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8 Female Footwear Pioneers Who Are Inspiring the Current Generation of Leaders

Female designers and executives now wield significant influence over the footwear industry, shaping its direction with their creativity and ingenuity. But today’s leaders are quick to acknowledge those who came before them — the intrepid women who were first through the door and who overcame immense barriers in order to secure a place for others to follow.

FN recently asked several influential footwear execs to highlight the female pioneers whose work and stories inspire them. Here are their picks.

BETH LEVINE

Beth Levine and her husband, Herbert, were a dynamic duo in the footwear world, with Levine designing shoes under the Herbert Levine name beginning in the 1940s. Over the years, her shoes were worn by Hollywood icons and first ladies, including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall, as well as Pat Nixon and Jacqueline Kennedy. Levine died in 2006 at the age of 91.

“Although she was self-taught, Beth became one the mid-century’s leading shoemakers, and she was renowned for her wit and innovation,” said Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories at The Museum at FIT, who noted that Levine’s most-experimental design was the “No-Shoe” that debuted in 1957. “Although the high-heeled sole was wearable thanks to pads that could be adhered to the foot, it was a conceptual product that was decades ahead of its time,” added Hill.

Levine also established the see-through shoe trend with her clear-vinyl “Cinderella” shoes.

Beth Levine
Footwear designer Beth Levine
CREDIT: Talaya Centeno

TRACY REESE

The Detroit native is best known for her bright and optimistic ready-to-wear collections, which she designed for two decades for her eponymous label and now as part of the sustainable Hope for Flowers brand. But Tracy Reese also helped shape footwear design while head of the women’s portfolio at Perry Ellis in the early 1990s, and through the licensed shoe collections for her Plenty label.

However, to Angelique Joseph, VP of design at Naturalizer, Reese’s influence goes beyond her sketched creations. “I have so much respect for Tracy Reese, a powerful champion for change in the fashion industry and a personal inspiration,” said Joseph, who recently collaborated with her on an eco-friendly sandal capsule. “Tracy knows how to stay true to her brand and her values while helping others move away from the fast-fashion mindset and find better, more eco-conscious ways to bring their own visions to life.”

Tracy Reese New York Studio 2007
Tracy Reese, photographed in her New York studio in 2007.
CREDIT: Pasha Antonov

CONNIE RISHWAIN

Connie Rishwain first earned her footwear stripes at Nine West and Impo International, but she truly cemented her legacy in the industry at Ugg, where she directed the brand strategy from 1995 to 2015. In 2003, she took over as president of Ugg and helped lead the shearling bootmaker into a billion-plus-dollar business, by entering new categories, such as home goods, and expanding into more year-round footwear styles.

Tacey Powers, EVP and GMM for shoes at Nordstrom, applauded Rishwain’s skill at shepherding the brand and staying true to its heritage. “I also appreciated the confidence and leadership it took to build the brand to the level it grew to. She was a real role model in that way. I will always appreciate her partnership and insight on what good looks like,” said Powers.

After leaving Ugg, Rishwain piloted the Vionic brand for three years and now serves as an advisor and board member for Manitobah Mukluks.

Connie Rishwain
Connie Rishwain
CREDIT: Courtesy

VIVIAN INFANTINO

FN’s late fashion director championed numerous designers during her legendary run of more than 50 years at the magazine.

“As a budding footwear designer at FIT I completely idolized Vivian Infantino,” said Faryl Morse, founder and CEO of Faryl Robin Footwear. “As soon as I could get my hands on a new edition of Footwear News, I would feverishly flip to Vivian’s column, with dreams of being on her list. Vivian was the most respected voice within the industry at a time when I was learning what my vision was. I am forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Infantino joined FN in 1949, first serving as an assistant editor before becoming the magazine’s fashion editor for more than 30 years. Her regular “Viewpoints” column became a must-read for the industry, helping to propel the careers of Kenneth Cole, Stuart Weitzman, Manolo Blahnik and many more. In 1996, she stepped back from full-time work and took on the role of fashion director at large. She died in 2004 at the age of 77.

From left: Vivian Infantino with Beth Levine

JUDY CLOSE

Shaquille O’Neal’s signature Shaq Attack sneaker is one of the icons of the Reebok archive. But not every knows that a woman created it.

According to Reebok’s Portia Blunt, Judy Close is the “unsung architect of footwear design” as the force behind the Shaq Attack, as well as the brand’s Blacktop Series and the Omni Zone III. “She was designing at a time when women being behind the pen for big-program basketball sneakers was rare,” said Blunt. “She paved the way for this generation and future generations beyond to have a rightful place as footwear designers.”

Close’s first stint with Reebok was from 1987-1996, where she reportedly helped increase cross-training and basketball sales from $174 million to $240 million. After leaving to start her own consultancy, she returned as design manager from 2011-2018.

“Judy embodies what it means to be a trailblazer and is a true example of representation for so many women in our industry,” said Blunt.

Judy Close
Designer Judy Close
CREDIT: Courtesy

 

HOLLY ANDREWS-KRAMER

Ariat International is one of the leading footwear brands in the riding world, and it owes much of that success to its senior director of global footwear merchandising, Holly Andrews-Kramer.

“Holly is the visionary behind our global English riding footwear business,” said Ariat president Beth Cross. “She leans on her background as a top rider to bring products to market each season, where every style is a purposeful balance of performance technology, aesthetic details, comfort and fit.”

Andrews-Kramer began riding at the age of 7 and entered her first competition at 11. Still actively competing today, the executive infuses her passion into every product her team creates.

“Our company’s incredible growth and the accessibility of our products world-wide would not be possible without Holly’s subject matter expertise, vision and passion,” said Cross.

Ariat Executive Holly Andrews-Kramer
Ariat executive Holly Andrews-Kramer
CREDIT: Courtesy of Ariat

SHANNON SCOTT

For nearly 30 years, Shannon Scott led the branding and marketing strategy at Asics America, starting in 1989. But her drive to influence the footwear industry didn’t stop there. In 2017, she and her husband founded the L.A.-based startup Comunitymade Inc., which makes premium, handcrafted shoes and gives back locally.

To Fila North America president Jennifer Estabrook, Scott is a pioneer who deserves ample recognition. “Shannon and [her husband], Sean, share a vision and a belief that they can make a difference in the world,” said Estabrook. “This shared philosophy inspired them to flip the business model around and focus on the community rather than just profits, using their shoes as the vehicle to help inspire others to take action.”

The couple also are tackling the issue of onshore and nearshore manufacturing at a critical time, when the supply chain has forced all shoemakers to rethink their past practices toward a more sustainable future.

FLORENCE GRIFFITH JOYNER

Affectionately known as Flo-Jo, Florence Griffith Joyner took home three gold medals and a silver from the 1988 Olympic Games and catapulted to pop-culture icon status thanks to her incredible athleticism and eclectic style, which included 6-inch nails and one-legged running suits.

“She is arguable one of the most influential style icons of sport and her influence stretches beyond just footwear,” said Reebok’s Blunt. “She today is still an icon muse and influence for athletic apparel on and off the track. If you walked through the creative offices of any brand today you would likely see her image on an inspiration board.”

Though Joyner retired from the track in 1989, she reportedly earned millions in endorsement deals and went on to appear in everything from “Got Milk” ads to the daytime soap “Santa Barbara.” She died unexpectedly in 1998 at the age of 38.

Florence Griffith Joyner 1988 US Olympic Track Field Trials
Florence Griffith Joyner celebrates after setting a new world record in the women’s 100-meter dash in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in 1988.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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