Bespoke footwear isn’t a new concept. For centuries artisan shoemakers have been willing to take their wealthy clients’ cash in return for crafting a pair of boots that look and fit just right. More recently multinationals have got in on the action. It’s more than a decade since I left my own customised Nike ID trainers, in blue and white with my initials on the heel, on the school bus - never to be seen again.
But on the whole the shoes that grace our feet tend to be off the shelf. That contrasts with the markets for new cars, computers and even sandwiches, where we’re all used to picking out that particular shade of walnut for the dash or an extra portion of jalapenos.
Iris Anson wants the next pair of pumps you buy to be just as personal. Her start-up, Solely
Original, offers women the chance to design their own pair of shoes, picking out the colours, materials and trims using an online tool. (You could probably come up with something a bit more tasteful than MT’s snakeskin, leopard and lace number, below).
Then you can either pick a normal size or choose to have them custom-made for your feet. Those who go with the latter receive a measuring kit in the post so they can create a cast of their feet, which is used to make the shoes fit your personal shape. Prices start at £99 (not cheap but not extortionate in a market where you can easily drop £500+ on a pair of Jimmy Choos) but it costs an extra £140 if you want a custom size.
‘I discovered there was a market gap for a professional woman like myself to shop for shoes that are comfortable but also stylish,’ says Anson, who was born in China but moved to the UK to study, before taking up a job in the City. More than one third of all women have knowingly bought a pair of shoes that didn’t fit, according to a 2009 study by the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, with 80% of those suffering health problems as a result.
Anson quit her job and launched the business two years ago. It’s not all been plain sailing. ‘We've had quite a few teething problems because of how unusual our business model is,’ Anson admits. Part of the challenge has been getting the website to work - any decent ecommerce site will be costly to set up, but that's especially so when you need a complicated shoe design tool built in too.
And then there’s the manufacturing. The shoes are made in China, whose many factories can be a minefield for a first time importer. ‘Most of the manufacturers have minimum quantity orders, unless it's a traditional bespoke shoe maker that can make one-off shoes,’ says Anson. ‘It's really difficult to find that balance that we can sell mass quantity but also one pair per design. We spoke to more than 100 manufacturers and boiled it down to a few we thought could work with our concept but also have a good quality standard.’ Those were whittled down to two that make the company’s shoes now.
At this early stage Anson is hesitant to talk turnover figures but says the company has sold to a ‘few hundred early adopters,’ 20% of whom have bought a second pair. The plan now is to scale.
As well as tapping up two angel investors, the company raised around £70,000 in a crowdfunding round last year and has plans for a second round in the future. ‘For the next 12 months we’re focused on growing the company to a stage we can demonstrate to investors we can grow to a much larger scale.’ Anson plans to hire a marketing bod to join her two other employees - a web designer and a production manager, who is based in China.
Anson says she’s an inspired by Nike’s founder Phil Knight (read MT's review of his book here) and Jimmy Choo. ‘They’re the only big brand that’s manage to become so established in such a short period of time.’ Maybe in the future people will say the same of Solely Original.