How To Become A Shoe Designer
(this will be ongoing until the end of it says “finished”)
I remember when I decided that I wanted to become a shoe designer and have a shoe brand that either had my name or a name that I created associated with it. I remember thinking, how the heck am I going to get there? All I had known prior to that, was learning how to start a company while at University (as part of the degree) and a bit of time in the retail shoe world, neither of which would give me the real tools to start my own shoe line, only theoretical knowledge to help me once I did actually have a company. Therefore, I went straight to Google and typed in what you see as the title to this post: How to become a shoe designer. I read hours and hours of articles and things of that nature that gave its best attempt at explaining how to do this, but none of it really clicked for me and made me think, okay that is how you do it. I therefore decided to create my own 5 year plan, deciding that I would learn everything that I could, and that the pieces of the puzzle would just fall together as I went along. As naïve as that was, it has seemed to magically occur for me that way, but has also made me realize that if I had a better plan of action from the get go, it might have been a smoother ride. Therefore I will share my experiences with all of you with the hope that I might be that shred of light (and/or guidance) for those of you aspiring to follow in the shoe designers footsteps.
First and foremost, you dont need a design degree to become a shoe designer. Like anything that you may aspire to be or have, passion, common sense knowledge, perseverance and a burning desire to succeed will be the most important traits that you need to get to where you want to go. Its all I had .. The most important thing in the beginning is for you to have a plan, a plan that you can execute one step at a time. Write it down, memorize it and start figuring out how to accomplish the first step. You will notice that as you go along, each step will become slightly easier as your knowledge and networks within the industry will grow. Make sure this plan has a timeline, one that you stick to as best as you can. Obviously things will change and you have to be able to update that plan and roll with the changes, but that is the beauty of the journey and is what will make you stronger and more likely to succeed. Therefore, along with your plan, write a contingency plan or be able to rearrange your original plan to skip a step and go back to it at a further date.
For me there are three parts of the shoe industry that you need to tackle (knowledge-wise) before you even consider starting your shoe line: The Retail, The Creative and The Manufacturing. You dont need to become an expert per se in all of these fields but at least be able to understand the basic fundamentals in which they all work. However, the more that you can learn about each field, the more likely you are to succeed. You should not be in a rush to start your shoe line. No one ever succeeds if they rush into something without being fully prepared for every little detail that might just smack them in the face. While my shoe line is about to finally be completed, it will have been 6 ½ years in the making since I decided to do it and looking back at it, I would not have done it any other way, as far as trying to create it earlier as I believe that I would have been severely underprepared. And to be honest, I am continuing to learn each day that I go along. It is a learning process that will never end, but the more that you are able to absorb, the better off you will be. Knowledge is your friend!
Next week I will divulge my knowledge of the retail side of things. Until then, if you are an aspiring shoemaker/designer do me a favour and write out your plan, consisting of your goals and the milestones that you want to accomplish. This is your first step and is the most important so dont overlook it!
Part 2: The Retail Experience
When I graduated university I was working for Nordstrom, at the flagship store in Downtown Seattle, where all of the buyers and corporate offices were located. As part of my 5 year plan, I told myself that despite having a bachelors degree in Entrepreneurship, I would stay working in the retail industry serving others, so that I could do two things: 1. Comprehend the minds of consumers and why they purchase & 2. Network with and understand why buyers (of big department stores) do what they do. I decided that if I was going to ever have a shoe line and wanted to wholesale my shoes to a store like Nordstrom, I needed to know how to look good not only in the eyes of the buyers but also understand why one brand will sell better than another as well as why customers will buy one shoe over another. I decided to do this for two years as this was pertinent to the success of spreading my future brand across the world.
