Welcome to The Shoe Garden - For women with longer feet!

Even I was shocked!

I thought I had heard it all, but even my mouth dropped open a few times as I read the responses to my recent customer survey.

A total of 210 responses meant a great cross-section of experiences and reflections so huge thanks to everyone who took the time to participate. The lucky Lesley K. and Ally R. each won a $50 voucher for The Shoe Garden in the random draw.

So let’s look at what shocked me…and yep, that was mostly related to what people (family, friends, shop assistants) had said.

Many respondents described how they had been told to “wear the shoe boxes” as their only hope of finding shoes that fit. Others were told they had a “good grip” on Australia, “should pay land tax” or were frequently called “Flipper” or “Ronald McDonald”.

Other comments included:

“No, we have nothing so huge,” from a shop assistant when asked for a longer size.

“A friend once said I have feet like a gorilla. I haven’t forgotten that remark.”

“Nice boats.”

“Lucky they had two cows the same colour to make your shoes.”

“Maybe you should wear men’s shoes.”

“In my uni days, a petite friend used to love to slip her fully shod foot into my shoes and show peers. It was funny, but I could have done without feeling like the village freak.”

“Why can’t you squeeze into a 10?”

“I was sat on at high school so another student could take my shoes off and laugh at not only the length of my foot, but also the width.”

“As a kid I was called ‘Goofy’. When I swam competitively another mother complained that I was cheating because my feet were so large … I don’t know what she was thinking!”

“Wow, what huge feet for a girl. We don’t stock anything in your size.”

While some did say they hadn’t had anything negative said to them about their feet, the majority shared comments, many from years ago, that clearly had an effect on them. I have always found the same in the shop too: women get quite emotional when sharing some of the not-so-nice things said about their feet.

I found it particularly sad to learn that many believed their foot length affected not just their fashion sense, but their self esteem.

In fact, 23% of all respondents said the size of their feet had affected their self esteem with 55% saying “maybe” and only 22% saying “no”.

The responses skyrocketed when talking about shoe size affecting fashion sense: 53% said it had, 31.5% said “maybe” and only 15.5% said “no”.

As one woman said: “When I was a teenager, other teenagers and young women would imply that larger sized feet were not feminine and therefore I was less attractive to men…I have not had to put up with that as an adult but it is one of those experiences from adolescence that I have never forgotten.”

Another said: “Certainly when I was younger. I could only get boys’ shoes to wear at school and ugly ‘nana’ shoes for good. I have wide feet which is more the problem, I think. I just loved getting my first pair of court shoes from The Shoe Garden this year – they have a buckle and are amazing – and at aged 57, it was a long time to wait for that style.”

Other comments included:

“My big feet have made me a fashion outsider.”

“Only having to wear ugly or very old shoes (because that’s all there is in your size) can ruin an outfit and therefore your confidence. Or shoes inappropriate to your outfit or the place you are wearing them to can be embarrassing.”

“It use to (affect my self esteem) when I was younger (teenager to mid 20s) but not anymore. Unlike your weight, feet size is genetic and out of your control.”

“Shoes and outfits should go together and suit personality, mood and figure. When you can’t find things that suit; sometimes you don’t buy new stuff, or go for conservative choices.”

“Most definitely. I often have to plan outfits (especially for special occasions) and have developed my overall style around my footwear. I often wonder if I would dress differently if I had smaller feet!”

Happily, there were some positive comments too but they were in the minority.

“My now husband (we’ve been together 27 yrs) said to me very early in the peace when he saw me hide my feet- that he loved my feet because they were a part of me.”

As for finding shoes that fit (before The Shoe Garden, of course!!), 14% said it was “mission impossible”, 51% said it was “extremely hard”, 29% said it was hard and 6% said it was “alright”. No one said it was “easy”!

Add into that equation shoes that fit AND are gorgeous, and the numbers changed significantly: 46% said it was “mission impossible”, 41% said it was “extremely hard”, 11.5% said it was “hard” and 1.5% said it was “alright”. Again, no one selected “easy”!

As for sizing consistency comparing shoes to clothing, 44% said “both are bad” with 38% saying shoe sizing was better than clothing and 12.5% saying clothing sizing was better than shoe sizing. Just under 6% said both were good.

I was particularly grateful for the enormous amount of positive feedback I received too. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

“I’m happy now that I have found The Shoe Garden. It has taken the stress out of shoe shopping for me.”

“The Shoe Garden has been a blessing. It is a joy to go shoe shopping there.”

“I would die if The Shoe Garden ever closes.”

“Thanks for giving people with hard to fit feet choices in beautiful shoes … a real gift of hope.”

“Your shop is the best! Wish it was around when I was a young one and so glad it is around now!”

“Well, all I can say is THANK THE STARS for Carol at The Shoe Garden!!!”

