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

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

Behind the Brand: Minx

I think it is the journalist in me but I’m always fascinated by people and want to know more about them! I am proud to stock a variety of labels at The Shoe Garden but who are the people behind the brands. This is the first in an ongoing series of Behind the Brand — speaking to designers to learn more about their inspirations and ideas in creating gorgeous shoes.

Cushla Reed is the woman behind the bold, bright and never-boring Minx shoe label. From her New York-style loft warehouse in Auckland, she creates gorgeous shoes for women who are fun, feminine and individual – just like her! Cushla took a break from designing the Summer 2013 range to have a quick chat with Carol.

Q: First, let’s start with the big, important questions… how many pairs of shoes do you own?!

Cushla: I really don’t know, but it has got to be 100s…… 🙂

Q: Describe your journey to becoming a shoe designer with your own label?

Cushla: I’d always had an interest and a flair for colour…that’s really how the whole Minx thing got started. As a woman I felt that there were so many male designers already, and I wanted to add a feminine touch to shoes…after all, it is women who are buying and wearing them!

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

Cushla: That designing shoes is a full-time job, when running a business is actually the full-time job. Designing is obviously the most important and favourite part, but without a solid business chugging along beside you, it would never work!

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

Cushla: White and light… it resembles a New York-style loft warehouse.

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

Cushla: My immediate team are made up of three enthusiastic, passionate, shoe-loving, champagne-sipping women, but a large part of my staff are contracted out, including agents, a sales team and a logistics group…as well as my seven fair trading factories.

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

Cushla: Inspiration is gathered throughout the year from varying sources. Sometimes it’s as simple as watching the pavement, listening to your own intuition, customer feedback or observing global direction. These ideas are then translated into design segments within a collection and from here we flesh out each segment into concept drawings. After annotating these concepts, I travel overseas four times a year to hand-select materials, buckles and embellishments before sample production begins. Six to eight weeks later, samples begin to arrive. These are then photographed, catalogued, priced and prepared for our selling agents to launch. The sell takes approximately eight weeks and then we go through the heartbreaking process of crunching the numbers. Sadly, roughly 10% of the collection is eliminated though retailer selection. Then production begins, which takes three to four months. From concept to market takes 11 months, which means we are always having to work 12 months ahead of the season.

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

Cushla: I am constantly inspired by the ever-changing environment….for instance this season saw the style Apple Dimple created after stumbling across the stunning apple-themed fabric.

Q: What is the hardest thing about designing shoes?

Cushla: Factory and material limitations.

Q: What do you take into consideration when selecting or designing longer shoes?

Cushla: Firstly the construction of the shoe, but we also take into account a lot of the feedback from our larger sized retailers and customers. They are usually quite specific about the aesthetics of the shoes that they want to wear.

Q: Why are sizes so inconsistent across all the brands? Is this more common in the longer sizes, do you think?

Cushla: This is all to do with last shapes i.e. toe shapes, heel heights, shoe widths. There is no global sizing standard, which does make it very difficult in a niche market.

Q: How would you describe the typical Minx shoe?

Cushla: Fun. Feminine. Individual. We love spots & stripes, and fun colour combinations like red and pink.

Q: And the typical woman who wears a Minx shoe?

Cushla: She is an individual. Confident, outgoing and loyal.

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

Cushla: Painting. Walking. And my local farmers’ market every Saturday morning.

Q: Who is your hero and why?

Cushla: Coco Chanel, for her sense of contrasts and daring before her time.

Q: What is your favourite:

  • movie? Under The Tuscan Sun
  • colour? Red
  • food? Soft French cheese

Q: Everyone knows how much I adore CC, my Maltese. Do you have any pets?

Cushla: I live on a lifestyle block and I am in love with my two laying chickens, Henny and Penny, plus we have Powder and Puff, our two sheep, and The Murrays – four murray grey cows.

Not bored but inspired!

When I first decided to open a shoe shop, a few people asked me whether or not I thought I would get bored. In fact, one friend asked me just last week.

So far … no way! I’m having too much fun, learning new things all the time and I love every moment.

I guess I can understand their fears, though. I’ve gone from working frantic 12 hour days in a senior role; ricocheting from meeting to meeting; leading and managing a team; working with a large number of colleagues and stakeholders; and trying to balance proactive strategies with reactive opportunities in a career I have been in for 23 years.

