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Shoe designer shares inspirations for fashion and life

By Jen Wood Cunningham
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rachel Mallory Richards, a Charleston native and New York City shoe designer, discussed the finances and drivers of fashion at the Charleston Area Alliance Elevations Luncheon on Wednesday.Richards informed the audience about upcoming trends and the fashion industry, and attendees picked the brain of a designer for a large fashion company, a job that would be a dream opportunity for many. I was reminded, as I am often in my day job, about the importance of following one's dreams. Richards' take is, "Stick to your gut and go for it."She continued, "Growing up in West Virginia, I didn't know about design, and I definitely didn't know that I could make a career of it." It wasn't a quick road for her, which can be very frustrating for many young and eager dreamers, not that it isn't a large feat to be in her position in her early 30s. Richards stuck it out and studied interior design first and realized through this experience that she was really interested in industrial design. She had several internships through college that led her to reconnect with her love, shoes. She worked for a variety of companies including Diesel, which was "really hot in the early 2000's." She currently works as a designer for the Kenneth Cole. Yes. THAT Kenneth Cole.Her love and passion go beyond work. "I have always loved shoes. I can remember wearing my mom's heels at age 2 and walking in her boots at 4." Her personal shoe collection tops at about 200 pairs, and they are lined up in rows in three bookshelves, with others in storage. As she spoke, I envisioned her apartment in beautiful New York City with a bedroom that has more room for shoes than a bed. Richards spoke a bit about the finances of fashion. "As glamorous as fashion can be, it's still about the bottom line." She explained the difference between working for a publicly-traded company and a private company. "In a private company, you have more creative freedom and you can take a smaller profit margin." She continued, "Regardless of the company, you need to be cautious of the design and the materials with the end price in mind."She shared that planning begins nine months ahead of a launch of a collection. "We just finished sketches for the spring/summer 2014 collection." A shoe goes through a long process before it hits the runway. A concept becomes a sketch, which becomes a prototype and then after many adjustments, a shoe may make the cut. Richards has a team of designers and product developers who work with her to crank out hot looks season after season. She mentioned a collection, called punk chic, that was rolled out in December. This was a result of two of her three drivers of fashion: social events and street culture. There were many folks online and bloggers talking about the Metropolitan Museum of Art's current punk art exhibit and the trends that it influenced months ago. That trend carried over into the punk-inspired formal wear donned by the celebrities who attended the Met Gala earlier this week.Richards gave a shout out to fashion writers and bloggers and talked about the times that she's seen her shoes on blogs and fashion sites. She said that it's really helpful if they post in the photo the item's description so that the "end user" knows where to find the items they see. The third driver of fashion, according to Richards, are the runway shows that occur twice a year, many months before the season for which the clothes are designed.
Here are some upcoming trends that she mentioned:| Single-soled shoes with a pointed toe, which means that platforms will soon be out| "Higher vamps," or shoes with a more closed look| The smoking slipper will continue to be a hot alternative to a ballet flatShe gave some advice for women in the audience concerned about function vs. fashion. For those looking for a stylish, yet functional and comfortable shoe, they should try a brand for which she's also working, Gentle Soles. Richards said, "These shoes are comfort with fashion sense." Rachel and the audience members then had a discussion about the importance of the design of the shoe and the quality of the materials as it relates to function and comfort.
Fashion Final Thought: One of the best parts of the presentation was Rachel's response to a question about the fashion industry's focus on size and appearance. She said, ""That's what makes me want to walk away from [this industry]." She went on to describe how she is encouraged to select models by headshots, not just by looking at their feet. She said, "What does their face have to do with it?" I believe from Rachel's stance on fashion and her role in the industry, that there is hope for fashion to be more inclusive. I believe that we're making progress.  And, after all, as Rachel said, it's all about the bottom line. If retailers aren't making sizes above a 10 for women -- as the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch stated recently -- then there is an untapped market for those sizes. She discussed how fashion can make the right choices --from where the items are made to making sizes for a variety of customers -- and how she works to address those issues. Indeed. Being socially conscious can also be marketable and profitable. Check out Rosalie Earle's piece on Rachel Mallory Richards from earlier this year. Jen Wood Cunningham on Twitter at @miss_sociable.
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