Of the 210 people who responded to this survey:

23% were size 10

40% were size 11

27% were size 12

10% were size 13+

The Power of One

A common question I’m asked is: when are you going to open another Shoe Garden…

  • on the northside
  • on the Gold Coast
  • at Logan
  • in north Queensland
  • interstate
  • insert a wide variety of geographic options here! 🙂

To be truthful, I’ve always felt a bit awkward at this point.

Because, you see, I don’t want to.

It may sound strange but I didn’t start this journey to build an empire. Far from it. I wanted to reclaim my life, to be happy at work, to earn money and give something back, and create something that is completely, utterly, wonderfully, exclusively my own.

It’s that last point that is perhaps the most important reason.

The Shoe Garden is my creation and every day, I love coming to work with CC and welcoming my gorgeous customers and helping them to find gorgeous shoes. The environment they come in to, the service they receive, the website they visit to shop online, the range of shoes they choose from, the ongoing contact they have … I do it all, am responsible for it all and I love it!

I think a lot of this stems from my previous professions where, as a journalist, I was always the impartial observer; as a PR manager, I was the face and voice of my organisation and my CEO; and as a Fundraising manager, I was the face and voice of my organisation, my CEO and the people my charity was there to support.

I was never me.

Of course it sounds good … open another Shoe Garden and double my profits and success. Mmmmm. I don’t think it’s that easy and I think I will also double my stress and, all of sudden, CC and I lose our place on the front desk, happy and ready to greet our gorgeous customers.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people lately in retail, some who are very successful and say that they miss “the good ol days” before they expanded and grew. If they could go back, they would. They miss why they started the business in the first place: the customer interaction, personally showcasing and representing their brand rather than outsourcing that to others, and being in the thick of it.

I think it’s easier for me as I started this journey when I was 44. I had already been the journalist who then became the editor, the PR officer who then became the manager and the fundraising officer who then became the senior executive. I don’t have anything to prove anymore.

I relish being up front and personal. I love it that every time a customer visits The Shoe Garden, CC and I are here waiting for them. I love checking my online orders late at night and seeing an order and emailing confirmation straight away as I’m so excited. I even love cleaning the shelves and mopping the floors because then I can sit back and admire how gorgeous it all looks.

I guess, never say never. But opening more Shoe Gardens is not on my horizon.

What is are plans and goals and dreams to be even better and bigger with more customers and finding more gorgeous shoes and I have lots of exciting ideas for the future … all delivered from the one location where you will always find CC and myself.

That’s the power of one … or one plus her darling dog!

Until next time, Carol & CC

 

 

The practical, the unexpected and the inspiring…

I can’t believe it’s already March and in just one month, I celebrate my second anniversary since opening The Shoe Garden.

I have learned so much these past two years.

From the practical…

I understand now that I have to order more stock than what I actually want and can afford because there will always be shoes that don’t make it through the very long production process (approximately six to eight months from time of viewing the next season’s shoes to delivery in-store). You can sometimes lose up to 10% of an entire order. There can be a variety of reasons: some styles are made but don’t pass quality control; a particular leather might suddenly become unavailable; or a heel of a shoe might be considered unstable once it’s placed on a longer sized shoe for the first time. This once left huge gaps in my stock so now I order more of everything.

I’ve fallen in love with numbers. Eek, who would have thought that could be possible for a word-obsessed ex-journo!?! I can read a balance sheet, a profit and loss statement, a cash flow chart and am constantly monitoring my budget and targets. I love looking at my numbers precisely because they are “my” numbers and show the growth and success of The Shoe Garden.

I completely appreciate how inconsistent sizing is now, so whereas once I would have said, somewhat innocently: “Sorry, I don’t have your size anymore”, nowadays I say: “I don’t have that particular size but let’s try this one.” Let’s face it, we can be multiple shoe sizes, just like clothes. I’m bold now too with offering suggestions to my customers.

One of the best decisions I ever made was about something seemingly so simple. At the very last minute, I changed my mind and bought shelves to store my shoes that were on wheels. This proved to be incredibly fortunate as I am able to move these around with ease to cram much more stock into two small rooms out the back. It has made a huge difference to how much stock I can store, simply because my shelving can move.

To the unexpected…

I never realised how physically exhausting owning a shoe shop is. Every day, I think I do enough squats to make my personal trainer proud as I assist people to put on shoes or unpack boxes for them. When deliveries arrive, this unexpected exercise regime steps up a notch as I unpack huge cartons, carry many shoe boxes at once and lift them up to top shelves or down to bottom shelves. Seriously, I should have abs and a butt of steel by now!!! But, alas…

I am overjoyed when people ask me for my opinion. I didn’t realise they would! I love helping to find the perfect shoe with new outfits and steering people towards choices that they might not normally make. My opinion is valued which is very rewarding.

I’ve never had a personal Facebook page and still don’t but I absolutely love engaging with customers on The Shoe Garden Facebook page. It’s so much fun.

To the inspiring…

I feel truly, truly fortunate to have such amazing customers! I have met so many different women and men of all ages and backgrounds. They have often shared so much with me, often very personal, sometimes very sad. I have been called (with tongue in cheek) a “dealer” by two sisters who are “addicted” to my shoes, a new “best friend” and “a Godsend”, among other things, just in the past week alone. This is so inspiring to me!

