our business. But it will be a great complement moving forward, where we may open new accounts.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “I’m starting to realize that it’s all about patience,” said Baron. “It’s about going with the flow and having faith in your brand. Also, it has definitely been challenging to create content during this time. I think social is where we’re going to go hard.”
SOCIAL FOLLOWING: 1K on Instagram @arielle.baron
FOUNDER: Kariah DeBosé
BASED IN: Los Angeles
MADE IN: Italy
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE: After attending Parsons School of Design, DeBosé wanted to further explore shoe design and launched her made-in-Italy namesake line.
DESIGN NOTES: DeBosé’s gender-neutral debut collection, V Escapes, was introduced for fall ’20 with a sneaker, and the designer plans to launch a secondary collection later this year, which will include moto boots. “I wanted to launch with a diversified style like a sneaker because of the versatility and being able to wear it in the winter, summer and all year round. I was kind of exploring my roots and where I came from and the things that made me inspired when I was a kid. Being born and raised in Detroit was a huge part of it and the Motown era,” she said.
IN RETAIL: “Right now, we’re selling direct-to- consumer, but of course, eventually we want to be in the major retailers. Before the pandemic, we’d spoken to places such as Bergdorf Goodman and Mr. Porter. If I had to choose one retailer that I perceive myself in, it’s definitely Dover Street Market,” said DeBosé.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Finding the best ways to connect to consumers,” said the designer. “We are going up against these huge brands who have tons of marketing dollars, tons of expertise and as a small brand, it is hard to compete with that. We have to find more authentic ways to put our name in that conversation without blowing the budget.”
TOP STYLE: Peanut Butter V Escapes sneaker
SOCIAL STUDIES: 1.3K on Instagram @deboselab
FOUNDER: Kay Sides
BASED IN: Los Angeles LAUNCHED: 2019
MADE IN: Hong Kong, Mexico EXPERIENCE: As the owner of HATCh, a showroom, consulting firm and communications company that has served brands such as James Perse, Zadig & Voltaire, Aviator Nation and more, Sides already had plenty of experience in the fashion industry from the marketing side.
DESIGN NOTES: After seeing a gap in the market for both sustainability and comfort, Sides launched her own brand with a slide sandal that is made with a custom-molded footbed derived from bio EVAs from sugarcane and plants and recycled rubber tread. She added memory foam uppers and mid-soles wrapped in neoprene for wicking and breathability.
IN RETAIL: Bandier, Shopbop, Revolve, Anthropologie. “We have a very healthy balance between wholesale and DTC, which was always the strategy from the start,” said Sides. “A deeper expansion into other countries we are not currently in is a big focus for 2022.”
MAJOR BREAK: “It was the Cloud. Right away it took off, especially with all the influencers. It really looked very elevated and something that was very cool where you could actually rock amazing streetwear and it would just sort of enhance the look,” said Sides.
SPOTTED ON: Rocky Barnes, Ali Landry, Stephanie Shepard, Hannah Godwin
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The challenge comes from things that just are not controllable, from the shipping to the port shutdown,” said the designer. “Another challenge is committing and staying the course with our sustainability commitment. This is going to happen because of our own research, our own diligence to push and find solutions.”
TOP STYLES: The Puffy sandals, Fuzzy Prism
SOCIAL STUDIES: 12.5K on Instagram @roamwears
UP NEXT: An extension of the ready-to-wear and accessories, plus the launch of men’s by the end of this year.
FOUNDER: Nicolette Nichelle
BASED IN: Houston, Texas
MADE IN: China, Brazil
EXPERIENCE: Nichelle couldn’t shake her love of footwear, so she taught herself how to sketch and how to create shoes from Google and YouTube, and then researched how to find a factory. Since then, she has launched her namesake label offering colorful, fun heels done in bandana prints, smiley faces, yin-yang graphics and more.
IN RETAIL: “I want to stay direct-to-consumer,” said Nichelle. “As I’m growing, I want to keep the business with myself. I don’t want to see my shoes on sale, for instance. Of course, I want to build a very large brand, but at the end of the day, I actually want to launch a footwear school. I want to continue having a brand that makes people feel good.”