The absolute most important thing that I learned about the retail side of the business is that if you are a new brand, it doesnt matter how cool you are or how good your shoes are, but how the salespeople of the department view your brand. That being, if the sales team is behind your brand, you will be successful and if they are not, well . you better pray that your shoes are so good and in demand that it does not matter. While working there, it was all about what I sold, AND not what the customer asked for. If they asked for X, but I wanted to sell Y, you better believe that I would give them my best reason for them to buy Y. Now, dont get me wrong, I was not one of those that would lie to make a sale, but if the opportunity presented itself for me to sell a like product, and I happened to like one brand (personally) over the other, I would do my best to make sure the customer left with the brand that I wanted them to. The salesman holds power over the customers, and the sales rep (of the shoe brands) that gains respect over the salesmen, holds the power to get his/her shoes sold!
For example, often we would have what are called Trunk Shows, where the sales rep of a certain company will come to the department in the hopes to present some new models or just be there to assist with anything relating to their brand. On these days, certain companies would offer incentives to the salespeople, such as $5-$10 per pair sold of their brand or maybe give a free pair if someone sells a certain number within that day. This would lead to EVERY single salesperson trying to sell their shoes, and sometimes we would do so well that in one day we would sell as many pairs of that companies shoes as we normally would have in one week. Thats the power of a salesman, and something not to be forgotten!
The second thing I learned about were the buyers, but this I must say, while I even had a close friend that was a buyer, is still something that I ponder about .in terms of their decision making. First and foremost, you have to understand the needs of the shop, and think about how you will fulfil those needs. For example, if a shop has shoes that sell at £200, £400, and £500 yet your brand is going to be at the £300, you will be more likely to appeal to that shop than if your shoes were at the £400 price-point that is already covered. That was more of an example of a small shop however, where more than likely the buyer is the owner of the shop. But if you want to get into a place like Nordstrom (or any major department store), you are going to have to fulfil a whole lot of more demanding needs like: strong brand recognition, proven track records at other stores, customer demand, and a strong marketing plan. But you will still have to fulfil the more trivial things like being a brand that brings something new to the table, being able to differentiate your brand from the next, and of course, come in at a price-point that is not only sellable, but profitable! While I am sure that there are more things that you need to do to appeal to the buyers, these are the ones that you should think about now, and more importantly how you are going to fulfil them stay tuned next week for The Creative side of starting your own line.
Part 3.1: Shoe Designing
Let me first start of by saying that I have no credentials in shoe design and/or company branding. The closest that I have to design skills was drawing Wolverine and Ninja Turtles when I was a young boy. As far as company branding goes, well I did have a Minor (at University) in Marketing, but I dont really remember much about any of it if I am going to be honest. So, as you can see, there is not much of a creative background that I bring to the table. What I will say has always been one of my strengths, which I believe has helped me in my creativity, was the fact that I was always extremely observant, TO EVERYTHING! Its easy to say that shoe looks better than that other one, but its hard to give a technical explanation as to why that is. Through over persistent observation, however, you are able to start distinguishing the minute details in pattern/last design that make one shoe more attractive then another. This is what you will need to be able to do when creating shoes that will differentiate themselves from all the rest.
Shoes patterns are made from a side point of view, i.e. they are created on the outside half of the left shoe, graded to then create the inside half of the left shoe and then mirrored to create the right shoe (at least for Ready To Wear shoes, bespoke is another story .) That being, a good pattern maker should be able to take a simple drawing (of the outside of the left shoe, as shown) to then create the pattern to turn into a 3-Dimensional product. Obviously the better that you can proportion the lines of your drawing to an actual shoe, the easier it will be for the pattern maker to create the precise pattern that you want. This is all it takes to work with a shoe factory, as proved by what I have done. Therefore, to be your own shoe designer, you dont need a degree in anything besides a bit of common sense, some knowledge of shoes and the ability to sketch a half-decent picture of a shoe. Dont let anyone tell you otherwise.
Granted, if you were to study pattern making, it would help you to create EXACTLY what you want, as sometimes, it can be hard to express to another person (i.e. the pattern maker) exactly what you were picturing in your head. This would definitely be an advantage, but not a absolute must. But then again, once the initial pattern is created from your sketch designs, and you are able to see it in 3-D, it is much easier to then adjust the lines/details by directly drawing on the shoe and giving it back to the pattern maker. This is precisely what has happened to me, and is the reason why it has taken over a year to create my line. But dont be discouraged by this, as creating something is never going to be easy or quick and its best to take your time and make the product the best that you can instead of releasing it when you are not 1000% satisfied with it!
