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.
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!
- 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!