Schambra Stevens, who currently lives in Italy, spoke with impactmania about designing sport shoes that solved a problem, product designs in different countries, and what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
You were a footwear and handbag designer for Nike?
Yes, I mostly did footwear for Nike and then designed a couple lifestyle bags for them on the side. For instance, a bag like a briefcase, but made with sports material such as mesh.
Some of the shoes and bags were statement pieces. These products would sometimes go into Wallpaper* and other high-end design magazines.
The haute couture stuff of Nike?
[Laughs.] Yeah, these products were produced in smaller runs and more experimental; it was to round out a collection. It would be paired with a cool jacket, for example. It wasn’t meant necessarily for sports. With the concept of origami, I designed a foldable shoe. I also did a small shoulder bag that would unfold to a shopper. If you found yourself going to the grocery store and you needed to pack in a carton of milk, your bag would expand.
What was a surprising thing you learned from working for a big global brand to starting your own artisan brand?
When you are a designer at Nike, if you want something done, it is never a problem. It just gets made. [Laughs.] There’s money and a ton of people behind it. There’s a schedule that people adhere to.
When you’re on your own trying to have something manufactured, it is such a shocker. First shock is trying to find somebody that will agree to make samples for you and next is getting them to stay on top of the timeline. Then when you reach out to material suppliers, “Can I have some samples? Oh, it costs to have samples? There’s a minimum of 50 square meters? Each square meter of leather costs about $50?!” [Laughs.] Having said that, it is also gratifying when you do get something done. You’re like wow, I sourced the material and the factory, made all the samples, did the design, development, research, and the PR!
Design obviously has a big cultural role. Do you have an example where design is a social driver?
An example would be an organization I volunteer for: Days for Girls. The organization provides access to quality sustainable hygiene & health education.
The biggest design aha I had while helping Days for Girls was that the colors and prints they use for the materials are intended to look like pieces of cloth or clothing. When the cloths are washed and hung out to dry, they don’t look like something for menstruation. It saves the girls from social stigmas in their society. I love that — the product is designed to NOT look like what you think it should look like.
With globalization, do you still see a big difference between design in the States versus Europe and Asia?
I see better design coming out of places like Holland, the UK, and U.S. Even on a craft level at fairs and markets, more and more good design is coming from artisans.
There’s going to be different levels of design: the slick and fine-tuned products that can only be done with the latest high-tech machines that take large company resources for manufacturing, etc. I can come up with an awesome idea for a shoe, but there is no way that I will find anybody locally to make it.
I see the good crafted designs, the made to last products, primarily come from the local creative community.
Speaking about footwear, if you wanted to put a line of shoes together, how possible would that be? Talk me through that process.
You need to get a lot of funding! Aside from having the design and technical drawings ready to give to a factory, you need to research factories to work with and have samples made. Many revisions later, those samples turn into a size run. With women’s shoes, you need to have everything from a size 5 to an 11, and all the widths. Then you have to think of all the different colors you’re going to do. That’s just one style.
The samples cost at least $200 to $500 per pair of shoes, for example. Just the sheer amount of volume in a collection is a huge investment. You’d show in a trade show to collect orders, and with enough orders to meet the factory minimum, you can produce the line. The hard part for small brands is that you need to have paid for everything in advance, and you get paid only when your shoes ship to a store. So you need to have a huge amount of money to get to this point. Then, it’s all about PR, marketing, and selling.
It’s amazing that the shoes we see in the stores are sold at the price point they are at, because what needs to happen to make a pair of shoes is mind-boggling.
Exactly. Trump is now trying to block China trade. That is going to come back and bite people in the ass. Everybody is used to paying $50-$60 for a pair of shoes. People don’t realize, in order to get that, it needs to be made in Asia. The wages of the workers and the cost of materials are much lower. If the shoe companies start manufacturing in the U.S., the basic $60 shoes are going to end up being $300 or $400.
What people demand is totally off; they want everything to be manufactured in the U.S. but then they’re not going to pay for them.
You started Clique Publique, hand crafted bags.
I was making the bags with a local canvas bag manufacturer in North Carolina who used to do stuff for the military. They have clients like me that come in with an idea. They’ll sample it and they’ll produce it. My goal was to design for the community — designing for the women around me and grow from there.
The focus was local, instead of trying to sell to a Barney’s or a big national chain. I tried it that way before with my other bag brand and found that you’re competing with too many big dogs from the get go, and nobody knows you.
Then we moved to Italy. The Clique Publique designs are for the Southern woman: she likes color and likes to have fun. Those people don’t exist in Italy. [Laughs.] My designs were to fit this consumer; I didn’t want it to be too edgy or too trendy.
