When Ahriana Edwards couldn’t find shoes in her size, she did something a college student might only dream about — she started her own brand.
“I’ve always had a problem just going into the store and really finding my shoe size,” Edwards, who wears a size 12 shoe, told FN. “I definitely felt myself growing up kind of insecure about how I want to show up in this world fashion-wise because I didn’t have the options available.”
This issue came to a head when Edwards, who is now 24, began preparing for college graduation and had a hard time finding dressier shoes for the workplace in her size.
“That’s when I said something has to be done about it,” she said. “I got tired of complaining.”
So in 2020, Edwards began the process of launching Vaila, derived from the word “availability,” a new brand to meet the needs of women in extended shoe sizing.
Vaila, which offers shoes between sizes 9 and 14, launched in March 2022 via a mainly direct-to-consumer model. Just one year later, Edwards has inked the brand’s first major retail partnership with Macy’s for the spring 2023 season and is exploring similar partnerships moving forward.
“It’s surreal,” Edwards said of her shoes being sold at Macy’s this season. “Coming from so outside of retail and thinking that this was something so far in advance for me, it’s so fulfilling. And the most fulfilling thing about it was me just flashing back to younger me because I needed that. I needed to walk into a store and not have my size be a thing.”
While the options for larger women’s shoes are tough to come by, some other brands have worked to address the problem in the past. Ashlie Hallman founded Smash Shoes, which focuses on sizes 10 and up, in 2014 after also struggling to find shoes to fit her size 13 feet. The brand at a time counted Lizzo and WNBA stars Nneka Ogwumike and Candice Parker as fans. Other brands have launched inclusive size ranges as well. Good American in 2020 launched its first collection of shoes offered in women’s sizes 4-14. Other major brands with size and widths options include New Balance, Vionic and Torrid.
As an outsider to the fashion industry, Edwards’ learning curve with Vaila was quick. When she started creating the brand in 2020, she leveraged contacts from her college’s fashion department to help design the shoes and made new connections at business incubators and accelerators for new founders. To raise funds, she participating in a variety of pitch competitions, which helped her raise over 80,000 to get the brand off the ground. In 2021, she was a winner of Pharrell Williams‘ Black Ambition Prize meant to help fund businesses from Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
Through these competitions and incubators, Edwards developed a network of industry mentors and connections as she broke into the industry. She’s currently the sole employee for the brand and typically moves between Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. The shoes are produced in a factory in China.
As a young Black female founder, Edwards said she saw firsthand certain disparities for Black entrepreneurs when it comes to financing. Via the Macy’s S.P.U.R. Pathways program, which provides funding to diverse-owned and underrepresented businesses, Edwards was able to receive financial support to continue to grow her brand.
“As part of our social purpose platform, Mission Every One, we are committed to supporting diverse designers and using Macy’s platform to showcase their talent,” said Chris Steinmann, Macy’s VP and divisional business manager of center core. “Ahriana’s inclusive and unique shoe collection will provide our customers with even more choices to help them own their style.”
As the brand expands, Edwards is aiming to increase visibility with different sectors of people who might need bigger shoe sizes, such as expecting mothers whose feet sizes might change during pregnancy or female athletes who wear bigger sizes. Edwards also has connections with plus-size modeling agencies that might need extended shoe sizes for their models. Since the Macy’s partnership launched, Edwards said Vaila has been on the path toward profitability and she hopes to hire a full-time team to help the brand continue to grow.
“As a younger individual, I feel like this launch can inspire a lot of other younger founders to go out there and chase their dreams,” Edwards said. “It’s also a testimony to there being no perfect pathway into entrepreneurship, especially when you’re making an impact.”