Our friend Adrienne is super inspiring: she is a freelance shoe designer, and she just launched an Etsy shop for her gorgeous, origami-inspired jewelry (did we mention she's a contemporary origami pro?). She also happens to have grown up in Houston, TX, and has been living in Brooklyn since graduate school, which makes her a prime BKTXer! We sat down with her in our favorite Greenpoint Bar for some Texas whiskey and chatted about what inspires her jewelry, what it takes to be a good designer, and the importance of queso. Thanks Adrienne!
Tell us about how you started seriously thinking about being a shoe designer and going to school for fashion.
I went to FIT. Before that I was living in Austin doing research at the University of Texas in a cognitive science lab, and I would come home and draw things and fold things and sew things and do little fashion things, and watch project runway. I spent all this time working on cerebral research and I enjoyed it, but I needed a creative outlet. I applied for some funding to do origami in New Zealand. I was waiting to hear back, and I was bored of Austin. I was antsy after living there for 6 years. So, I moved back to Houston and decided to do some fashion classes because I thought, I’m not going to be here for too long, I don’t want to get situated. So I started taking classes at Houston Community College and I loved it, I was so excited to be there. And the classes were really good and really affordable, I’m a huge fan of HCC. It turned out I didn’t get my funding to New Zealand, it was very competitive, but by that time I knew I wanted to do fashion. So I moved to New York, and I was applying to FIT’s apparel fashion program and it just didn’t sit right. I was going through the course catalogue, and I was so excited by all of the accessories classes, and I was like, "Oh my God I’m going to do footwear!" It made so much sense. In high school I decorated all of my shoes and all of my friends shoes. I painted them, I glittered them, I rhinestoned them, I sequined them. I put flowers on flip flops, with glitter and confetti butterflies. The assistant principal at my high school had me decorate her shoes for prom. So ten years later, it made so much sense that I would study shoes. Like, why didn’t I think of this sooner, it seemed so obvious.
Take us through your process of designing shoes!
So it starts off with a certain customer in mind, and for a big section of the industry that is Macy’s because they are such a big chunk of the market. So you have to know who you’re selling to or who you want to sell to. If I was my own brand I’d make all kinds of glorious weird shit that probably wouldn’t sell. A company like Macy’s has their own trend forecasters and buyers, so they tell you they are looking for casual things at this-and-this price point, and this is what is selling right now. So, you have to know your market, see what they are looking for and what the trends are. Maybe Opening Ceremony and other boutiques will take more risks. You go through all the trends and the magazines, and see what celebrities are wearing because that actually is important because people follow them. From there, you make 10 million sketches and most of them just get thrown out. They say they want “something fresh, and that they want it to sell.” “Fresh” means they want to see something new, but “want it to sell” means they want to see something old, so they want both at the same time.
Buyers are looking at what sold last year, designers are looking at what’s going to sell next year, and then there are a bunch of in between people that either want their opinion to be heard or they have input. So you’re trying to appease like 45 different people all at the same time, who want at least 5 different brands from you. They want whatever sold last year, but whatever’s new and fresh and cool but not so cool that their core buyer won’t buy it. So you have to please everyone. But then you make your sketches, and you scan them and write a million notes, you send them with references, with measurements, and photos of anything remarkably similar, all to China. China sends you back a prototype, and you fix it here and there, but then you’re running out of time, and you have to present 80 samples to Macy’s or Dillard’s. So then, you just go to China, because stuff gets done a lot faster when you’re there. I’m showing them stuff so there’s not a huge language barrier, and there’s not a 12 hour time difference. So it’s not like it takes 3 business days — it all happens in real time. We’re all there, and I’m like drawing on people’s feet. We’re putting tape, and scissors, and I’m cutting up shoes on their feet and taping them up and drawing lines and moving things, and they're like you can’t have that material it’s too expensive. So we’re running around the market trying to find a cheaper material that doesn’t completely look like shit. So I’m always back and forth. And meanwhile I’m in China, there’s something else that needs to be approved for production. You’re always in several different cycles because you’re doing four to six seasons a year, so you might be concept in one season, sales samples in another season, they’re making a buy in another season, production in another season, fit confirmations, all of these different things. And you have a sample factory making the samples and a production factory making the shoes. So you approve them at the sample factory, but then there’s a totally different place to make the shoes, and you approve the sample and they go to production. The buyers want Gucci for $15.99, the sales reps want Gucci for $15.99, both of them don’t understand why you can’t get Gucci for $15.99, and so the designer is stuck in between all of that.