Without exception, my female customers have always been so welcoming and considerate whenever I have had men in the shop looking for shoes that fit and that they love. Whether they are transgender or like to cross-dress or are wonderfully vivacious drag queens, everyone is welcome at The Shoe Garden and my customers agree. Yah to all of you!

I don’t think I ever, ever walk through the front door of The Shoe Garden without smiling and thinking: wow, look at what I have created. I am so happy.

Thanks for being such a big part of the first two years of my grand, unexpected, inspiring, amazing and evolving adventure. There is still so much more to come!

Best wishes

Carol & CC

Step 1: Open Shop. Step 2: Be a Success. Step 3: Share Success.

BooksThere are 10 books on my bedside table at the moment.

It’s quite a daunting pile of books; most are very thick and serious looking, but it’s also an incredibly exciting collection too. They are all about social entrepreneurship, microfinance and corporate responsibility: all topics close to my heart and ones that I want to learn much more about.

About a minute after I decided to open my own shoe shop specialising in longer sizes, I knew it had to be a socially responsible business.

I had heard about a term called not-just-for-profit, which I adored immediately and have adopted as my future business model.

Of course, there are plenty of for-profits around with the aim of earning money for their owners or shareholders, depending on their size and structure. There are also plenty of not-for-profits around with the aim of raising capital to use to support their particular cause. I was fortunate to work for two amazing local examples (RACQ CareFlight for five years and the Spinal Injuries Association for another five years). Then you have businesses somewhere in between that sell the products of people that they exist to support, be it organic coffee grown on fair trade plantations in South America or gorgeous rugs woven in South Africa.

But to date I haven’t found many not-just-for-profits that support causes through their profits irrespective of what they sell or the services they offer. I’m talking more than donations at tax time or sponsorships or the occasional fundraiser, as worthy and impactful as all those are.

My view of a not-just-for-profit is that every day of the year I am raising funds every time I make a sale. I just love the idea of a business incorporating goodwill into its heart and soul (or should that be “sole”, hee, hee!). What I sell is irrelevant to the cause, somehow making it more meaningful as I’m simply a business that wants to make enough profit to support myself and then some more to support others.

And “others” will be women in Africa; women because it’s a no-brainer that if you support a woman, you really are supporting the whole community.

I have lived in Namibia and travelled through many countries in Africa and the experience always takes my breath away. It’s hard to describe. I always feel “at home” there, somehow connected to the land, to the people, to the hope of a better and brighter future. My book shelves are crammed with books about the continent, fiction and non-fiction.

It’s obvious then that my own respect for women and for Africa will ensure I’m a passionate advocate for both. I think that’s incredibly important to the success of a not-just-for-profit: there has to be that conviction and connection.

I’m a bit scared too because even more that opening my own shoe shop with no retail or shoe industry experience, this to me is much, much, much more challenging. I will be responsible for providing meaningful support through a steady financial contribution to assist a group of people. That’s a big deal. If I fail, I don’t just fail for myself but for other people depending on the steady, ongoing support that I have promised.

The process of how these funds are allocated is crucial. It has to be transparent, accountable, workable and sustainable. It has to inspire my customers so that they know that every time they buy a pair of gorgeous shoes at The Shoe Garden (or even a pair of heel grips or a can of waterproofing spray!) that a percentage of the sale will go towards a pool of monies devoted to empowering women. They need to be able to trust me that their contributions (even though it will cost them no more, simply the usual price of the shoes) will reach the intended recipient and make a difference.

There are so many choices ahead: Do I start my own charity? Do I set up a trust to support local woman already actively doing something fantastic? Do I dovetail on another charity’s work and support it? Do I support women’s education? Or their healthcare? Or their businesses?

So far, all I’ve had in my head is Step 1: Open Shop. Step 2: Be a Success. Step 3: Share the Success. Mmmm…I think there are a few steps in between though!

I haven’t written this blog for months now as I’ve been flat chat working towards Step 2. I’ve seen a great business mentor; introduced new financial software; started working with a second accountant; and spent hours and hours selecting shoes for my next season, Winter 2014, that will appeal to my very broad range of amazing customers. I’ve agonised over these decisions regarding my stock as I’ve learned this selection is crucial to my success. Pick the wrong shoes, they sit on the shelves and don’t sell and I don’t make the money I need to pursue this goal. Eek! Don’t buy enough shoes in a particular size and you disappoint people. Sigh!

I have tried to ensure that as many people as possible will find a shoe that suits their taste and needs and size so my sales continue to increase. I’ve increased my spend for this coming season as I’m more confident than ever that my customer database is growing each day.

So, in a nutshell: I’m not sure of timing and I’m not sure of the format.

What I am sure of is that I’m reading, learning, listening, watching and developing ideas of how best to make a difference and, at the same time, reading, learning, listening, watching and developing ideas of how best to create a wonderful and satisfying experience for every customer who visits The Shoe Garden.

