It’s a brisk drizzly day in June. The weather has been unpredictable as of late in New York City. Today is another gray day. We decided to meet in Brooklyn at Best Pizza. A restaurant I’d hear about but never visited. Walking in, I was greeted with Ball So Hard by Jay-Z and the amazing smell of pizza or better yet cheese. Round paper plates filled the walls and even the ceiling with numerous doodles of patrons who’d visited and raved about the pizza at Best Pizza. I ordered a slice of pepperoni and a tea and settled into a booth at the front of the restaurant. After devouring my pizza in 2 minutes flat and loving every delicious morsel and inquiring with the owner about a song that had just played from his iPod which streamed through speakers in the walls, Elizabeth arrived.
Her hair was in a top knot and she was wearing a cool vintage looking black and white jacket, skinny black jeans and high top sneakers. She smiled and I noticed she had the most piercing green eyes. She handed me a bag “for you…some shoes from L.A.M.B. I hope you like them!” I took one look into the bag and a beautiful pair of bright blue peep toe d’orsays stared back at me. She slid into the booth across from me. She took off her coat and hopped up to order a slice of pepperoni. In a zip she was back at the table wide eyed and ready to answer all my questions in the little time that she had.
A month ago I received an email from Elizabeth telling me she’d come across my blog and loved it. I was amazed that she even knew who I was let alone took the time out of her busy schedule to write me an email. Her words were so encouraging. She was on the hunt for more African Americans in the fashion business in NYC.
“I was so surprised when I saw your photo and was like YES she is black! And you are appealing to everyone," she said.
Elizabeth is African American and Caucasian and she spends some of her time speaking to students about designing. She wants minorities to know that there are representations of them in the business although you may never see them because they are behind the scenes. This is how Elizabeth and I met…basically via email. After a few exchanges she agreed to meet with me and answer a few questions about breaking in shoe design.
Once her pizza was placed in front of her and she had a few delicious bites she was ready to answer all of my questions. What followed was a beautiful insight into shoe designing, what it takes to make it and how to get started.
FSNYC: How did you get into shoe designing?
EB: I studied fine art. I went to school with an art background but I concentrated in apparel. I moved to Italy to try to get into shoes because I figured that was the place to be for that but it was really difficult especially being a foreigner. I ended up getting into accessories, bags and belts while there [in Italy]. I moved back to U.S. and just started sending out resumes. I fell into this assistant position at a shoe design company. So in the end I ended up doing what I really wanted to do [shoes] in New York instead of Italy. It was really by chance. This company just took a chance on me. I didn’t have real experience in shoes. It just clicked. Once I picked up the technical side it was easy to navigate through jobs. It was really a lot of hustling going on. Each company I went to it was very strategic. I wanted to end up in contemporary women’s shoes. So I had to make sure that every time I would take a new job it brought me closer and closer to where I wanted to be in shoe design.
FSNYC: That’s awesome that you ended up back home! I don’t really know what all goes into shoe design, I just know the end product and with the shoes on my feet! So what all goes into making a shoe?
EB: A LOT! Shoe design is the most complicated of all genres of design. Jewelry is also pretty complicated as well. The shoe is the most complicated because it’s almost like a sculpture. I’ll try to give you the condensed version [laughs]. So first there is the sketch. Then if it’s a new toe shape for example you give it to a last maker. A last-maker (shoe-maker) uses a machine called a last to construct a mold of the shoe. They used to use wood but now they use plastic/wax. Once that’s done the heel is made and has to fit the last [mold of the toe of the shoe]. The construction maker does the heel. If there are any other special things that need to be done you find a person who specializes in that to get it done. Lastly is the pattern maker. The pattern maker draws the pattern onto the shoe or makes the pattern. Then it’s sewn/glued onto the shoe. It’s lasted again and then the prototype pops out.
FSNYC: Whoa that’s interesting. I didn’t know it took so many hands to make a shoe. So what happens after the prototype is done?
EB: Once that’s done I correct it and sit down with the pattern and last maker and construction guy and go over what needs changing. Some designers have technical backgrounds and others don’t. If you work with Italy you don’t need a technician [in shoes] you can send your sketch to the makers and your shoe comes back looking amazing. But in other countries where shoe design is still a growing industry it’s important for the designer to be there. That is why I travel so much abroad to correct shoes.
FSNYC: So how long does this process take?
EB: From sketch to sample it can take can take anywhere, let’s say for an entire collection of 15 shoes, it would take a minimum of a month and a half to two months. From first sketch to actual production takes about 6 months.
FSNYC: Do you have a team or do you work alone?
