I recently had the pleasure of talking to Stephanie Nicora, a third-generation shoe maker and founder of Nicora Shoes. The shoes are made thread-to-sole in the US from primarily recycled materials. Stephanie told us a little about the difficulties of running a vegan, sustainable shoe company and what is coming next for Nicora. Check out her shoes hereTell me a little more about yourself. Where you are from? Growing up, what influenced your vision of Nicora?
I grew up in California; I am from San Francisco. I have been in LA for about 8 years and originally moved here while working in the entertainment industry. One of my secrets is I have a finance degree, that’s what I studied in school. It wasn’t because I didn’t have an art background or wanted to pursue any of that, it was more I need some practical skills that would get me paid.
The creative instinct and the desire to learn how to make things, that is innate in me, but going to school in finance is why I have the business skills to run a company. I was a right brain who got a left brain degree because I wanted to figure out the secrets of the other side.
Everyone is nervous or fearful when you learn something new, but it doesn’t mean that you are strictly creative and you can’t do something else. It just means you are learning something new and out of your comfort zone. Starting a brand, yes you are putting your name or art on the market but that’s probably only 5% of what you have to do to launch your brand.
So you are a third generation shoe maker?
That’s right, and third-generation female shoe-maker. Grandma and great grandma worked in a shoe-making facility in Maine. They have long since closed because as most people know there is very little shoe making in the US anymore, it’s all off shore except a handful of boutiques or factories.
Right after I started the technical training to be able to make shoes, that is when the family told me about our history. You can’t get away from your roots even if you don’t know about them.
So you didn’t actually know before you started? It sort of just happened?
No, as soon as I started it all came out. In all honesty it’s not like the cute little cobbler in Italy. It’s actually heavy manual labor, a very difficult job and I don’t think that people were proud of it. It was the last years of shoemaking in the US in the large scale, similar to a factory floor.
So what got you interested in shoes if you didn’t know your family background?
There are so many different life experiences that directed me to that. I always altered my own clothes, mostly out of financial need. I didn’t grow up with a big earning house and I had to get the latest styles, so I altered stuff and got creative. I cut up so many shoes and things. It’s just always been something I did. After working in finance for what felt like a million years, I needed some crafting outlet. I just do not believe that every human is wired to sit at a computer every day.
Creating a job where you can actually work with your hands and fulfill a different part of your brain is way more satisfying. I went to train because I thought it would be fun but in the back of my head I was thinking, I am going to find out how hard this is and figure out the logistics while I am there and if the logistics all fit together where I can make money off it, then I’m going to do it.
Where did you train?
In Oregon, at a private place that does shoe apprenticing. I was up there quite a bit in the early days and it was wonderful. I like to try new things and see where it goes.
Fate kind of decided.
You know a long time before you leave a job that you need to leave a job. In our culture if you leave a good paying job to follow your dream, you’re an idiot. That’s how we judge people, so it’s looked down upon and it’s hard to take that risk on your own.
How long ago did you start Nicora?
I am trying to remember...The Nicora company as it is now is a new version that is only a couple years old but I have been making shoes under my name since 2012.
When you first started out after your apprenticeship, what did you find to be most difficult personally or logistically?
There are too many to name them all. There are so many questions.. Starting a fashion company. It’s like you have to go to college all over again but technical training and on the job training. It’s a lot of keeping up. I am trying to think of the best one to pick.
Did you feel like there was anything particularly difficult in the shoe business?
That’s more helpful..to narrow it down. Starting a shoe company in the US, that’s made in the US, using sustainable materials, you are trying to start a business where you are going in the gate with production costs that are 10x all your competitors and you don’t have the marketing background to compete with them. Before I started, I knew that most of the companies were using sweatshops in China or Italy or Spain. You just realize how bad it really is. You think people will buy these because they are sweatshop free or sustainable but in reality people will shop on price. It is getting more common but it is still in the big picture very rare that people will give you double the cost just because your stuff is built in the states or sustainable. That’s just the culture. You learn really fast that just because you are being ethical doesn’t mean you can pull this off.
"I went to public school and I had a teacher who taught us a lot about the environment and the rainforest—it really stuck at seven years old."
Where did your decision to make the shoes in the US and sustainably come from?
Right after apprenticing I basically lived in shoe factories in LA, just worked there and made my own stuff. I studied the industry for a long time before getting into it. I wanted to be able to say I knew how my supply chain works. I know how everything is made so I can put my name on it, vouch for it.
I went to public school and I had a teacher who taught us a lot about the environment and the rainforest–it really stuck at seven years old. So early on just researching leather I took it scientifically to see if I could make a pair of leather shoes that were as ethical as possible. Meaning they were produced as humanely as possible: free range, free grazing, tanned without using heavy chemicals, processed without any exploitation of humans or dumping. I spent so much time just trying to follow and cow and learning about the tanning process. It was one of those moments where you are like, this industry is over a billion times worse than I could even have imagined. It is such a wasteful product.
Being vegan and sustainable just kind of became a have–to.
So what are some of the barriers/hurdles to marketing and getting a sustainable business to be profitable?
You really have to set yourself up for the long game because when you have a fashion company or shoe company you are going to have a lot of costs to make your product or keep up with trends. You’re probably going to have to groom your company for investors or you won’t be able to afford to keep going on. You see lots of brands have a really massive launch early on, get tons of investors and throw tons of money and then they go away after a year or two. You need to concentrate on getting your viable product. Get one thing you are really good at and get really good at it.
When that part is done then you can start to organically get new people. That’s really how we’ve done it. It’s all been grassroots. You don’t have to start big for your brand and know who you are on day one. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to have everything out of the gate.
Did you find anything that was more difficult as a woman starting your company that you might not have experienced as a man?
I think that my experience is unique because I came up in the finance world; in that world you learn how to talk like a man . So let’s just say I came in already knowing the language. I think if I didn’t I definitely would have faced some problems getting investors and feeling respected in my business choices.
You are launching the 2017 line and your new website, what do you see for the future of Nicora? What are you excited about for the 2017 line?
We are still pretty small. The factory has maybe ten full-time and a handful of part-time and the office staff is only two. I am the CEO and founder of the company and I am still sitting here programming the website; welcome to running a small start up brand. You have to do everything. And be a part of everything.
I feel like we’ve finally reached our maturity. We know what we are good at and we do it better than anyone else. It is easier now. I know what to make and what will look good and our collections are getting more cohesive. I feel like all my years in start up college are starting to make sense. The cohesiveness of the product now is making it easier to expand because we know who we are and what we stand for.