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Shoe in: Charleston native gets a kick out of designing footwear

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rachel Mallory Richards has some bad news -- at least for some of us ladies. Pointy-toe shoes are coming back into style.She ought to know. She designs them.Now 34, the Charleston native and George Washington High School graduate has worked for about 10 years in the design business. She is vice president of design for B Brian Atwood and Boutique 9 shoes in New York City. The brands are part of the boutique section of the footwear division of the Jones Group, the mammoth parent company.Also new for fall, she said, will be shoes resembling smoking slippers -- "like something Hugh Hefner would wear" -- and the "Pistol Boot" or "Beatle Boot" -- a more casual boot with a chunkier two-inch heel. Whether they will sell is another matter. Like all shoe designs, the process takes about nine months to a year to go from an idea to a sale.Richards couldn't remember a design disaster, but she quickly recalled a major coup. "It was a shoe for RACHEL Rachel Roy. It had a special molded heel like a bunch of little pyramids," she said."The shoe took off. It took us from being in 50 stores to 400 stores with just one style. You know you've made it when someone knocks you off."Richards oversees the design of a 30- to 40-item collection per brand for four to six markets a year. That's heels, flats, sandals, boots, sneakers.To accomplish that, she and two others on the design team take "design inspiration trips" at least twice a year. "It takes me all over the world to shop and observe street culture and trends," she said.Usually she returns to Paris and to Italy, Milan or Florence. "And a wildcard, a place I have never been before." This past year, she chose Istanbul and Copenhagen as off-the-beaten-fashion-paths to see what footwear and trends were there.In Paris, she likes to visit consignment shops because she often discovers vintage shoes in excellent condition. "I like to find old things and reinterpret them," Richards explained. She'll also head to Paris' old Jewish section, Le Marais, where there are lots of little boutiques. And she'll stroll the Champs-Élysées, checking out the high-end stores because brands like Dior and Louis Vutton will have their best products there for their Parisian clientele.She'll shop, take photographs and observe."A good designer is aware of their surroundings, noticing the small things," she said.Once back in her New York office, "I'll start sketching. I do everything by hand." The rough sketches are reviewed with the sales team, then a prototype package is prepared for each shoe.This time, each sketch is like an architect's drawing, indicating the exact height of the heel, the thickness of a strap. The proto packages are sent to the manufacturer in China, where half a pair of each design is made and returned to New York.
Using a foot model, Richards said, "We make little adjustments, cut straps here, take something off there. We fill out forms on needed changes so the factory is clear on what to do next."
Then, after about two weeks, Richards travels to the factory near Hong Kong, and the process accelerates. "Questions get answered faster, you get ideas. Some of the best shoes at market were the ones designed in China," she said. "You go over all the specs -- color, material, the zipper finish."It takes the factory about six weeks to make the sales samples that will be displayed in the showroom during market. Buyers from the big department stores like Bloomingdale's and Macy's as well as many independent stores will visit the showrooms of many brands of shoes."I go to as many meetings as I can with buyers. Their feedback is vital because I need to know what customers need," she said. "There are a lot of other brands; it's very competitive."Richards was in China in early December preparing the prototypes for next month's market, where store buyers will place their orders. Then it's up to the factory to make anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pairs per style, and get them delivered to stores by August or September."The final achievement is what does the public think of it. Sometimes, you're too fast, too cool with your designs. But it's fun to hit on something cool."
She believes she has done that with the sneakers for Boutique 9. Convinced the sports shoe is a big fashion trend, she said she had to sell that concept to the brand's sales team, backing up her ideas with market research."I have a soft spot for sport fashion. It's graphic design in 3-D. I really had to push for it."Richards said when she was in college she didn't know what she does now even existed. She studied interior design for two years at Ohio's Miami University, before she realized she was more interested in designing products for the house than in decorating it. She transferred to the University of Cincinnati, completing a degree in industrial design in 2003. While there, she had an internship with a footwear company in New York City."It was a perfect fit for me, a blend of industrial design and fashion," she said.Her favorite things are footwear, jewelry and handbags -- in that order.In the Brooklyn apartment she shares with Kevin Richards, her husband of four years, Richards admitted to having three 9-foot-tall bookcases full of shoes plus many other pairs tucked in various corners."Shoes, I think, are like little mini architecture," she said. "They're fun to draw ... but they're more of a sculpture. ... I have so much fun with materials and color and color combinations."She said she does try to take comfort into account. That's where the money is because women can't really walk around in high heels, and they have to buy wearable shoes. Then women require a great pair of boots, and then party shoes. "But you don't need five party shoes -- or do you?"Of her high heels, "My husband says, 'You don't even wear those shoes.' But they're so pretty, you want to just look at them; they make nice wall art," Richards said.To see more of Rachel Richards' designs, visit Rosalie Earle at or 304-348-5115.
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