MAJOR BREAK: “My bandana shoe. It was inspired by my grandmother, who has worn one on her head ever since I’ve been a little girl,” said Nichelle.
SPOTTED ON: Saweetie, Cardi B
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Staying true to what I want. When I started, my intention wasn’t just to have a lot of bandana footwear and that’s kind of what I did because that’s what my customers wanted. I want to just stay true to who I am and what I like. So that’s a big struggle for me because you want to keep your customers happy.”
TOP STYLES: The Monica, the Briar boot, Yin Meets Yang
SOCIAL STUDIES: 21K on Instagram @nicolettenichelle
FOUNDERS: Danielle Goldman and Athanasia Diamantis-Svec
BASED IN: New York
MADE IN: Italy
EXPERIENCE: Goldman (a nurse practitioner) and Diamantis- Svec (a fashion business executive) were looking for a sustainable luxury shoe brand and alternatives to leather that fit their style aesthetic — so they launched their own.
DESIGN NOTES: To offer a range of shoe styles they call “urban luxe,” they tapped designer Kyle Blackmon to create footwear with a commitment to sustainability.
IN RETAIL: Wolf & Badger. “We have a DTC channel, but at this point we prefer wholesale because it offsets some marketing costs, and that’s what we need. We need that strong market and we need to reach those people who are hard to reach,” said Goldman, CEO. SUSTAINABILITY: Shoes are made with animal-free materials, 30% of the material is biodegradable, and suppliers are carefully chosen with help from a sustainability expert, bio-designer and researcher. “We want people to want our shoes because they’re special. They are not only sexy, but also have our planet in mind. I’d like to be the staple vegan brand in luxury shoes,” said Diamantis-Svec, chief revenue officer.
SPOTTED ON: Carrie Underwood, Paula Abdul
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “Staying alive and trying to navigate how to keep ourselves relevant. We created shoes that were meant to be on a red carpet, and there were no red carpets. People weren’t going outside. We created heels that were incredible, but people just weren’t going anywhere. We are treading lightly, but we’re confident,” said Goldman.
TOP STYLES: The Athene flat and the Demeter boot
SOCIAL STUDIES: 6K on Instagram @sylthvirago
FOUNDER: Kimberley Tecles- Byrom
BASED IN: Valencia, Spain
LAUNCHED: Late 2015
MADE IN: Alicante, Spain. “It was always key for me to have production in Spain,” said Tecles-Byrom. “This is typically a Spanish shoe from Spanish culture, so I wanted to make sure that it was made in Spain and, where possible, using Spanish leathers.”
EXPERIENCE: More than a decade of fashion industry experience in e-commerce strategy, digital marketing and luxury branding for labels such as Loewe and Alexander McQueen.
DESIGN NOTES: While vacationing in Spain, the designer happened upon traditional menorquina sandals.“Iwouldgobackto London, where I was living at the time and it just didn’t feel like the shoe fit in with my lifestyle there,” she said. “I felt like there was room for developing this style of shoe, which is based on one classic silhouette, and turning it into something that was more trend-led that could be adopted into a fashion wardrobe rather than just for a vacation.”
IN RETAIL: “We previously worked with Matches Fashion and Dover Street Market and you can’t underestimate the importance, from a distribution and marketing channel, of those partners,” said the designer. “But you have greater control when you go direct-to-consumer, particularly over margins, markdown pricing and pricing strategies. I produce collections rather than seasons. I produce limited quantities and when it’s gone, it’s gone. So when you remove the pressure of having to churn out seasons for a wholesale partner, you’re able to focus a little bit more on product development.”
BIGGEST CHALLENGES: “From a production perspective, and the creative perspective, it has been limiting not being able to travel to visit production for however many months. Here in Spain, you couldn’t travel from one place to another. That has been a barrier to further develop collections.”
TOP STYLES: Goya Crocodilia, Shearling Slide
SOCIAL STUDIES: 3K on Instagram @goya_woman