With design you need to know who the consumer is and your price point. That helps determine the product you’re designing. Clique Publique designs will evolve by being in Italy.
Nowadays, it’s very tough to fit consumers into defined boxes: She is driving this car and reads these magazines…Don’t you think consumers are more fluid?
Yeah, definitely. But, sometimes in order to start something, you have to think of one person, right? You nail it with that.
At Nike, I did some running shoes for teen girls. We’d have focus groups with high school runners. You get an idea of what they liked, how they spent their time, what clothes they wear, and what was important to them.
You could paint a picture of who this consumer was. It does happen that I’m making this teen girl shoe and all of the sudden I see a fifty-year-old woman wearing them. [Laughs.]
What have you learned from your consumers?
Consumers will always talk about products already in the market. It’s not easy for them to give you an original idea, unless it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
I did a shoe called the Nike Silver Fish for a track athlete, a sprinter, John Drummond. He would tape his ankles for extra support. We ended up making a shoe that was lightweight compared to regular running shoes, because we used less rubber and minimal materials. Then we made an external arch band that you could adjust. As you tie your shoelaces, you could get it tighter in the arch area. He was pleasantly surprised, he was like, “I don’t need to tape my ankles up! I can actually get these shoes tight enough in that spot.”
He did not tell us, “I want a shoe so I don’t have to tape my ankle.” But with talking to and observing the customer, you can get an understanding of what you can design to meet their needs.
You actually solved a problem with the design of a shoe!
Yeah, those are my favorite products. When you’re solving a problem and not just making a pretty-looking shoe. If you can solve a problem, you’ve done a good design. There are plenty of designs where they are redoing the last model. And there are good business reasons for that, but in the end, you’re just adding another shoe to the market.
We always ask all our interviewees who has made an imprint on their professional DNA. Could you name one or two people who taught you something that you still carry with you as a designer?
My mom had a big impact. A single mom, she raised three kids, one being autistic. Growing up under her roof, watching her work away relentlessly. She was in school getting her PhD at the time. I watched her fight for herself and for us.
Many other families had the privilege of money or the privilege of having two parents.
I remember my mom wanted to send me to a design camp. She managed to talk to the secretary to get an understanding of what it would take to apply for a scholarship. She kept on calling every week, it was this attitude of: You don’t ask, you don’t get — ask again and again. The camp introduced me to the world of design.
She had a big influence on me, especially when I started my own company, “You have to keep going at it. It’s not going to be given to you.”
She’s a medical school professor now, neurology. [Laughs.]
What have you learned from living in all these different countries?
Well, everybody’s the same wherever you go. [Laughs.] And all of those stereotypes are totally true! Like the Italian nonna [grandmother] — they are here! [Laughs.]
I remember studying in Japan and Italy. At the time Italy’s design was all about making something beautiful and playful. It doesn’t matter how it functions, but this is what Italian design is. Alessi did fun, whimsical things.
Then studying in Japan, I could see they took whatever was already invented and expanded that to the ninth degree. At the time when cell phones were beginning to make it in the States, they were already huge in Japan. They had tiny ones like the size of a lipstick container. I was just amazed.
Other small things, when you get a sandwich at Subway, they ask, “Do you want oil and vinegar?” and they dump it on. By the time you get to the park, your sandwich is soggy. At the Subway in Japan, they had this little packet that they would give you. You would open up the corner and the oil and vinegar would squeeze together. I kept thinking, “Why don’t they do this in America?” [Laughs.]
That must have impacted you as a designer?
Yes, if I had not gone to those places, I would have only had the ambition to design products for the American market, without having a real sense of what design can be. You might see in magazines what designers in other countries are doing; maybe get some glimpse here and there. But my designs would all be very safe. Travel opens your mind.
What is the biggest lesson you’re teaching your children about design?
That’s a good question, because they are beginning to do some designs. We have this great little book, If I built a house… If I built a house, this is I would do… the boy in the book walks through all the rooms. “This one would be a fish tank room, and my bedroom would have a slide…”
We talk about design and how many things are made by designers. Being able to talk about it, have an ongoing rambling of where they want it to go, is design.
I’m encouraging my children to do that — to be creative and to brainstorm out loud, having a good imagination to think and create.
You’re teaching them, what else is possible, right?
Yeah, exactly. People see everything around them and maybe think, “Well, there’s nothing left to design.”
Similar to how people think there’s nothing left to discover in science. [Laughs.] Scientists only recently figured out that dinosaurs were probably feathered; they didn’t have scales.
There’s still so much more to discover and explore.