The Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) corralled some of the industry’s leading up-and-coming designers for FFANY’s Emerging Designers Panel Wednesday, discussing everything from the importance of choosing the right manufacturer, to Meghan Markle’s love for Sarah Flint shoes.
While the designers touched on topics tied to Arustoria, the Italy-based shoemaking school, to the future of retail considering Amazon’s growing foothold, four major components stood out.
Outlining a clear vision
For many designers, simply choosing a career path can be half of the battle. But, for the panelists, many knew from an early age that they wanted to dip into the world of design.
“I grew up thinking I wanted to create something and do something of my own. And I’m a planner, I was very strategic about the way that I did it,” admitted Sarah Flint, designer and creator of her eponymous shoe brand. “I started working in retail in high school. And then actually worked as a buyer for [a] company when I moved to New York to go to Parsons for a year.” From there, Flint went to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in search of a design knowledge, while she spent her free time interning for luxury designer Proenza Schouler. Arsutoria was her next stop. “I really wanted to understand more behind the shoes at Arsutoria,” she said. “I knew I was always going to do it.”
For Den Ly, sneakerhead and winner of the FFANY and Arsutoria’s Joseph C. Moore Scholarship, which sends design students to Arsutoria’s footwear design school in Italy, there have been few questions about what he wanted to do in his career.
“I’ve always wanted to do footwear,” he said. “Somehow I landed in Cambodia, walked into a bespoke shop [run] by an 80-year-old woman. I picked up the broom, started cleaning up and eventually she taught me how to do shoes.” Ly started bringing more of his own designs into the shoes, which eventually got him noticed by European and American customers.
Choosing the right manufacturer
Shoes are only as good as their make, and choosing the right manufacturer has proven one of the most challenging aspects of starting a brand once a vision is clear.
“Manufacturing is always the most difficult part because it’s very hard to make someone else understand from scratch what actually your idea is,” said Nicolo Beretta, the young designer behind luxury footwear brand Giannico. “I went through a whole lot of factories.”
For Flint, she knew she wanted her shoes made in Italy to tap into the country’s history of footwear craftsmanship, but as she discovered when choosing a manufacturer that creates for the likes of Chanel and Manolo Blahnik, brands with less heritage can sometimes end up falling last in line for processing after the more prioritized brands.
“It’s hard to navigate that,” Flint said.
In his own search for the right manufacturer, Ly set his sights on sourcing in Cambodia. What drew him was the country’s up-and-coming manufacturing sector and anticipated economic growth in the coming years.
“Manufacturing right there is blowing up,” said Ly, who is known for his sneaker designs.
But beyond Cambodia, Ly also wants to manufacture in Italy and the U.S., mentioning a desire to expand his manufacturing to various locations across the globe, with different markets being manufactured in different locations.
“I just want to create,” he said. “All of these places have different opportunities.”
Having a point person
Many careers flourish thanks to the help of mentors. And, in the design world where one needs to navigate manufacturers, tanneries and materials—the process can seem overwhelming without a more seasoned industry vet’s advice. More specifically, someone who will believe in your work and stand by it, panelists agreed.
“I was really lucky in that I had an amazing mentor from Arsutoria who was my teacher there and he had formally been a pattern maker at one of the Manolo Blahnik factories,” Flint said. “He was always teaching me and quizzing me on things.”
Flint also said her mentor was insistent on having her personally make all of the patterns to start, which she found difficult, but key in learning more about how to communicate with the factories and get her vision across.
“Of course the factory redid [the patterns] completely, but it definitely did help me a lot,” she said.
Flint attributes her mentor to helping her find a manufacturer. “He was able to get me an introduction with [the manufacturer] and ultimately get them to produce prototypes for us.”
As Beretta was only 17 when he began his footwear adventure, he had similar issues at first. “I was not taken seriously at all at first,” he said.
Building off of social media momentum
With future royals, like Meghan Markle, touting Sarah Flint’s designs on Instagram, building off of social media and public momentum is a business driving factor often overlooked.
“Now there are celebrities that wear my shoes but it’s hard to keep the momentum,” Beretta said, who’s shoes have been worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, who took to his avant-garde luxurious designs.
Above all, Flint said, succeeding in the footwear business is about staying true to your brand.
“I find that it’s really important to make sure that whatever is happening is tying back to your brand. Not just new product, but the story behind the product,” Flint said. “Fashion is all about bringing emotion to a person through product.”
Kelsey Lyle, Saks associate fashion director for shoes, accessories and beauty, who also spoke on the panel, admits a strong social media following helps show buyers that the brand has a targeted audience already willing to buy their products.
“Social media does help with sale. We picked up handbag [brands] because they had so many followers,” she explained. “Celebrities bring good brand awareness.”