It’s a work in progress and I can’t wait to let you know more as everything develops.

Thanks so much for being a part of it through your custom and your amazing support.

Until next time

Carol

The 2nd year: it’s time to get serious!

I cut myself a bit of slack in my first year of business. After all, I had just left a secure career to establish a shoe shop from scratch in five months with no experience in retail or in the shoe industry.

So I figured that in my first year of operations I would simply try my best, follow my heart and instinct, make a few things up (yep, seriously!), probably make a few mistakes, and keep asking lots of questions. Thankfully, that worked but now it’s definitely time to remove the wide-eyed glasses and improve my focus and get serious!

With the end of my first full financial year approaching this Sunday, I’m super excited about the future.

I will be learning all about MYOB next month so my self-created spreadsheets where I’ve recorded all my financial data these past 12 months will soon be a thing of the past.

I’m seeing my business mentor and learning more each session about practical ways to improve my business and systematically source, record and analyse my financial data in order to move forward and grow.

I’ve always been a big one for targets … just ask my wonderful former staff who probably still have nightmares about the whiteboard where we would list all our respective targets (number of media stories, number of students our school program would educate etc) and start each financial year with a zero before those numbers would start to climb. It was scary at first, sure, but it was so fantastic to see the numbers grow and often exceed the targets.

Now I finally have benchmarks for The Shoe Garden and can compare year to year how I’m tracking. I have been fortunate to see significant growth in May and June this year compared to 2012, which is heartening and makes me very proud.

This step up is very important for a number of reasons. First, this is my career now and I can’t ever imagine going back to my old life. So I want to master all aspects of running a small business and that means not just the fun stuff like chatting to customers and writing media releases and buying stock … it includes sucking it up and figuring out my financials!

I also want and need to be transparent and accountable. That’s super important for the day The Shoe Garden becomes a not-just-for-profit and I invest profits and donations towards assisting and empowering women in Africa. I have worked for a number of charities and support many, all of whom I trust. Trust must be earned and never taken forgranted. I am proud to conduct all aspects of my business, be that with my customers or suppliers, with honesty, integrity and values.

Another huge learning curve for me these past 12 months, and something that I believe I will improve on in the next year and beyond, is buying stock. Next month I start buying all my stock for Winter 2014 and now I actually have a full winter season behind me and I have learned so much. Each day I watch what shoes and boots customers are drawn to and listen to what they are searching for. I can’t wait to put this knowledge to good use as I select next season’s range.

All in all, I’m incredibly excited about the next 12 months and to see how far I can progress and grow The Shoe Garden. Thank you so much for being a part of the journey.

Carolx

Behind the Brand: Diana Ferrari and Supersoft

Coco Chanel is her hero and she describes the Diana Ferrari and Supersoft showroom as a temple, such is the love of fashion and footwear of Product Development Manager Sharon Teuma. With more than 20 years’ experience in design, Sharon explains below just how important it is to achieve fashion, function and fit with every shoe. And occasionally how “Christmas trees” result!

Q. Please briefly describe your journey to your current role as Product Development Manager with Diana Ferrari and Supersoft.

SSharonharon: My background has always revolved around design, which started for me in apparel and accessories. I then moved into footwear and later to interiors. I love renovating houses as my hobby. My experience spans 20 years, across all facets of footwear including athletic, kids, ladies comfort and fashion, plus work and safety footwear, kids footwear and ladies comfort and fashion.

Q: Is there a common misconception about your work or job? Now’s your chance to set things straight!

Sharon: A lot of people think that designing footwear is like designing apparel; it’s not! It’s actually very technical due to all of the components and tooling requirements like lasts and moulds. Fit and function are very important. You need to have a good understanding of numbers too. You need to be commercial because the tooling investment is expensive. Three things I drill into our design team is that a shoe must be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but good design needs to incorporate FIT & FUNCTION too, otherwise the design is not, what I call ‘good design’.

Q: Describe your office or where you do most of your work.

Sharon: We have an open plan space, very communal which is great from a manager’s perspective. It allows for a lot of dialogue and conversation. Creativity happens everywhere; we never stop thinking about design, however we have a dedicated space called the ‘Paradise Room’ where we work.

Our showroom is our temple. This is where we pay homage to our ranges for the season. I would love consumers to get a sneak peak at what we do! As you can appreciate not all styles and colours make it to retail, but we love them all and they look amazing.

Q: How many people work for you and briefly what are their roles?

Sharon: Our design team incorporates our planning and technical team. I have eight people reporting to me (this does not include the factory technical teams!). We have our senior team with many years of experience. They own the DF heritage and are passing this knowledge on to the junior members of our team who bring new and exciting ideas to the table.

We have a very talented team, who all work together to achieve one outcome. We describe our design process like a relay race…no one works in isolation, we work as a team!

zm_Hanae_BRN213_1[1]Q: Take us through the process of creating a season’s range, from inspiration to arriving at a retail store many months later?

