This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.

Firstly, tell us a bit about you? 

I am passionate about good design and women feeling comfortable inside and  out. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m a multitasker and if something  needs doing, I jump in. I hate rules. Knowing yourself and therefore being  yourself is key to all things in life.

Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea? 

My business started out of passion. When I was nine years old, I used to  make shoes out of card board with toilet rolls for the heels. I’d save every  cereal box and turn it into a pair of sandals, walk about town in them like   nobody’s business. Shoe design has literally been a part of me from a very  young age so turning it into a business was necessary and essential.  

What is your main inspiration and driver for your business and how do you  create positive change in the world?

I’m inspired by the everyday. Fashion can be fantastical, superficial and I  prefer to think about the women who wear my footwear. Real life has demands that inspire me to make unique designs as original as every woman  is. This combined with quality craftsmanship make my footwear timeless.  Shoes are the foundation of your being and they can make your day or break it equally. As a woman designing for women, I feel a responsibility to offer shoes that you love from day one to end of use. 

What was the moment that everything changed for you?

I was designing Sports Clothing for companies like Nike and Falke before  taking up Footwear Design at Cordwainers College. When I graduated, I  began creating catwalk shoes for a Clothing Designer. The collection was well  received so catwalk turned into production footwear very quickly. I was sent to  Italy to develop my designs and worked there fumbling away learning the  language. The pay was low, the hours were long and the demands stressful. I  remember the day quite vividly when I thought to myself that I surely couldn’t be that worse off doing this for myself and my own label. That week I began  my first collection. I had such good luck. One of the agents in Italy, who  worked with me on the clothing side, randomly asked if I wanted to visit a shoe  factory – the best one in the world. The rest is history… 

What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them? 

When I began, a hand shake was a firm commitment with factory orders and  with wholesale shops I sold to. There was a great level of trust doing business  and as my company grew larger, so too did the risk. Wholesale shops who  built up solid orders over many seasons just suddenly stopped paying after receiving all their goods. World conditions changed and the hardships other  shops were facing, were put on my doorstep. That was when I decided to  open my own shops and retail directly if wholesale could not be trusted. A few  years later, I was let down by a factory who simply never shipped any of my  orders – and this time I did have a shop. A third time I was sent shoes that  were of such poor quality I refused to put them on my shelves. Footwear  Design is a rough business – for all the hard work you put in, there are so  many partners who’s work you can’t control! Through agility, tenacity, a  passion for my product and good ties with other factories, I managed to  weather the storms. In the end, a good laugh and a reminder that we are not  brain surgeons helps to put situations like this in perspective. 

What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?  

I began wholesaling my footwear and worked at this for five years before  opening my first shop. Orders increased from season to season and I thought  at that point that I really needed to open a Showroom. I was designing  TN_29 , my first brand, when a space in Marylebone came free – number 29  on the street – fate. During set up and reconstruction, almost every day we  had people passing by wishing us well, asking when we would be open and  generally so pleased to have us there… my original thought was to make a  showroom and office to work from but this quickly changed to offering retail  sales too. Every day since day one, we have sold shoes from this location and  it is still my favourite little shop. Having the direct feedback from the consumer, rather than the middle Wholesale Buyer is such valuable information to have  as a Designer, Manufacturer, Retailer. 

Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded?  Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?

We are self funded – I like freedom. So far, we have been OK on our own with  the support of amazing women who (even through lockdown and the past  year) have been so kind. A big thanks to all of them! 

What has been your best investment? 

My best investment is in relationships with my manufacturers. Through thick  and thin, we have each others backs and that is crucial. Our Agents are  tireless on our behalf – if we didn’t see each other like family – we’d be in a  different situation after such a year like we’ve all had. 

Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us? 

Well, I wish I had taken more risks in the beginning and hired in experts in  certain areas. Because I can multitask and dig in, no matter the task, that is  exactly what I did/do. Rather than buying an expert in the area, I managed to  do everything myself which has its limitations as to how well a task can be  done. No one is an expert in everything. 

What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and  what in your mind needs to change? 

For the most part, being in the fashion business, as a woman at the forefront,  hasn’t been challenging. It’s probably an industry where there are more  women than men on the business and design front. However, on a factory  level – its still fairly antiquated. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I  remember the factory owners dismissing my lack of approval towards a style  they had made as ‘hormones’ further adding that they like to hire men in their  factory because men don’t get pregnant… needless to say – we don’t work  with them anymore. I currently arrive by airplane, am greeted by a woman,  taken to one fo the factories who is run by a woman, to discuss making of the  footwear by a woman and the ordering of materials by another woman and the  QC also done by a woman. Shoes for women need to have women involved. 

What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own  business? 

Be yourself. It’s honest, it’s easy and it’s what you are best at.

Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?

I think Rei Kawakubo, the creator of Comme des Garçons is amazing for  walking her own path for so many years. It makes me proud that she wears  my shoes too. I also think Patti Smith is an incredible role model too. ‘Just  Kids’ is a good read and if you get the chance to see this icon perform, it will  make your hair stand on end. 

What was your biggest learning of 2020? 

Being in touch with all aspects of your business has its advantages – being  agile, being a multitasker, being an original thinker and taking action decisively  has meant my company is still here to tell the tale. 

With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see  yourself in the next five years? 

I want to continue to push the boundaries of fashion. Offer timeless design  that empowers women, not impedes them. The direction is the same, we just want to reach more and more women to inspire them to be themselves. 

What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?

I have just been to the Women of the Year Award luncheon and was inspired  by so many amazing women. They have just started a talks series which I  think will be an inspirational listen.  

If you want to be present and more mindful in the every day, this is a quick read that is very much worth the time. In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

What advice would you give anyone about to start a business? 

If you are passionate about it, do it. You will have the strength to endure the  challenges and truly enjoy the high points too. 

Finally, where can we find you/how can we support you? 

Website | Email | +44 207 935 0039

Leah Williams

Leah Williams

About your author

Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.

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