Now it’s just CC and I in the shop six days a week, working very civilised hours and my only interaction is with lovely, happy and excited customers and suppliers.

There is still much to learn but I agree that perhaps, just perhaps, after a few years I may feel a bit restless.

But that’s where the next stage of The Shoe Garden journey kicks in.

In the future, when The Shoe Garden is making a reliable and respectable profit, what I am determined to do is turn my for-profit business into a not-just-for-profit business.

That is such a great term, isn’t it?

I have borrowed it, with enormous respect, from Sseko Designs, based in Uganda, who employ young women needing to earn money to fund their university studies to make gorgeous sandals with interchangeable straps, which are currently available in the shop. They are a business but they give back to individuals in a sustainable, valued manner that makes a real difference.

That’s so inspiring.

I once lived and worked in Hanoi and a young Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy Pham borrowed $10,000 from his mum and opened KOTO, a restaurant and training school for street kids. I was working for the United Nations at the time and Jimmy did more with that $10,000 than I believe the UN did with millions. His charity was personal; it was grassroots; and it helped individuals, one at a time. Graduates from KOTO are now amongst the top chefs and wait staff in the country and Jimmy’s tiny eight seat restaurant which I can still remember so well now seats 80 and another has opened in Ho Chi Minh City.

That’s so inspiring.

I have worked for the past 10 years for two wonderful charities (RACQ CareFlight and the Spinal Injuries Association) and I was inspired every day by the people we were assisting. I could see the difference we were making and I was so proud to be a part of it.

So with all this inspiration in mind, I am already dreaming of what next … not an empire of The Shoe Gardens all over Australia, but a single responsible business that remains personal and personable and ultimately can use its profits to do something good. It will probably take a while…it could be a few years or many years but it will happen.

I have lived and travelled a lot in Africa and am enchanted and intrigued by the continent. This is where I want to make a difference and I want to focus on women and assist them to develop their own businesses and careers. If you help women, I believe, you are also helping children and families and communities, such is their strength and power when given a fair go. It may be that they create beautiful products to sell to The Shoe Garden customers and beyond, or maybe The Shoe Garden will back them in projects to set up a market stall or go to university or fund a new business venture.

There are endless possibilities and it will take much research and time to find how best to help so that it is of value, is sustainable and will make a difference.

So, please know, that as you are shopping at The Shoe Garden and buying gorgeous shoes, you are also an important part of a long journey ahead. It is certainly not going to be boring….it’s going to be inspiring and amazing and together we will make a difference. 

Thank you so much for your support these past six months. The best is still to come!

Carolx

The neverending search for stock

People often ask me: “where and how do you source your stock?”.

They visit the shop and are amazed that there are, in fact, so many lovely, longer shoes available but I do have to search high and low for them, often I pay higher prices for them and sometimes only a small portion of a brand’s range goes up to the longer sizes.

First, the search: what did we do before Google? So many of the brands I have found have been from searching online. For some, I’ve had to order over the internet as they don’t have Australian agents and that can be tricky, although not as much as I had feared. While I cannot physically see the shoe and touch it, I can usually get a pretty good idea from the photographs.

What is difficult, and it doesn’t matter if I see the shoe or not, is that I never see it in a longer size so I’m usually looking at a size 7 or 8 and then have to try to imagine what it would like as a size 12 or 13. You know how some shoes are just not flattering when they become longer? That is what I try and keep in mind.

Obviously I knew a lot of brands from my own shoe collection, which gave me a great head-start on finding labels.

I also found the European Footwear Importers Group, which consists of Australian-based agents for European and independent labels. They show their shoes to retailers twice a year ahead of each new season in a travelling roadshow to most capital cities.

It’s great when there is an Aussie agent as they take on a lot of the risk involved in ordering shoes from overseas. Sometimes I have to pay a deposit upfront, but mostly that’s not the case. I also don’t have to worry about coordinating a freight forwarder to get the shoes to me so the wholesale cost price for each shoe includes freight to my shop.

Another fabulous source of information is you!

My customers have often recommended brands from around the world and I follow up each one to see if they have the sizes required for The Shoe Garden, plus are a good fit for the shop. This is how I found Sseko, for example, the Ugandan sandal that I can’t wait to see this Summer. They should be arriving in-store soon. I recently found two amazing French labels that make their shoes in longer sizes, both from customer recommendations: Oomichoozmi and Charlotte Vanel.