Sharon: Hmm, that would give away trade secrets! Well, there are essentially four key areas: Concept, Preproduction, Production and Post Production.

We have a process that starts with a review of the previous season. We document our key learnings so that we can improve for the following season. This includes customer and consumer feedback. We monitor our competitors in the market place.

We monitor global trends and determine new looks or technology that may be relevant to our brands.

From this stems our range architecture plan, which starts to emerge and evolve through the design process, from first thoughts, to more solid ideas to actualised styles.

We start with the colour palate first, as we need to develop leathers. Then we look at the constructions to make sure we have a balanced offering. Then we look at the upper patterns to make sure we are not duplicating and that each style has an end use. Then we look at pricing structure which is all done in conjunction with our sales and marketing team. We consult with our customers for feedback.

Then we start preparing for production, which is quite in-depth. We fit and wear test every style before it goes to production. We also plan and carry stock of selected lines. Not many suppliers will do this in today’s market.

This is a quick summary of what we do. It’s far more involved than this and too long to document here!

Q: Any interesting places you’ve been or things you’ve seen that have inspired a particular shoe?

Sharon: We are exposed to markets all over the world. I travel a lot and I have a tendency towards the exotic, but I love classic timeless design. Italy, Paris, Spain and Brazil will always be key for inspiration in footwear, but we gather ideas from all over the globe and our inspiration comes from many different avenues in many different forms.

Q: What is the hardest thing about designing shoes?

Sharon: The hardest thing can be trying to visualise the image you are trying to create when doing colour ups. One wrong colour can be a disaster. We don’t always get them 100% right. You have to have some room for creativity and trial and error. We call our mistakes our ‘Christmas trees’; they would look great as a decoration but not on the foot! J  Also, trying to predict possible production issues with designs, up front.

Q: Why do you think many brands stop at size 10?

Sharon: A lot of brands buy their tooling “off the shelf”. This means they just use what the factory has. Most factories will only put in tooling for the minimum requirement of sizes to keep costs down.

At Diana Ferrari, we own and develop all of our own tooling, but it comes at a cost. We put in tooling for size 12s based on where we feel it is needed in the market, and in particular on key constructions. You will see more size 12s across both Supersoft and Diana Ferrari. We also run selected styles up to a size 13 as well.

zm_Abelia_NAT3172_1[1]Q: How would you describe the typical Supersoft and typical Diana Ferrari shoe?

Sharon: Both Diana Ferrari and Supersoft offer on-trend stying, quality craftsmanship and fit. They are well made and robust. They won’t fall apart after a few wears.

diana ferrari is our fashion brand, it’s “wearable wow” and offers contemporary designs that fit the different lifestyle needs of our customers. diana ferrari’s reputation has been built on  providing quality footwear that is elegant and feminine.

diana ferrari is a brand of choice for the modern woman who seeks stylish yet classic designs.

Supersoft is our comfort brand. We are proud to be one of Australia’s leading and most trusted comfort brands. We are constantly pioneering new comfort technologies and product designs. Supersoft offers customers styles they can wear all day long that offer superior comfort, but don’t compromise on style.

Q: What are your other loves and hobbies outside of work?

Sharon: I love design, so I focus on interior design as my main hobby. My daughters and I are horse lovers, so we have a property with horses. I love Yoga; this is my mental and physical outlet.

Q: Who is your hero and why?

Sharon: Coco Chanel. Need I say more? She is an inspiration to all women.

Q: What is your favourite:

Movie? Tough one…I am fond of French Films. Betty Blue was the first French film I ever saw and I still love it to this day. The colour and the sound track are brilliant even though it’s a tragic love story. My favourite animate is Spirited Away and Ponyo.

Colour? Love black and white.

Food? I’m a Taurus, so I love all food, the more exotic, the better! My senses come alive. I can’t eat something that is not pleasing to the eye, so smell and presentation are important to me.

Dirty HarryQ: Do you have any pets? I ask, because I have a darling Maltese called CC who is well-known to all Shoe Garden customers.

Sharon: This is Harry, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Harry’ because he loves to dig!

He is a Westie and the love of my life :-).

 

What a difference 12 months can make

This is a slightly extended version of a speech I made at The Shoe Garden’s 1st birthday celebrations on 14 April 2013.

I had a dream a few nights ago that I was sitting at my desk at The Shoe Garden and talking to a man on the phone. He had bought a pair of shoes and was insisting on getting a tax deductible receipt. I kept saying to him that he couldn’t get such a receipt as he didn’t give me a donation but purchased a pair of shoes and for that he could only get a standard receipt.

We went to and fro for a while and that’s all I can really remember. When I woke up, I thought that my subconscious was apparently a bit confused about my career. In reality, I’m clearly not confused: I’m the proud owner of a shoe shop but, then again, 18 months ago, I was the proud Executive Manager for Fundraising and Communications at the Spinal Injuries Association.

