Earlier this month I had the opportunity to talk to Anyi Lu, designer and founder of the California-based footwear brand of the same name. Anyi is as detail-oriented as she is knowledgeable. And with her outgoing personality and easy laugh, it didn’t take us long before we were animatedly chatting about stylish peds and the things that make our feet smile.
Anyi became a shoe designer in a slightly roundabout way. After graduating high school she wanted to pursue her passion, do something with art and design. Her parents insisted she get a “real degree” first. So Anyi ended up going to university and majoring in chemical engineering.
“Afterwards I got a really good job with DuPont and a year later with Chevron. At DuPont I was a field engineer, which means I had to do rounds in the manufacturing plants, but I still had to go into the office and have meetings. What I found out is that there are very little choices in footwear that you can both look beautiful and stylish in but be comfortable at the same time. It’s either very fabulous looking shoes that you can only wear for a short amount of time before killing your feet or you veer into very dowdy territory, and it doesn’t look very stylish but you can walk all day. There wasn’t much in between. That kind of sparked my business mind. I said, why not start a collection that can marry both. Something I later discovered all women dream of. I’m very glad that the engineering work prompted me to realize that there is such a market need out there, and that’s how I made the career switch. My husband David was extremely supportive of that adventure, while everyone else in my family thought I was NUTS.”
Not a Typical Workday
The ANYI LU design studio is in California, but the pattern maker and the manufacturer are in Tuscany. Anyi travels eight or nine times a year between the two locations. When she is in the United States, she usually works from 9 am to 9 pm. That way she can catch the Italians at the end of their day, to discuss what’s going on in the factory, with the prototypes, to answer any questions. Running a small business also means wearing many different hats. The design part covers only about 20% of her workload. A typical day also involves managing production and finances, overseeing any new ventures the company is embarking on, or even worrying about whether or not the shoes get shipped on time.
Anyi also does eight store visits every year, to interact with customers and retailers.
“I love it because I get to see firsthand who the women are who buy my shoes, what they do, what kind of need they have. And they will tell me, you know you really should pick up a flat, I need a flat, I can wear it everywhere. Or, I love this pump, I can wear it twelve hours a day and then go out for cocktails. Design is not a process that can be done in a bubble, all that feedback really feeds into my next collection.”
The Fit Factor
As a former competitive ballroom dancer Anyi looks to dance shoes as inspiration for movement, fit, flexibility and stability. Her eyes light up when she explains the three elements that are essential for making a comfortable shoe. Heel height is the first major consideration. If you have a heel above three inches, you put about 80% of your weight on the ball of your foot. When that happens you are not well-balanced, and you really aren’t going to be that comfortable. A roomy toebox is the second requirement. Shape doesn’t matter, as long as there’s enough room to wiggle your toes “and play piano”, your weight will be more evenly redistributed over the entire footbed. Finally, a great cushion is very important as well. You don’t want to feel every rock and every hole in the road. So the whole foot, including the arch, should be very cushiony and supportive.
When the prototypes arrive from Italy, it’s all about fitting, fitting and more fitting. I was surprised to hear that each style is fitted on ten different women, eight of whom wear the same size. But it makes perfect sense. Shoe size is determined by the length of the feet, but it doesn’t say anything about any other characteristics. You can have a very narrow or a very wide foot. Some people suffer from plantar fasciitis, others have bunions. All these factors change how you like the fit of your shoes. By using fit models who are the same size but have different “foot characteristics”, the team can get a much better gauge and make sure that the new designs will fit at least 80 or 90% of the women nicely.
Adapting to New Shopping Habits
Being ruthless is also part of the job description — especially in this age of free shipping and free returns where perfection is expected straight out of the box. It happens every season that Anyi has to kill one of her darlings. When a material or colour isn’t working out, or she just can’t get the fit exactly right. Then the team rethinks the design and production is postponed until everyone is happy with the final result.
The biggest change in the shoe industry, since the company was founded eight years ago, is that women now shop online for shoes. This affects every step of the design process, and has required fine-tuning quality control even further:
“We sometimes check the shoes three times before they are shipped. 10% of the shoes are sold from our retailer’s warehouse directly to the customer, without them going to the store and sitting down with a sales person and them fitting the shoes, clean the shoes or stretch the shoes for them. You don’t have those options when you buy shoes directly from your computer. We cannot even allow any minor imperfections that would easily be cleaned up at a store level. The customers don’t know how to manage this at home, so the shoes get returned.”
Anyi’s Personal Style
One might think that a shoe designer has a huge shoe closet, but the opposite is true. Anyi is quite a footwear minimalist. Partly by design, as she wears a size 3, 3 1/2, so it’s not very easy to find shoes in her size. One perk of being the designer is that factories will make a pair especially for her if she asks very nicely. But it’s a lot of extra work, so they warn her not to go crazy. Her favourite shoe of the moment? A chic pointy toe oxford in black and white pony that will be in stores this Fall.
When I interviewed Anyi, she was sporting a fab black and white striped top that worked beautifully with her long straight locks. She good-humouredly mentioned that anyone wanting to know more about her personal style only needs to browse the Anyi Lu 2013 lookbooks. 60 to 70% off the styles are from her own closet. Like an eye-catching funnel neck Winter coat with a bold red stripe, or a light grey midi dress with swooshy skirt and elbow-length sleeves with strong architectural detailing.
“I wear a broad spectrum of clothes, stripes are definitely one of my favourite patterns. My staple actually is a colourful skinny jean. I’m not really a uniform dresser. I love the variety, I’m not an all black person. I like to wear all colours, all styles. The only uniform colour that I love has much more to do with interior design. I love white walls. That’s the only thing I’m sticking with, because I put a lot of artwork in my house and then I love to have the outside scenery to be prominent. So I don’t need a very colourful house to clutter things up.”
Having a creative mind and being actively involved in every aspect of the business means that Anyi never really switches off completely. For the last few years she has put most of her time into building the company. Her goal for the immediate future is to spend more quality time with her daughter and husband. Exciting things are in the works on the shoe front too, so Anyi will continue to balance her personal life with the hands-on approach and practical, proactive attitude that’s necessary to run a successful business:
“At the end of the day, I’m making commercial art. It’s not art itself, my pieces won’t be appreciated fifty years down the road in a museum somewhere. It’s really this season, this time, if the women like it or not, if they can wear it, how long they can wear it, where do they wear it to.”