Stay tuned next week as I talk about branding and creating your lasts for your RTW collection.
Part 3.2: Creating Your Lasts
Finalized product will have metal eyelets…..my pointy last shown below
A shoes last is very important, for more reasons than one. Firstly, it makes up the shape of the shoe and there are about a trillion and one variations that one could come up. Secondly, it affects the fit, and thus the comfort of your shoe. So ever if you happen to design the coolest pattern and make the most pleasing shape ones eye could handle, but fail to get the arch and fit right, its pretty much as good as garbage. I know that this is harsh to say, buts its true and you need to know this. And this is why a shoes last is so important and is something that you need to make sure that you get right. But how do you do it? Well, there are several options when starting your own line. First, you can always just use the stock options that the factory will provide. These are most likely going to be lasts that have worked before and have been tried and tested. The only problem with this is that you are then using a shape that has been done before. Its not yours, it belongs to someone else and more likely than not, it will be used on other shoes that are in the marketplace at the same time that yours are. This may not bother you, but for some it might. Therefore, the second option would be to create your own. But this is where the difficulty comes in.
From above (bespoke) to this (factory produced) – although there have been adjustments since this pic
Allow me to explain what I have done in order for you to get an idea of the possibilities that are out there. So, I have two bespoke lasts: one that I made myself for myself and another that a bespoke lastmaker made for me. While mine is not bad (in fit), it is evident that the one that the lastmaker made for me is far superior. Therefore, what I did was take my two lasts to a place that manufactures lasts and asked them if they could mimic the one that the lastmaker made for me, only changing the width proportions of it. What that means is because my foot is quite narrow and therefore my last would be too, I had them alter the new last in order to be of medium size proportions, i.e. become a standard medium fit, but keeping all of the curves/bespoke shapes of my last. For the last that I made myself, I asked them the take the toe of it, and put it on the body of the last that was made for me by the lastmaker, while of course changing the width proportions. What that meant, was that I was going to get the arch of the last made for me by the lastmaker but the toe shape of the last that I made for myself. Now this did not all work out perfectly in one go, but after a few re-creates, a bit of shaving off the edges etc., I now have two lasts that are unique to my brand and that I can call my own.
My wholecut……with brogueing….on pointy last, shown below
Will my lasts fit everyone? No, probably not. But you cannot make one last to fit all. You can only do your best to make a last that can fit as many as possible (unless of course, you are going to do width ranges). Its best to know your audience and try to make as close to them as possible. In England, where my company is based and where I will launch from, men tend to have a broad foot with a high instep. Therefore, while my shoes are all going to be labelled as an E fitting (which is medium), it will be slightly broader (in fit, but not in look) than the average E that is out there. But in order to make sure that you are going about it right, you have to conduct trial fits i.e. you have to make up pairs of shoes, then give them to the average person to wear and ultimately to test. They will then need to give you feedback on the fit and how it feels. With that you can adjust accordingly.
Evolution from above to this – again, modifications have been made since this photo
Its no easy thing creating lasts that are going to do the trick, and you will never really know how well they work until your line is out. But its the part of the journey that you have to make sure that you try your absolute hardest to get right or else there could be some serious consequences ..
Stay tuned next time for a bit on the manufacturing side of the shoe industry.
Loafer last that belongs to factory – not mine – but good nonetheless!
Part 4: The Manufacturing Side
If you make it to the point in which you are ready to have your collection made but just need someone to actually create the designs, physically, then you are nearly there. Nearly there in the sense that you have overcome many of the hurdles to becoming a shoe designer, BUT, this will be the biggest, hardest and longest one of all. Dont let me discourage you with that statement though, as it will also be the most rewarding because after all it is with the manufacturing that you will then actually create your line, turn your sketches/patterns into actual real life products and have something that has your brand/name in it. But also due to this you will need to be absolutely sure of your choice as choosing a factory is like choosing a life partner. Its a HUGE commitment that will set the tone for how your shoes/brand will be perceived by the public, not something easily reversible should it all go wrong. Therefore, I will do my best to tell you how I believe that one should go about finding the right manufacturer for their brand.
