How to Become a Shoe Designer

To the fashion novice, the shoe design industry is merely a branch on the much-larger fashion design tree. And while that may be true to some extent, it seems disingenuous to call a global market that will reach $195 billion by the end of 2015 just a “branch” on a tree. Luxury brands like Christian Louboutin, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton rake in millions of dollars in sales thanks to their pricy footwear, and apparel giants like Nike, Reebok and Adidas built the foundation of their companies on footwear and footwear design. This is not some little-known offshoot of the design industry; it is big business, and thus it can make some aspiring shoe designers see stars and dollar signs dancing in their heads. That said, the shoe design industry is shifting, and the market is declining as demand for cheaper, outsourced product rises and technology advancements, such as computer-aided design make it easier for the less skilled to find a foothold in the industry. This doesn’t mean that aspiring designers should be discouraged from becoming professional shoe designers, it just means that they should be fully aware of what they are getting themselves into when they try to break into one of the most competitive and cutthroat industries in the fashion world.

Not every shoe designer has to make a living working as a cog in a larger machine. As our experts will attest, it is possible to start a bootstrap shoe design operation and become successful. But they also caution that it is far from easy and requires hard work, dedication, business savvy, and skill. There is no right or wrong way to enter the shoe design industry. Some designers start as assistants or apprentices, others take menial jobs with big companies and try to work their way up; while others still just throw caution to the wind and set out to make a career of it on their own. There are so many different paths to travel to success in the shoe design industry that it is easy to understand why aspiring shoe designers can be confused or misinformed, or even scared when it comes to making a decision about their professional future. But there are also rewards at the end of the tunnel.

For one, fashion designers – including shoe designers – have the potential to make a lot of money. As of May 2012, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that fashion designers made an average annual salary of more than $60,000, with the top 10 percent of the industry earning upwards of $125,000. The industry may be declining and hyper-competitive, but those average salaries are well above the national averages for other occupations. Also, while shoe designers don’t often see their names in lights the same way actors or entertainers do, shoe design can be a glamorous industry and plenty of great designers have become internationally famous thanks to the power and draw of the fashion world. To aid aspiring shoe designers looking for concrete information and tips on how to get started in the industry, we asked a number of professionals to share their experiences and also created a handy visual to serve as an overview.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Burju Perez

Burju Shoes – Owner

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I graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Business. Upon graduating, I started a career in finance when, after three years, I realized that the corporate world was not for me. I decided to quit my job and pursue my dreams of becoming a professional salsa dancer. My husband and I have been blessed with an amazing dance career that has spanned more than 15 years. While working and traveling as a professional dancer and choreographer, it was difficult to find stylish dance shoes other than nude or black. Being that Salsa is such a lively and vivid dance, I felt that none of the current shoe brands reflected that nor my personal style. I realized that there was a tremendous opportunity to fill the gap between highly functional and comfortable shoes with high fashion style; and with that, the inspiration to start my own shoe line began!

Although I didn’t have a background or education in design or manufacturing, I threw caution to the wind and I gave it go! Burju Shoes was born in 2008. We featured our first Diva and Stiletto collection in 2010 and the brand just took off, becoming a global dance and special occasion (currently offered in street soles) shoe brand worldwide. My husband and I still tour both national and internationally, however, we are on a limited schedule since we now have an 11 month old daughter.

Every day is different, but I mostly deal with our shoe suppliers and manufacturers, as well as delegate and manage day-to-day responsibilities. I work on new design concepts for both our shoe collection and apparel, approve prototypes, as well as handle the buying. I also provide support to my customer service team to make sure that we provide exceptional service to all of our clients. I work very closely with my marketing and public relations team to strategize on events, photo shoots and any other marketing projects.

I love creating…whether it’s a new design, a photo shoot or new systems to help us be more efficient. I love when my team and I brainstorm to come up with new ideas for marketing, products or events. It’s all so exciting! What I dislike is that there are never enough hours in the day to accomplish all the ideas that we come up with.

Advice

The more you learn to start, the better prepared you will be
It’s been a steep learning curve since I have no background in design or manufacturing. It may have been a little bit easier if I knew more about the process from the very beginning, but it has been an incredible learning experience and journey both on a professional and personal level.

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty
There is no better experience than hands-on life experience. I would recommend that while starting off can be frustrating and difficult, you have to be willing to put in the work from the very beginning. Do your research, network and try to study or obtain an internship with a designer or company within the fashion industry. Remember, everyone starts from the beginning.

Don’t forget to learn the business side of things
Everyone has a story that brought them to where they are today. Whether you’re interested in the creative side or the business side of the industry, I would, however, also recommend that you learn both sides. If you dream of starting your own business, you’ll need to know everything there is to know about running a business and with time and success, you will be able to focus on what it is that you love most. And when you work with another company, you’ll just make yourself more valuable to the company with your knowledge and experience.

Networking opens a lot of doors
There’s a saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” So, start networking now and putting yourself out there. You never know who are you going to meet and who can lead you in the right direction or connect you with someone who will give you the experience you are looking for. Again, do your research on companies you like and admire, look into internship programs, go to networking events or job expos and always ask questions. Never stop learning and always stop thinking you know everything!

Autumn Parham

Shoe Designer

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I studied Apparel Merchandising and Design with a double major in Entrepreneurship at Central Michigan University. I also spent some time studying abroad in Paris, France. For shoe design, I have taken several shoe making and shoe design classes. Professionally, I have worked as an assistant to a celebrity stylist, an assistant to a luxury clothing designer, and as a sales specialist for a luxury retailer.

