Launching shoes is no easy feat. Just ask Brandon Blackwood, who remembers hearing disappointing news about his line while standing by a highway in between two towns in Portugal, eating to-go ribs. “If people just knew the adventures that came up to this point. … Those shoes have caused real tears,” he recalled.
Despite some obstacles, however, the rising designer is finally making his footwear debut this month. The launch comes at a defining moment for New York-based Blackwood, who has captivated the fashion world with his luxury handbags. While he officially launched his business in 2015, his eponymous label went viral in 2020 for unveiling its “End Systemic Racism” tote amidst the racial unrest that same year. (Profits for the bag, then and now, go directly to the Brandon Blackwood Foundation, created to empower creatives through education, philanthropy and activism, to counteract systemic racism and enrich a new generation of leaders.)
Since then, Blackwood has been a force in the industry, having received his first CFDA nomination for Accessories Designer of the Year in 2022, and finding fans in Kim Kardashian, Lupita Nyong’o, Saweetie, Michelle Obama, Olivia Rodrigo, Cardi B, Doja Cat, Tessa Thompson, Winnie Harlow and more.
With bags, outerwear, sunglasses and wallets already part of his offering, Blackwood is looking to make a splash in footwear.
“It’s been beautiful to see the constant growth. And I thought it was the best time to really capitalize on the attention,” said the designer. “We have a strong handle on the handbag — we have a really clear direction, so it only made sense and was a natural progression to launch footwear.”
With help from the brand’s footwear director, Ani Nieto, the first collection, which has spent one year in development and is made in Italy and Portugal, features seven styles that were created to make a statement.There’s the Taxi heel, which pays homage to NYC; the Joint heel, featuring a pre-rolled joint as the heel; the Harlo pump, an extreme platform sandal seen in multiple colorways; the Salima, another platform pump offered with an ankle strap; the Bamboo boot in leather and a golden bamboo-shaped heel; Blair thigh-high boots in nylon and leather; and the Ani boot, a Chelsea style with a sharp design. The last of the bunch took about eight prototypes and is meant to be a hero style and carry over through seasons, according to Nieto.
Part of what will set Blackwood apart in this category is the price, retailing from $285 to $565. The line will also be produced in inclusive sizing ranging from 35 to 44.
“The biggest challenge was to give our consumer a fair price point, but with a complex design. That’s a very fine line that we walk on. And that’s why we wanted to take our time to hit that sweet spot and enter this category with a bang,” said Nieto.
Blackwood added, “I wanted the prices to be in the same realm as the handbags. If we’re going to introduce a new category, I don’t want to start off with an $800, $900 shoe. Up-and-coming designers miss the mark when you start designing or trying to sell to people you don’t even know. Look at the people around you, look at the people who support you, those are the people you should be selling to,” he said. “We did a low markup and we took that hit because we want to offer that to our customers.”
Creating for his audience is key to Blackwood’s recent success. Using social media, the designer said he talks to customers in the comment section already knew what they were looking for in terms of shoes. Size inclusivity was a major tip.
This strong online community is also part of the reason Blackwood is launching direct-to-consumer to start. (Handbags are currently available at select retail partners including Saks Fifth Avenue, Kith and Selfridges.) It’s why he’s retaining sole ownership and declining investments.
“Our investors are our customers. We don’t have time to be told ‘no,’” he explained. “With anything new, I love to launch it on the site first because it’s the best way to do your own research and see what the customers are gravitating to. Wholesale just isn’t in the cards for this drop because of our fair markups. If we did wholesale, we would make no profit. And that’s just reality. This is really a product of love and labor and belief.”
It’s this same sentiment of believing in oneself that inspired Blackwood to start the business selling bags for just $80. The rising talent is also adamant about not being a one-trick pony. Shoes aren’t an after-thought, he explained, but rather a major investment he’s looking to grow further and to compete with his handbags.
“I don’t have any formal design training and I think it’s worked well for me because I just make things I like. With shoes, we just thought about what’s cool, what’s interesting, what’s going to shock people,” said Blackwood. “When brands have a very strong aesthetic or theme, they can get really boring really quickly. I love the fact that the shoes definitely have their own life and their own kind of identity, but the DNA is still there. I want the footwear to make its mark.”