I spent five very happy but very challenging years in that position and one Sunday in early November 2011, I woke up crying. It was the day after a major fundraising event, it had been a turbulent year and I was absolutely exhausted: mentally, physically and emotionally. I realised that I couldn’t stay in the role and I needed a change, not just from the job but from my 23 year career in media, PR and fundraising.

In four hours, I decided to open a shoe shop specialising in longer sizes. Eleven days later, I resigned and gave three months’ notice, put my townhouse on the market so I could invest my own money into the business, and started looking for a shop.

Fast forward to 31 January 2012. That was my last day working at the Spinal Injuries Association. It was also the settlement date for my townhouse which I had managed to sell to an investor as I had hoped so I could rent it back. And I was about to sign the lease for my fantastic premises. It was a momentous day.

Fast forward another 2.5 months to 14 April 2012 and The Shoe Garden opened its doors for the first time. In fact, many of you here today were here on that weekend, which is really fabulous and I so appreciate your long-term support.

The past 12 months have been incredible.

At this point, my voice starts to waver and I need to collect myself for a moment. I didn’t expect to be this emotional!

I have learned so much and met so many amazing people and been so happy. What a difference 12 months can make. I am super proud to own and operate a small business and source and sell long, gorgeous shoes.

But if the past 12 months have been exciting, the next few years will be even moreso. I want The Shoe Garden to move from being a for-profit business to being a not-just-for-profit business. I want to combine commerce with a conscious and ensure that giving back is part of the ethos of The Shoe Garden. I have lived and travelled to many countries in Africa and have always felt a deep connection to the continent. I would like to help empower and support women there, because I think if you help women, you help the entire community. I am not sure how this will happen, in terms of the format it will take, but I am sure that it will happen.

I would like to thank my friend Andrea for being CC’s official guardian today, a very important role. Her biceps are going to be sore tomorrow after carrying CC throughout this event, ensuring she is safe but still a part of the celebrations as bringing CC to work every day has truly been a highlight. And so many of my customers love her too.

I would also like to thank Danielle for taking photographs during the event and I would like to thank mum for helping me today too.

And here my voice breaks again … I never seem to be able to talk about how amazing the support of my mum and dad has been throughout my whole life, let alone since this huge career change, without tearing up. True to form, I struggle to speak.

Thank you mum for once again helping out today and wearing your Shoe Garden shoes with such pride. I love you!

So thank you to everyone for being a part of the journey so far. There is still a long adventure ahead and I look forward to sharing that, and more gorgeous shoes, with you all.

Ciao for now, Carol & CC

It’s not just hot cross buns…

Every year, the media do stories in January purporting outrage that hot cross buns have appeared on supermarket shelves already. The implication is that we have just had Christmas and already retailers are thinking ahead to Easter and associated products to sell while the occasion is still several months away.

Well, it’s not just hot cross buns that are arriving earlier and earlier.

I received two calls this week from agents advising that my winter shoes will be arriving shortly. As I look out the window at people walking past the shop in thongs and sandals and short skirts and shorts, you do have to wonder why on earth boots and closed in shoes in thick materials will be arriving so early in what, after all, is the middle of summer. It’s like the fashion world is on a different calendar to the rest of us.

At the recent European Footwear Importers Group shoe fair, which includes independent brands as well, I was well and truly in summer mode, viewing shoes that will be delivered to my shop from July onwards for summer this year … and, yep, that is in the middle of winter!

This was my second fair and it’s quite fascinating seeing the different brands, meeting the designers and agents, and learning more about how they select and create shoes. I am perhaps naive, however I was a little amazed to hear that some labels send their representatives overseas to scope out European shoes and then return to Australia to copy them. Or at least be inspired by them. It makes me wonder what the Europeans do … do they come to Australia and the US to view our ranges to copy and be inspired by us?!

One chap told me how he and his colleague went to shoe shops in France, Italy and Germany, taking photographs of what they saw as the “new” shoes for the season. Another, however, doesn’t view the finished product but starts with components. He goes to China and spends days and days at markets, looking at stalls dedicated just to heels or just to buckles and then looks at the different styles, textures and colours of pieces of leather. Then it’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, putting his range together: that buckle with that heel with that coloured leather.

A lot of people have asked me about my other observations from the fair in terms of upcoming trends. I still have a few ranges to see and, remember, most of the labels on offer stop at a size 10 or 42, so I am seeing a skewed range. With other brands, only a portion of their range goes to the longer sizes so I try not to even glance at the ones I can’t buy … it’s too depressing because I usually inevitably like those more!

But at this stage, judging from the brands that recognise and support women with longer feet, what I can see is that green in all its various shades seems to be popular for Summer 2013.

I was also amazed at the incredible detail in many of the heels … some are exquisite. There are circular kitten heels; wavy high heels; angular heels with a white-washed timber look; lots of cork; and a favourite is a high, cylinder-like perspex heel.

My overall favourite range of the season, keeping in mind that I actually have yet to see three or four ranges, was Minx. Divine, divine, divine … it was the only collection that made me gasp and pick up the shoes and almost hug them! 🙂

I have also found two “new” labels to The Shoe Garden, however am still confirming that they do go up to size 12, although it’s looking likely, which is great news … these shoes are different to what I have already and that is always exciting.