EB: As far a design goes, I work alone but it depends on the brands I work on. Some brands involve stylists or merchandisers. So once I send a sketch package off to whatever country I’m working with then there’s a design team there that I work with. So in whatever country I’m working with I will have an assistant that knows the language whether I’m in China or Brazil. It’s fun but it’s a lot of work. On my part it involves a lot of research shopping. It sounds like fun but it’s really tiring. I have to constantly be on top of the trends even if it’s a very specific brand such as athletic wear or a really original couture line I have to really be aware of what’s going on in the market. So there’s a lot of research and communicating with sales teams.
FSNYC: So what’s the best part of designing for you? Do you sketch and then the brands choose the sketches? How does it work?
EB: Definitely the best part is sketching. I used to work where my sketches had to be approved or chosen but currently I am a contractor. So I am hired to design shoes for that company/brand. I approve the final product.
FSNYC: Where do you get your inspiration when you are designing shoes or sketching?
EB: I get it everywhere. I know that sounds cliché but it’s the truth. I travel a lot so it gives me a different point of view. New York is an amazing place but it certainly isn’t the only place. Just being in different countries and seeing what people are wearing inspires me. Sometimes in Paris I will just sit and watch people go by. There [Paris] they have amazing fashion. Have you been to Paris?
FSNYC: Not yet but I’ve always wanted to go. I plan to go for fashion week in October of 2013.
EB: You’ve got to get there. You will love it. [Laughs] October is a great time to go.
FSNYC: I know this is a weird question but do you have any rituals when designing or sketching?
EB: All designers are a little nutty. Everyone has their weird little quirks. This isn’t very special but there are certain pens and pieces of paper I have to have. It's quite serious actually. There was this one company I worked at where there was paper specifically for drawing and I would find it in the copy machine and I would go crazy. This isn’t really a ritual and probably going to sound terrible [to your readers] but I am a procrastinator. Something about the pressure of a deadline makes my real creative juices come out. So because I notice that that works pretty well for me I intentionally wait to the last minute to work on sketches. I don’t want to say its laziness because it’s a calculated process. [laughs]
FSNYC: So who all are you working for presently?
EB: Right now I just completed a collection for L.A.M.B. and also I am doing Charles Jourdan. They re-launched a few years ago but not many people are aware of it. They were really famous in the 60’s and 70’s and they were like the Louboutin back then. Actually they were the first one to have the red bottom. I am also going to start doing the shoe designs for Joe’s Jeans. I launched the line for Mark & James but that is now merging with Badgley Mischka. I used to design for BCBG Max Azria.
FSNYC: So what/who is your favorite shoe designer?
EB: It is Maison Martin Margiella. I’m almost sad to say that it’s now becoming mainstream or more common. It cheesy to say that but on a whole I love the collection. Specifically I love the shoes. They are crazy. He does anything. He deconstructs the shoe. He does these crazy things with the out sole of a shoe to make it look like it’s a different piece of the shoe. So that’s my favorite designer in general for clothes and shoes.
FSNYC: What are some of your favorite shoes that you have designed?
EB: There was a shoe I did for BCBG it was a runway shoe. In the shoe world it kind of had a cult following. It was a pony haired wedge booty with an elongated metal piece on the bottom. It was for Fall 2008. The Mendel Wedge. Then there was another shoe that wasn’t runway but had a really cool design. I actually kept a pair and I wear them all the time. I don’t keep a pair of all my designs though. They are strappy booties with a chain on the ankle. They are also BCBG. There have been a lot of favorites from L.A.M.B. some of my favorites never make it to production though. Look out for the L.A.M.B. fall shoe collection. There are a lot of fun shoes coming up. Pony Hair!
FSNYC: How many pairs of shoes do you own?
EB: Oh Man. [Laughs]. I honestly don’t know. I have a storage unit. It’s less than 1000 for sure. I have a storage unit in Brooklyn that holds most of my shoes and then at home I have a full closet just for shoes. A lot of shoe designers buy shoes that they don’t wear. It’s part of being a designer to just collect. It’s kind of like an archive.
FSNYC: For others aspiring to get into shoe design or just designing what advice would you give?
EB: One of the biggest things that you have to be willing to do is hustle. Nothing is going to come to you unless you already have the money or connections right off the bat. You have to pay your dues. If you have to start at the bottom with the low paying job, take it learn from it and move on. Don’t be afraid to switch things up. Some people will stay at a company for five or six years when really you should just learn the skills you need and move on. That’s the best way to get into design. As far as starting off you have to be humble and hustle and willing to take the jobs that aren’t the best and pay that isn’t great. As far as education there are several amazing schools that can prepare you. I would suggest getting an internship while in school in the field of design you want to be in. The main thing that’s really great today that I didn’t have growing up is the internet. These blogs are amazing. Start a blog. Constantly be out there searching the market and make yourself aware of what’s going on in fashion.
With that we were finished. Elizabeth had another meeting and took the rest of her pizza to go. We walked outside and it had finally stopped raining and the sun was shining a bit. We hugged and she told me to enjoy my shoes! Oh…I will…I definitely will.
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