Luxury Shoe Designer Tiannia Barnes Shares Tips On How To Start Your Own Shoe Line
You get what you pay for.
That’s what I’m telling myself as Tiannia Barnes, footwear designer and owner of the Tiannia Barnes luxury shoe brand, explains to me why I should stop shopping for bargain pumps at ALDO, and start dropping $300 plus on a pair of quality heels that are relatively scuff mark and scratch resistant.
“I’m going to bring this right on in for you so you can go forth and be great in a super pair of shoes!”
Class is in session, and I’m all ears.
“You have to invest in your shoes. If I buy this classic pump for $350, this is going to last me and I’ll be able to wear it with my jeans, with my skirt, going to church, going to work, wherever,” she tells me. “If you’re going to invest in your shoes, you’re going to invest in quality because your expectation is that they’re going to last for a while. “
So no more $80 online shoe boutique shoes then?
“There’s no way that I, personally, would spend a lot of money at a store buying a shoe that’s like $80. Because in the next month, you’re going to go and buy another pair that’s $80, because that one is probably going to tear up or something’s up with the material. It’s not going to last you a year, two years. I mean, that’s very rare.”
I think about the neon green faux-suede pumps buried in the back of my closet, the ones with black scuff marks that the shoe repairman I took it to said wouldn’t likely ever completely come out. I wore them to a club in Atlanta. They only lasted one night.
And while I won’t be running to my nearest Louboutin store and whipping out my credit card, I’m already internalizing the quality over quantity lesson that was just schooled to me by the fashionista.
On any given day Tiannia is working tirelessly on her Italian made shoe line, often burning the midnight oil long after leaving her 9 to 5 as an IT Program Manager and getting her 11-year-old son settled in for the night. Ironically it’s her corporate experience and background in math and industrial engineering that’s enabled her to transition into fashion. She’s crunching numbers, finalizing designs, working with a graphic designer to create the technical specifications for the shoe, and developing a solid supply chain system to help move her product from the factories of Italy and through her e-commerce website that she distributes through. It also helps that she has her MBA, and has learned that setting up a business is more about the execution than the idea.
Despite always wanting to be an entrepreneur, her corporate path is what armed her with the knowledge and tenacity to follow through with her dream of being her own boss.
Before tapping into the industry, however, she first had to commit to her dream.
Growing up in Oklahoma City Tiannia remembers always having an interest in fashion. Her mom wasn’t big into the latest trends, but she describes her grandmother as fashion forward. Her Barbie and Ken dolls were always dressed sharp, and in high school, long after her plastic childhood friends were laid to rest, she designed her dress for the senior prom in an effort to stand out from her peers dressed in their department store finds. As an adult she took a liking to Gucci’s timeless designs and Guiseppe Zanotti’s bold prints, starting her growing collection in college and later, when her career afforded her the opportunity to travel, incorporating shopping sprees into her vacation destinations.
“I would go to Miami a lot because I have friends down there, and I would just talk to the people in the stores. I’d walk into Jimmy Choo and connect with the salespeople,” she says. “I had a person in Vegas, Miami and New York, that would email me every time they had that semi-annual sale, and that’s when everything would be like 40% or 50% off, so that’s when I would buy my designer shoes.”
As her collection grew so did her interest in design, and just as she did back in high school she found herself raw sketching her own prints as a creative outlet. Even then, she had no intention of becoming a shoe designer—she just had the passion for fashion, so much so that she took a class for shoemaking in Cleveland, Ohio, working with London-trained shoe designer, Sissy Puccio, in order to gain further knowledge and understanding about the business, from patternmaking to prototyping. It was then that she realized this was more than just a passion, this was a part of her purpose, and it was time to take it her visions beyond the paper and turn it into a tangible product.
“Once I took that shoemaking class, then I had to make a commitment to starting a business. I knew this was something I love and I had a passion for it. You’ve got to have that burning desire inside of you, that’s what you should hone in on because many people start businesses, and that’s fine, but the business that’s going to be successful is the one that is deep down in you, the one that you have that intuition about because that’s your real gift. So, I had to commit to starting a business.”
Without that commitment she wouldn’t have taken the necessary steps to being her own boss, because while many entrepreneurs boast about their flexible schedules and not having to answer to another, they sometimes fail to tell you is that the grind is real. Tiannia first had to research whether or not she should establish her company as LLC or a S-Corp, and go through the tedious paperwork process of becoming a real business. She then worked with a designer to create her logo and business cards to push her brand, and researched her target audience to determine what kind of price point she wanted to sell her high-end shoes at. Once the foundation was established she then had to design the structure.
She connected with the Italian Trade Commission in New York to help refer her to the best designers and manufacturers to fit her needs. She then traveled to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to interview four different shoe designers and persons with experience in the footwear industry to determine who would best guide her through the process—she decided on a gentleman in Chicago who had a successful footwear business.
“It didn’t matter that he had a men’s footwear shoe line and that it was nothing like mine, what mattered is that he had the knowledge and the principles to get me to the next stage of getting my shoe made, because I was very green in that area.”
After going over her sketches and important details such as comfortability, quality, material, and the construction of the shoe, he worked with her to find a factory in Italy that worked with her to design the prototype. After a few back and forth exchanges where the prototype was marked up and redesigned, she finally had a finish product in hand after a few months, just in time to prepare for the launch of her Fall 2015 line.
But the work was far from over.
With inventory in hand she now had to develop a website to push her products, which are exclusively sold online, and connected with a PR agency who scored interviews with Forbes and Fast Company, adding credibility to her budding brand.
Oh, and did I mention that this was all self-funded?
“The funny thing is that when I started my business, I said I want to self fund my business, because I didn’t want anybody to come and take my baby. I don’t want to lose control of anything; this is my vision,” she says. “So I said no, I don’t want any investors. That was before I knew how much it took to actually start a new business—you know with the branding and the marketing and all of that stuff. “
Recently she was granted a small business loan, but chose to only take out enough to get her to the next phase. She’s also let go of the “me only” mantra, and has been taking meetings with potential investors, which has been a learning experience in itself since many investors are more concerned with their return as opposed to the idea in itself. She advises anybody looking for investors to be mindful of what outcome they’re looking for, and to find somebody who’s just as interested in your business as much as their financial gain. For those who may not qualify for a small business loan or aren’t able to lock down investors, start by reaching out to family, friends, or even tapping into a 401K.
“I really do believe in investing in yourself, that’s a huge component because nobody knows your dream and vision better than you, and nobody’s going to take care of it better than you.”
Tiannia, who recently relocated from Connecticut to New York for business reasons, is hoping that her hard work will soon pay off and allow her to transition into her role full-time. In the meantime, she’s directed her attention to her new collection, which will take her style options from three to ten. The collection includes a few surprise twists to her more classic designs, and a color palette inspired by the sunset, ocean, and vibrant colors ins[red by her travels to the Caribbean and beyond.
“Not to give a lot away, but there’s some fur involved, I’ll just say that!”
Being her own boss has allowed the designer to tap back into who she really is outside of the college degrees and being a former wife. It’s helped build her confidence and get back to the foundation of who she is as a woman.
“Who is this new Tiannia? Who is Tiannia that’s not the wife? All of this is a journey, and it’s a personal journal for me to get back to who I really am, and what I’m really supposed to be doing with my life. When you follow what you’re supposed to be doing, the universe or God will actually lay your path out, and I have a huge testimony about that.”
For a little girl growing up in the mid-west, the real journey started with fearlessly putting her best foot forward, one stylish shoe at a time.