So at the moment I have shoes from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the US, Italy and Spain with new shoes arriving later in the year from France and Portugal too.

But they often cost more!

Imagine the outcry if you paid more for a size 14 dress than a size 12 dress!

They don’t, as far as I know, charge different wholesale prices in the clothing industry but sadly some still do in the footwear industry, especially for European brands. Sometimes it’s an extra $5 or $10 per pair or an extra 10% for anything above a 10 so I pay one price for size 10s and then another for 11 upwards. That starts to add up when you are buying 8 or 10 of every style and in every colour.

And yes, I do have to pass that cost on so that means my customers are paying more simply because they have a longer foot. And that’s not fair.

And there’s a limited choice!

Any brand that recognises the need for longer sizes deserves to be congratulated. Some hedge their bets a bit by only doing some of their range in the longer sizes … sometimes one-third or one-half. Sadly, that portion is often (but certainly not always) the more boring, conventional shoes.

So, there are many challenges when searching for longer shoes … to ensure they still look good despite their extra length, that cost doesn’t become an issue if I am charged extra and that enough of the range is available in sizes of styles that I am interested in.

There is a lot to get your head around when ordering stock, but I feel my confidence growing each day and I believe I am becoming more discerning with what I am buying and how. That’s such a great feeling too … always learning. It makes your journey so much more exciting.

Take care and see you soon at The Shoe Garden, Carol 🙂

I own a shoe shop!

I am the owner of a shoe shop.

It still sounds strange to my ears after more than two decades in the media. But last Friday, it really felt like I wasn’t a journo or a PR/Fundraising manager anymore but a real shoe shop owner!

Three deliveries arrived at The Shoe Garden, one expected and two unexpected and the back rooms were piled to the ceiling with boxes of all shapes and sizes, crammed with gorgeous shoes. At the same time, I had some lovely customers come in and purchase shoes, while an agent was patiently waiting so I could select shoes from their range for Winter 2013. Earlier, a small delivery of handmade necklaces had arrived as well as some lovely shoe clips – both still needing to be logged, labelled and (the best bit) put out on display.

Today it will be four months exactly since I opened.

It has been an amazing experience that sometimes still takes my breath away, usually when I unlock the front door and walk into “my” shop. I remain brimming with positivity and confidence that opening The Shoe Garden is the best decision I have ever made.

But there have been some reality checks along the way too.

Not long after I opened, I heard about an agent who was facing massive debt and went into bankruptcy. All the retailers who had ordered shoes through this agent for this summer had lost their deposits. I was almost one of them. It wasn’t particularly amazing foresight or talent that stopped me placing an order when I was buying my summer shoes back in February… I just decided I liked someone else’s shoes better.

Last week I was contacted by another agent who had a container filled with shoes valued at tens of thousands of dollars go missing in China; she thinks stolen. Fortunately she has already refunded my money, however she has nothing to sell – or make money from – this summer season. While I am missing a few shoes now that I thought would be part of my range, I am certainly not facing anything close to what this agent is facing.

And even before I opened, I was able to buy six pairs of gorgeous red boots only because a shoe shop owner down south had gone bankrupt.

So it is tough out there, that’s for sure.

Customers often ask me: “How are you going?” with looks of concern or “Please don’t go anywhere”. I even had one woman ring me up who had bought some shoes back in May to check that I was still open!

Despite all these reality checks, and a healthy respect and awareness of them, I believe in The Shoe Garden and remain truly excited and enamoured with my new life.

Just recently, I had to fill out my occupation on my tax return form. It was the first time since opening The Shoe Garden that I have had to state my occupation.

Annoyingly, there wasn’t enough room in the box to say: proud owner of a size 10+ women’s shoe shop!

I am not sure what my accountant would have thought….but I smiled anyway.

You are not alone

A woman walks into a shop and asks for a size 11 shoe. The shop assistant responds: “We don’t have any 11s. Would you like to try on a 9?”

I have heard variations of this story from at least a dozen women since opening The Shoe Garden. We groan every time and wonder about shop assistants who seem to think that a shoe that is two sizes too small is an acceptable alternative.

And then we compare notes on how appalling it is that some shop assistants can barely conceal their horror when you ask for a longer size. Sometimes you get pity too.

And then we wonder why the longer sizes, if there are indeed any, are kept way out back (judging by the time it takes to fetch them) as if they are contraband and couldn’t possibly be on display for all to see.

