Foot Soldiers

How To Build A Global Fashion Business

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Tal Dehtiar
Founder, Oliberte Footwear
Shoes manufactured in Ethiopia

Carla Schmitzberger
President, Havaianas
Flip-flops made in Brazil

Edwin Neo
Founding Partner, Ed Et Al Shoemakers
Bespoke men's shoes from Singapore

How do you bring innovation to a category like footwear?

"I was working in nonprofits when I heard about Toms Shoes [which gives away a pair of shoes in developing nations with each one purchased]. I'm not a fan of giving things away. If we want to help Africa, we have to create manufacturing jobs--and I don't mean cheap labor. Through the local production of Oliberte shoes, we can create 1 million jobs in Africa by 2025."

"The Havaianas flip-flop's uniqueness is its simplicity, but we have a group that works five years ahead to identify different technologies and shapes. One of our biggest successes is the Slim, which is simply a narrow strap. Is it breakthrough innovation? No. But it appeals to the customer enough that our competitors copied it."

"The dress-shoe market for men in Singapore is pathetic; the prices are either astronomical or the quality is pitiable. We're filling this gap. Our designers go through an intensive training process to learn the craft. Our shoes spend weeks on the mold to better conform to customers' feet; most designers do this for only one day."

How do you create a product that appeals to a global shopper?

"We mention Africa in our marketing, but the last thing I want someone to do is buy our shoes because they feel bad. We're not about charity; we're about creating stable jobs. If the product didn't sell itself, it wouldn't matter where it was coming from."

"The Brazilian spirit is joyful, vibrant, free. It's easy for Brazilians to feel this way because it's basically summer all the time. We want those emotions to be communicated everywhere, even where it's snowing. A new line launches every year with more than 500 new styles."

"Because we produce so many custom pieces--which can take months--it's hard to advertise, in a traditional sense, what we do and why we do it. Education about our craft is the way forward. We've relied on word of mouth and social media to reach the customers who really care about our work."

What are you doing to keep your app relevant?

"There's something really exciting about the word Africa. It evokes an emotion in everyone. We launched with a Western-looking sneaker and it just didn't hit the right mark. But when we started embracing the African culture and romance with a distinct, rugged design that showcases craftsmanship, it really took off."

"We've moved from being a commodity to being an aspirational product associated with fashion. We want the U.S. to be our second-largest market in the next five years, so we've opened a shop in New York's Bloomingdale's and cobranded with companies like Disney and Missoni."

"Most custom shoemakers offer a selection of designs and let the client choose the color and material. But we design the shoes with the client from the ground up. They specify any detail right down to the color of the thread. We've built a system that will enable us to fit all customers from a distance, which will really be a game changer for us."