So there are many choices still to be made. My wall out back is already covered with photographs as I divide shoes between flats, thongs, sandals, wedges, mid-heel, high heels and corporate. Within each of these categories are many more groupings: age, tastes and occasions.

For most labels, I have to confirm my orders mid-February so the next few weeks will see me drafting orders, crunching numbers, gasping out loud and then adjusting orders. Boy, it does add up quickly when you buying nine or 12 pairs of the one shoe in the one colour.

So, in a nutshell, as my winter shoes start arriving soon in summer, I’m busy ordering summer shoes which will arrive in winter! It does make me smile.

But hey, we are not in this alone. I am just so glad there is enough choice out there that women with longer feet can access fashionable shoes, no matter what the calendar month.

Ciao for now Carol

Behind the Brand: J.Renee

 

Kai Harrison, the head designer of US shoe label J.Renee, clearly adores his parents who have taught him not just about designing and selling shoes, but how to do so with honesty and integrity. Kai embraces creativity in all aspects of his life … from his open plan studio where he and his team design gorgeous shoes that always make a statement to getting stuck into arts and crafts with his wife and three children. Oh, and he has two Schnauzers in the family too!

Q: Can you remember and describe the first shoe or range you ever designed?

Kai: There wasn’t a specific season as my first, since I worked with Renee, my mother.  It’s been a wonderful benefit working with my mother because I always felt I could speak freely without the fear of being dismissed. We worked as a team for numerous years until she felt it was time to step away. The first collection I did by myself was probably around the mid-1990s. To this day, we still have input from our other departments, because you only get better with critical thought.

Q: Is there a common misconception about your work or job? Now’s your chance to set things straight!

Kai: Yes! Some seem to think days spent looking through materials, researching trends, and reviewing what’s out on the market is time spent wasted or an excuse to get out of the office; when in actuality it’s all an important part of the process and helps clear the mind.

Q: Describe your office or where you do most of your work.

Kai: I do most of my work at the office in our open concept product design studio.  I wouldn’t do well with an office where the doors close and I’m isolated. The creative process needs to be open with easy communication to everyone.

Q: How many people work for you and what are their roles?

Kai: In Product Development we have a team of eight, which includes our overseas office. Roles range from design to illustration, to material research, maintaining sampling schedules etc. The great thing about a small company is even though there are defined roles, we can all step outside those roles to aid the process. It’s key to understand that everyone gets the paint brush at some point; we all are here to aid the bigger picture.

Q: Take us through the process of creating a season’s range, from inspiration to arriving at a retail store many months later?

Kai: That’s easy… we just draw a shoe and sell it! In all seriousness, it’s a detailed timeline that starts with us laying out our colour palette and materials. It’s typical to take a trip to Europe for inspiration as well as to China to visit factories and source new materials, ornaments and hardware. Next we choose our constructions: do we want heavy platforms, flat, or boots? This can depend on what selling occasions are going to be occurring during the season eg. bridal season, Mother’s Day, Easter, etc. Then we send our details out for prototypes. Once we receive the prototypes, we review and make corrections for final sample details. Once samples come in we review again; start sales meetings and shoe shows (where more corrections can be made). After all that, orders go to the factories and 60-90 days later product is shipped out to stores.

Q: Any interesting places you’ve been or things you’ve seen that have inspired a particular J.Renee shoe?

Kai: A few years ago while shopping with my daughter to get pillows for her bedroom we kept seeing peacocks.  This made me think, so I went back and made an embroidery peacock feather which parlayed into the shoes.

Q: What is the hardest thing about designing shoes?

Kai: The hardest thing is to stop designing and detailing for samples and/or stop making changes to try and make a line perfect.

Q: Why do you think many brands stop at size 10?

Kai: Costs. In shoes you have mold charges. Every size and width you make costs that much more overhead. From the very beginning, J.Renee made the commitment to all women, that no matter the size she should have choices for pretty shoes. 

Q: Why are sizes so inconsistent across all the brands? Is this more common in the longer sizes, do you think? Ps. This does not include J.Renee, please note! 🙂

Kai: This can come from a few different things. One can be the way brands are lasted. For example, lasts (which is what give shoes shape and size/width) in America are made in inches, and in Europe that are made using the metric system.  Lasts are always graded size proportionally. Basically you start with one size and get longer and wider, graded as the sizes go up. And since the European foot is a little shorter and wider than the American foot to begin with; keeping grading in mind if the last is already a little shorter and wider to begin with it will generally be shorter and wider than the American last as sizes go up.  Another reason can be fit trials. Most companies have fit trials before beginning production.  My size 7 fit model might have slightly more narrow foot than someone else’s size 7 fit model; hence we would make our adjustments differently. As for larger sizes, it does not matter the length because as I mentioned sizing is graded proportionally. What we have noticed is that over the years our feet change and grow especially for women.  Sometimes that’s not taken into account and we keep buying a size 7 because that is what always fit in the past and psychologically that’s our shoe size.