What is your favorite pair of shoes and do you still have them?
Absolutely. They are a pair of laser cut, pewter, Haider Ackermann oxfords that I bought off of somebody’s feet. It was a coworker of mine at Kenneth Cole, she worked in prints. She showed up wearing them, and I was like, “Oh my god, those are Haider Ackermann!” and she was like, “I’m so impressed you know what brand these are!” And I bought them off her feet for $200. I have only worn them a handful of times, and I bring them in their little bag to my destination and then put them on because they are that precious. But if you look at these shoes they look like they were made for me.
What are your favorite shoes you've designed?
Actually the ones I’m wearing now! I wish they were in better condition. They never ended up making it to production. These the factory specially made for me. You might design thousands and thousands of shoes and only a small number actually make it to production and then to stores. They just go through so many rounds of edits. It’s very rare that your concept ends up being what is in the store. They want it, but $30 cheaper, or without all the ornaments, and with only three buckles instead of four. It goes through all those processes, the buyers want to feel confident in their choice. You can’t stray too far from what’s already selling or people get scared. I love the weird stuff, because I look at shoes all day, and I’ve seen everything that’s for sale today 3 years ago. My favorite changes all the time, but if I like them, then they are probably too weird for your standard customer. But that’s how it goes.
How did you originally become interested in origami?
When I was six years old, I saw this book on my mom’s bookshelf in Meyerland, TX, and it was an origami book. I was like what is this, and I’ve been doing origami ever since.
What book was it?
It was a classical origami book, I’ve since bought a hardcover version at an auction. It has diagrams. There are all kinds of art house books now, but historically origami books are diagram books and you fold from them.
What was the first pattern that you ever folded?
The first pattern I was really into and made a thousand times was a butterfly.
Origami has become a lot of things for me. It’s what has influenced me to become a designer, without which I wouldn’t have moved to New York. It also is a personal thing, I really enjoy the practice of folding. It’s very meditative, like how some people find knitting really relaxing, I find folding very soothing. I really like the process, but I also really like making things and at some point I got bored of paper because I had been using it for 25 years and I began making accessories and combining the two in more interesting ways. So I play around a lot with origami crease patterns. The jewelry I make is the crease patterns — which is what you get when you unfold something and you see a bunch of lines, that’s the crease pattern — and I play around with those crease patterns and get them 3D printed and cast in Long Island City.
I very facetiously, tongue-in-cheek call it post-paper origami. There are all kinds of people making origami. There are the purists who are not remotely interested in what I’m doing, and then there are other people who like it and are exploring in a similar way.
Tell us more about your jewelry.
This is a new project! I’ve always liked jewelry, and I took these 3D modeling classes at CUNY City Tech, and then I started making jewelry through Shapeways, which is really easy. For me, the hard part is modeling. You can spend years and still be a basic modeler. I’ve done other kinds of CAD, like Adobe Suite, which I learned quickly, but this is hard. I use Rhino for the jewelry, and sometimes I do things in Illustrator and import it because there are still little things I haven’t figured out yet.
How do you decide what metals to use?
Some of it is instinct and some of it is cost, and some of it is what is available and I like. But there are things like the rings which would have been much more affordable to do in brass and bronze, which turn your hands green so I decided to go with nicer metals. A lot of people think that “cheap jewelry” turns their hands green which is true, but it’s also because of the metal. I was thinking, "Oh this is poorly made, it’s turning me green" — no, it’s just brass. So I decided to go with sterling silver, rose gold, and gold plated brass. Rose gold is my favorite.
What do you miss most about Texas?
My first knee jerk reaction to that question is Tex Mex. QUESO. If it had to be one thing, it would be queso. I can make flour tortillas on my own, I’ve done this a number of times (editor’s note: Teach us how to do this!). They will never be as good as the little abuelitas’ in Houston, but honestly queso I haven’t attempted to make. I’ve never aspired to greater heights than Rotel and Velveeta. I say that to people here and they’re like “isn’t that just cheese?” It’s SO much more than cheese. I certainly miss the people… I miss queso, and then people, and people includes family.