First and foremost, you need to look at your designs and your last shapes (or at least think about what last shape that you are going to want to use) and ask yourself what style they match i.e. what countrys’ design ethos do they most correlate to? For example, if you are intending to create classic shoes with heavy soles and round lasts, you may want to get your shoes made in Hungary or England, as they tend to be good at making these styles. Or if you want long, pointed lasts with lightweight soles and thin leathers, best to think about Italy or say Portugal (where many French shoemakers get their shoes made). Once you have this decided, it will be easier for you to make a decision (or at least rule out the unnecessarys for when the time comes). Another reason for this, is that I have been told that some fussy factories will not make shoes that they dont like, or should I say, that they dont find represent well their capabilities and/or reputation. And lastly because certain countries only do certain constructions, say England, whose factories only really make goodyear welted shoes. That being if you wanted blake stitched shoes, you would not be wise to go ask them to make them for you, as it would be waste of time and effort.
The next stage would be to go to a shoe fair/trade show where factories will come to present their product to designers/journalists/retail buyers etc. At these trade shows, you will be able to see factories from all over the world and more importantly their shoe making capabilities. At that point, you can network with a few, talk to them, suss them out and see who you like best based on price, quality, capabilities (finishing/designing etc.) and most importantly how amicable they seem. Remember that these will be the people that create a product with your name on it. They have power over you if you lie in bed with them, and you therefore need to make sure that you will be able to get on with them ..And to not lay all your eggs in one basket, you may want to find 3 that you like, ask them to make a sample for you, see which one turns out best and then pick that one, so long as it meets all of the other criteria. Once you locked down a factory, expect to pay a few thousand for your samples (as they will undoubtedly need to remake them a few times) and then you will be well on your way to launching your own line!
This is pretty much as far as I have come to on my own journey within the shoe industry, so I will leave it at this for now. Maybe in a year, once I have released my line and gone through the next stages, I will update this post to continue on helping where I can. I hope that this post has given those of you who are looking to start your own shoe line, the inspiration to go and do so, or at least to start preparing!
Best of luck to all!
Justin, The Shoe Snob
Part 5: Creating Your Brand/Business Model
It’s been awhile since I have kept up with my “How to become a shoe designer” series. This is mainly due to the fact that as I was writing it previously I had come to the point in which I could not go anymore as I had not lived/accomplished the next stages of the process. But alas, 2 years later, I have and am back to write a few most posts on the subject.
Part 5: Creating Your Brand
As I learned at university, branding is very important concept in terms of driving a successful business. Think about it. The most common word in the entire world is a brand: Coca-Cola. How powerful is that? Very! If your business name is not catchy/noteworthy it can be hard to catch on and easy to forget. Easy to forget is not very good as we all don’t always have our business cards accessible to hand out. Therefore, creating a strong brand name that is easy to remember and sticks in your mind is quite crucial.
When I was at the point in which I needed to name my shoe line, there was the dilemma of calling it either The Shoe Snob or using my name. Of course, when I first created my goal of having my own shoe line, nothing was more exciting then the idea of people wearing shoes with MY name in them and therefore I was skewed towards that idea. Now logical “branding” theory would tell me that The Shoe Snob was an already existing and catchy brand name that would be far better as an overall brand then J.FitzPatrick would. So why did I not call it The Shoe Snob then? Many might think that ego had to do with it and while of course on some subconscious level it did, I will tell a good part of it came from the way in which I needed to start my business. Allow me to explain….