A funny story: when I first met a good friend of mine she said: “Oh I heard you were a shoe designer, that’s great I wear a size 6.” At that I said “oh really?”, because she’s about 6’3-6’4; and she comes back with “but my feet sure do feel better in a size 12”.

Q: You always have to work six to eight months in advance so how do you know what will be in fashion?

Kai: Well, the first part of our process is to start noticing colours and specific cultural trends.  This can be anything from colours of cars to home décor trends. After noting those, then you start working on specific silhouettes for shoes and handbags. It helps to watch the very high end ‘runway’ and salon fashions too. A lot of the times we are on the same schedule as those designers because you are using some of the same factories. It’s a global business; you can see in the factories what materials are being focused on and sourced. This network of fashion helps create movements, trends, and themes that correlate throughout different brands. In actuality 6-8 months is not that long at all. We are researching and planning at least 12-18 months ahead, so by the time 6 months rolls around we already have a good idea of what we want the line to look like. Plus we all know fashion is cyclical.

Q: How would you describe the typical J.Renee shoe?

Kai: Flirty, pretty, vibrant, and always true to our brand. It’s a shoe that makes the woman feel fabulous and at the same time is comfortable.

Q: And the typical woman who wears a J.Renee shoe?

Kai: The J.Renee customer is a woman with confidence. She wants to be noticed yet at the same time doesn’t have to be noticed.  She is always put together; she wants her outer appearance to match her inner confidence.

Q: What are your other loves and hobbies outside of work?

Kai: Almost 100% of my time outside of work is spent with my lovely family.  We have three children who keep my wife and I very active. We are constantly doing arts and crafts, which no surprise, I love too. We also really enjoy our family ski vacations.

Q: Who is your hero and why?

Kai: In the business industry, I would hands down say my mother and father.  I respect and honour the way in which they started and ran their business. They have always been honest and never took advantage of people; in fact they went out of their way to make sure the people they did business with were taken care of. My father is an astounding salesman; the old saying “he could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo” pretty much refers to him. My mother is a remarkable, tenacious woman.  As a woman traveling in the 1980s in Asia, some of her stories are amazing.  Her nickname in China throughout the factories was “Tall Woman”. At 5’5 clearly the nickname pertained to her character!

What is your favourite:

  • movie? Braveheart             
  • colour? Green
  • food? Dumplings from Din Tai Fung in China.

Q: Do you have any pets? I ask, because I have a darling Maltese called CC.

Kai: Yes, we have two Schnauzers. They are loved very much and are wonderfully funny; if my kids would only obey me as well as the dogs I’d be a happy man!

Meeting the accountant

Numbers scare me!

I can’t help it. I see a spreadsheet and I start to feel queasy. Over the last 10 years, when I was responsible for managing large fundraising and communications budgets, I learned to quell my nerves and give the numbers meaning.

I find myself again staring at spreadsheets, ever since deciding to open The Shoe Garden.

First it was about keeping track of all the set-up costs and now it’s all about ensuring I have enough funds to cover my expenses (quite easy) and pay for my stock (more challenging). Ordering stock six to eight months in advance is tricky when you don’t actually know how much you’re going to earn in the interim months, moreso of course when you don’t have any benchmarks from previous years and are still growing your customer database. So it is for any new small business, I imagine.

So I decided to have a meeting with my accountant to shed some light on a few questions about tax, GST and some big picture questions.

I received a lot of great advice and some patient explanations to my long list of questions, many of which started with: “What does such-and-such mean….?” Then I asked a question that really seemed to make him think: “How do I know when I am successful?”

He looked a bit startled at first. I don’t think anyone has ever asked him that before and it brings up so many more questions about what one considers successful.

Clearly everyone has different interpretations about what is successful and while it has to do with numbers (dollars coming in hopefully more than those going out), I am convinced it also has to do with many other things.

From a numbers point of view, I need to sell enough shoes so I can live comfortably, pay all my bills on time (especially for my stock), not have to use my savings and have enough money remaining to eventually invest in my long-term dream of supporting a group of women in Africa to gain their independence and earn a sustainable living.

That will take time. As the accountant pointed out, many businesses are closing down and many others are struggling.

But there are so many other measures to being successful as well, right? And they can’t be found on any spreadsheets.

My well-being has improved remarkably. I don’t have sleepless nights worrying about work anymore or feel stressed about massive workloads. I feel content, relaxed and fit, even having time to run most mornings so my overall fitness and health has improved. That’s a success!

I am truly appreciative and proud when customers comment favourably on the shop or my shoes or the service they receive. That makes me feel like a success too.

I’m also happy. Surely that deserves to be a measure of success too.

So I did get a lot out of my meeting with the accountant. Not only do I now understand more about the difference between a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement and how tax is calculated and on what and when, I also feel reaffirmed that non-numerical factors are also an important part of the success equation. 

It really just depends on your definition.

Ciao for now, Carol