I don’t have an average workday. Some days I am focused only on sketching, and other days I am focused on sourcing leathers, fabrics, and other materials. Each day is different depending on deadlines and what needs to be done. I love designing shoes and seeing them come to life! I also love the process sourcing for materials, and being inspired by all that’s out there. There isn’t much that I dislike. It is hard work but well worth it to do what I love.

Advice

Seek out other young people that are interested
I wish I would have known that there is a community of young people, even in the US, who know about or are interested in shoe design and shoe making. I think it is a great idea to network and even learn from those who are in the same field as you are.

Don’t give up, and never stop learning
Learn all that you can, and don’t give up! I think that it is very important to learn and to know how to actually make shoes. This will help when it comes to designing shoes that are practical and constructed to last. There is no right or wrong path to get into shoe designing. However, I do believe that interning for a shoe designer or shoemaker would be an excellent place to start!

Maya Levi

Olive Thomas – Owner

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Understanding My Career Path

  • When I was living in London after my compulsory Army duty, while looking for a course to enroll to that I stumbled upon Industrial Design. After a long period of not knowing which path to take I suddenly felt that I had found “my calling”. I returned to Israel and started my degree in Industrial Design at Hadassah College in Jerusalem.
  • After finishing my degree I decided to look for an area that was less tech and computers and more hands on and tangible. I enrolled in a one year course in Israel’s first school for Footwear Design and Technology.
  • After finishing the course I continued working at the bar where I had worked during my year at the footwear school. I half-heartedly pursued professional options at retail companies in Israel but the work seemed more like a buyer than an actual designer. Simultaneously I started looking around for shoe manufactures and started developing shoe styles for production.
  • I found a good manufacturer (whom I work with still today), and in February 2008 I filed to become a self-employed footwear designer. My first collection consisted of 4 styles.
  • I started turning to shops to interest them in my designs and started, slowly but surely, to sell my shoes. Unfortunately, the retail in Israel is based on consignment, which means that you only get paid for the items sold, and the shoes that don’t sell are returned. The first few years were a difficult balance between trying to get the brand out, being seen in as many shops as possible and trying to keep my stock low.
  • In 2012 I opened my own shop, which made a big difference to the brand. I had to make sure that there are enough styles and sizes to entice new customers, while still keeping to the identity that I had built up to that point.

Advice

On education
I think that you don’t necessarily need a formal education in Footwear Design or Manufacture, but I think that understanding design is a must. I studied Industrial Design, a colleague of mine studied Graphic Design, and another Fashion and Textiles- we all had the basics and the understanding of “design” before we turned to footwear. Because of my degree, I also know what it means to start a project, to actually finish a project, and to meet a dead-line.

Due to the fact that I don’t actually make the shoes myself, rather work with a modeler and a manufacturer, the actual process of making a shoe is something that can be learned in time. I feel understanding the process and development of the shoe from a sketch to an actual article that you can wear makes me a better designer and the shoes of better quality.

3 best tips

  • Do get an education in some form of “design”. It will make the difference between being mediocre and being good.
  • Take a deep breath. It takes a lot of time, money and effort before your name is known, recognized and appreciated. You will learn a lot about yourself and your business, but always remember you values and beliefs. They will become your identity and the reason why customers return.
  • If pursuing a career as an independent, self-employed designer, understand that about 15% of your time is spent designing (and that’s being generous) and the other 85% of the time is spent managing a business. If you aren’t business/financially/mathematically oriented, make sure that you have help from someone who is.
What if I Want a Degree to Become a Shoe Designer?
    • Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM)
      One of the premier fashion design schools in the country, it should be no surprise that FIDM has a footwear design program that is both popular and prestigious. The instructors are almost all professional shoe designers with worlds of experience to share, and the program spares no expense when it comes to resources and experiences. Students will get to travel to China, meet with footwear executives, and tour factories. They will also get a crash course in the basics of footwear design and will learn how to develop coherent footwear collections.
    • PENSOLE
      One of the few design academies specifically geared towards shoe design, PENSOLE has rapidly made a name for itself by attracting some of the best shoe designers in the country to the faculty and by initiating a “learn by doing” curriculum that forces students to learn the industry from a hands-on perspective. The school has also worked to develop partnerships with fashion education giants such as Parsons and Art Center College of Design so that students have a bulletproof foundation in design to go with the more unique and diverse aspects of the curriculum.
    • University of Oregon
      Considering that Nike’s headquarters are right down the road and that Nike founder Phil Knight is a major donor to the school, it should be no surprise that the University’s product design program is becoming one of the most popular in the country. Students get an education in both the material and theoretical aspects of product design, while also getting opportunities to learn the business side of things and work with some of the best resources the industry has to offer. The program is the perfect blend of traditional broad collegiate education and more specific design-focused education.
    • Otis College of Art and Design
      Otis is one of the most prestigious art and design schools in the country and its product design program is a shining example of why. The multidisciplinary field teaches all aspects of product design, includes computer-aided design education, as well as 2D and 3D design processes and makes a concerted effort to blend business, entrepreneurship and design in to one program that so that graduates not only have the college diploma on their resume but are also prepared to confront all paths to design success.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

As always, networking is the name of the game. Any expert in a particular field will tell you that networking is the key to get ahead and get your foot in the door, but it is especially true in the hyper-competitive and fast-paced fashion industry. Many of our experts cautioned that in order to become a success in the fashion industry, you need to be willing to start at the bottom, and that means interning or apprenticing for a shoe designer or fashion designer. But in order to find even those jobs, you need to put yourself in front of people in the industry and you need to be willing to go out and meet as many potential employers as possible. They are the people that will not only help you get a leg up in the industry but will also be valuable resources to learn from so that you can hone your craft and become a better shoe designer as well.