The first reason had to do with the fact that smart shoes need to be somewhat serious. My competition is comprised of brands that have been around for 50-100 years (if not more). They have historical significance and to convince one of their clients to go off of the beaten path and try my shoes means that I need to present something that look as equally smart of a purchase (i.e attractive, good value etc). A gimmicky name, such as The Shoe Snob, can put off a serious client that is looking for the idea of quality, even if the very essence of The Shoe Snob is 100% about quality. First impressions are powerful and a wrong association with a name can hurt your company. It’s easy for the accessories to be branded The Shoe Snob because the most expensive product is £36, not £325.
I therefore felt that putting a real name behind the shoes showed substance. It makes people relate to it better. There is a person that is there creating the company, not just a faceless brand. And the fact that nearly all of my direct competitors all have brands that are a person’s name, means that it must be something that you simply ‘do’ in this part of the industry. Don’t try and fix something that is not broken, right?! So, that is one reason I decided to use my partial name and the other one will be laid out below.
Part 5.1: Creating Your Business Model
There are really on two ways to build a shoe business: straight to customer selling (i.e. online/shopfront etc) or wholeselling. Wholeselling is by far the more practical and realistic approach for most small business, mainly because it does not involve a lot of upfront investment. And what wholeselling means is that you buy your shoes at price A, sell them for a small mark up to shop for price B and they take the big margin and then sell them at retail price C. When doing this you automatically have to create a retail price that allows for the transition from cost price to the retail price and being able to have that B margin in there. It’s the margin that allows you to make any sort of money for selling your shoes to another shop. But this route can also make your product more expensive than it could really be if you did a direct to consumer approach.
The direct to consumer approach involves high start up costs and in many cases might take some investment. If you want to just come out with a shop, then you need to be able to afford not only the shop rent, but the stock, employees and of the other things that a shop comes with. It’s not cheap. And then you have to have a great marketing campaign to drive traffic to your shop or online or whatever route you chose. This is by far the harder and more riskier option of starting a line. But it does allow you to manipulate your price and thus create your own acceptable margin depending on your business model. If you manage to keep your costs as low as possible you can thus also lower your retail price to make your product look more attractive.
I kind of did a mixture of both, whereby I was able to get my shoes into someone else’s shop and sell directly to the public but had to give a nice hefty chunk of each sale to the hosting company. That means that I had to factor in a wholesale markup to make it worth my while as I was taking all of the risk, owning the shoes and thus purchasing £40K worth of stock to launch. Also, it was my intention to wholesale to other shops around the world in order to build my brand’s international recognition. The fact that I launched at a serious place with over 200 years history, also meant that I needed to have a serious name attached to my shoes, one that could somewhat correlate to the ethos of the shop that I was selling in. Had I went the direct-to-customer approach by launching my own shop with investment, naming it ‘The Shoe Snob’ is what I would have done, as it would have been far more intriguing to those who walked by the shop window, then simply seeing “J.FitzPatrick.”
So you see, creating a brand/image is not so ‘black and white.’ There were many factors that lead to my decision. Was I right in the end? Who knows. I guess that time will tell. But either way, my three sites are all intertwined, so naturally, J.FitzPatrick will always be associated with The Shoe Snob anyway, so I am lucky in that regard. But for those of you out there that might not have a blog to help drive your business, make sure you think long and hard about your branding as the name will be stuck with you forever and can really make or break your company’s success…..
On a few other notes, I have some other announcements:
1. A young, loyal blog reader, aspiring to become a bespoke shoemaker is attempting to take a course with Stefano Bemer (whom I just happened to train with). However the course is €6000 (which is a lot of money) and I don’t believe that he can afford it. He has created a sort of Kickstarter page in attempts to raise the funds to follow his dreams. As I am a big believer in philanthropy and helping others chase there dreams, I thought that I would leave the link below for any of you whom might be interested in helping a young man achieve his dreams: http://www.rockethub.com/40300
2. Passaggio Cravatte is having their first trunk show in London from tomorrow and Wednesday (May 20th/21st) at the Duke’s Hotel at 35 St. James Place. It will take place from 5-9pm on Tuesday and 11am-3pm on Wednesday. If you are interested in attending and wish to know more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org