I could go on and on. So many customers tell me these same stories, in almost hushed tones, thinking they are the only ones.

May I share with everyone … you are not alone!

So many of us have had the same experiences … crying because we couldn’t find shoes for our school formal or wedding; losing feeling in our toes because the shoes we have bought are much too small; trying to stretch too-small shoes and paint or cover shoes that are too dull and ugly; not to mention, avoiding even entering conventional shoe shops after a while because it’s not worth the hassle and the disappointment. It’s no fun seeing gorgeous shoes that will never fit your feet just because they are a few centimetres longer than what is considered the norm.

When I lived in Vietnam in the late 1990s, I was desperate for a pair of closed in shoes as I hadn’t realised how freezing the winters were and all I had with me was a very small selection of sandals. I found a cobbler in a tiny shop on the outskirts of Hanoi. He motioned me to put my foot on the blank page of an old scrap book so he could trace around it. But of course my foot was too long so he had to turn it sideways, all the while screaming with laughter and getting all his friends to gather round and look at my foot. It was excruciating and, in the end, the shoes were too tight anyway.

Then again, this is the country where I had a dress made and returned 48 hours later as instructed to try it on and it was too tight on my hips. When I pointed this out to the tailor, she said: “No, your hips are too big”.

Sigh.

I’ve heard some really sad stories too since opening my shop. One woman still remembers 40 years on how her mother told her she would never find nice shoes because “your feet are too fat”. My heart just broke when I heard that. She was only a size 11 and her feet were not particularly wide at all and yet her face was so sad as she was telling me this.

On the flip side, I love it when mothers and daughters come in to The Shoe Garden and spend hours trying on shoes. One duo, both size 11s, fell in love with the same shoe and were cheerfully negotiating who would get it until I shared that I had another in the same size. They each bought one and agreed to tell the other when they were wearing it. They were so happy and had so much fun.

That’s what I love: providing an environment where women can finally have a positive experience when buying shoes.

Whenever there is more than one customer in the shop, there is inevitable banter between strangers as they bond over their long feet and compliment each other on whatever they are trying on.

Squeals of “oh my God, it’s too big” or “I can’t believe I can pick it up from the shelf and try it on” are common.

With nearly 550 women on my database already, I reckon we are a powerful force with a growing marketshare and I am proud to be an advocate for women with longer feet who want gorgeous shoes.  

We’re not alone anymore.

Ciao for now, Carol

Dream, then believe, then create

A few people have asked me if there were any books that were valuable to me when starting my small business.

I did read a few, none worthy of mention, except my favourite one by Olympic champion swimmer Hayley Lewis “Dream, Believe, Create”, which I read a few months before I opened The Shoe Garden.

In it, Hayley talks about her own experience in starting a swimming school at Carindale. What impressed me so much about the courage Hayley showed in, forgive the pun, jumping into the deep end and starting her own business at 28 was that she had never, ever had a job!

It makes sense, of course, but it’s not something that many of us have experienced. From her early teens, Hayley’s “job” was to swim at an elite level and represent her country. She didn’t have time for part-time work at a cafe or a fast food outlet or a supermarket as many of us did (I still remember trying to carry more than two plates at a time at a cafe where I worked during uni … I was hopeless, but lucky I was a hard worker!).

I found Hayley’s book an inspirational read – you know the type of book that you read in one sitting because you can’t put it down?  I especially love the title as it’s quite a simple formula for starting your own small business, but it can take enormous courage and conviction to dare to dream and then to believe in that dream, and yourself too for that matter, and actually commit to it and start creating. I was so fortunate to have everyone around me be positive and encouraging when they heard I was going to start my own shoe shop without any retail experience in an economy that wasn’t particularly good. Sometimes the best thing you can do for people is believe in them.

Having said that, I do actually recall one or two people being negative but they were people I hardly knew which made their gloomy words easier to dismiss.

It’s funny how life works sometimes. Hayley now owns Coming Up Roses, a gorgeous shop filled with beautiful homewares, books and lovely things that is just down the road from The Shoe Garden.

And The Shoe Garden will soon celebrate its first three months in business. I have learned a lot so far, mostly about my customers and what they are looking for in shoes and I look forward to becoming more discerning in my buying. I cannot wait for the months and years ahead to continue to create an environment where women with long feet can relax and try on gorgeous shoe after gorgeous shoe.

It makes me smile just thinking about it.

Ciao for now
Carol