Meet the Female Founder Behind the Shoemakers Movement

Keiko Hirosue / Brooklyn Shoe Space
Photo of Keiko Hirosue / Brooklyn Shoe Space by rachelphoto.com

Keiko Hirosue, shoemaker, designer, and founder of Brooklyn Shoe Space, fell head over heels in love with her craft after her first shoemaking class, in 2003. “Not only did the shoes fit well, but they were different from any others out there in the world,” she says. “And I got great comments on the streets.”

Spurred on by early success, Hirosue launched Brooklyn Shoe Space in 2009 as a co-working space for shoemakers, and perhaps most crucially, a safe place for artisans to tinker. Members are mostly women and comprise a mix of skill levels and interest. Some have worked in the fashion and footwear industry; some are hobbyists; a few want to launch their own brands; and others are looking for a way to network, brainstorm, and share expertise. For newbies, Brooklyn Shoe Space offers a calendar of shoemaking classes. More than a female founder, Keiko sees herself as a connector, bringing the older generation of makers together with the new wave who gather in the space she’s created.

In addition to Brooklyn Shoe Space, Hirosue and her business partner opened up a small shoe factory nearby with the goal of operating a clean, professional, small-quantity production facility. The factory is not only woman-owned, but also staffed primarily by women. They enjoy the work and the inviting atmosphere, take pride in making their own decisions, and appreciate the flexibility and collaborative spirit. It’s manufacturing made cool.

The woman-first focus extends to the shoe designs themselves. Hirosue and shoemaking client-partner Antonia Saint Dunbar (also the co-founder of Thinx) recently designed a high-heel that wears like a comfy sneaker. Their still-going Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in less than three days—showing that women are hungry for shoes designed for them, by them.

We chatted with Hirosue about being a female entrepreneur, creating a women-centric workspace, and her philosophy on footwear.

Keiko Hirosue / Brooklyn Shoe Space
Photo of Keiko Hirosue / Brooklyn Shoe Space by Oscar Alejandror

How have you grown personally and as an entrepreneur as you’ve grown your business?

As an entrepreneur, I have grown tremendously. I have learned to let go and let things situate themselves. I plant a seed, and then people can take it from there. Personally, I created a job that I love, and everyday, I learn something new.

 
“Here, women realize that we don’t have to do it all alone. We support each other. No one is competing.”
 

You work with a lot of women in your space. Why do you think that is?

I think Brooklyn Shoe Space is fashion meets art meets craft meets community, and the factory adds an industrious side. Here, women realize that we don’t have to do it all alone. We support each other. No one is competing. We hold space for each and every designer. There’s a niche for everyone. And perhaps that mentality makes it enjoyable for women. Fundamentally, I think women are natural collaborators. We like to expand and learn from others. Women in our community elevate each other.

Tell us about your most memorable mistake.

I learn from mistakes, but I have a brain that forgets and forgives and moves on. One mistake I made is not having a strong and solid agreement between a shoemaker and a client, both in the current business, but also in my freelance days. Even if it takes a long time in the beginning, now we make sure things are agreed on ahead of time and that we have enough information in the agreement.

What are three adjectives that you’d use to describe the journey of starting and growing a business?

Fun. Restless. Organic. Exuberant. That’s four.

What do you do to decompress?

Family time and going upstate to unplug and be in nature: no Wi-Fi, no cell. And dancing!

What’s your next big move?

One is to franchise, or open a Shoe Space in another city. Maybe on the West Coast. Maybe in Asia. We want to keep the community growing. It’s really about co-working, specifically for shoemakers and leather workers.

Also, I’ve been thinking about how to support sales for the designers who come out of our space. We can put more effort into direct-to-customer sales and marketing, and make the shoe shopping experience more exciting online. If we are offering custom-fit shoes, we’ll be taking more data about everyone’s feet. If we can incorporate the UX and the technology that retailers are playing with now in the apparel world, such as the “smart changing room,” I think there could be a fun way for a customer to see how those shoes that they’re browsing will actually fit. And if we can have a website like that for the community of makers, and have a platform for them to sell their shoes, it would be amazing.

You and Antonia Saint NY have a Kickstarter going on that features “High-Tech Heels & Flats that Feel Like Sneakers Inside.” How did this project come about, and why aren’t we ready for women to wear flats all the time?

Many clients and students have come to us to ask if they can develop an amazingly comfortable high heel. The theme of “comfort” is always a priority when it comes to our clients. Our womentrepreneur student-turned-client-turned-factory partner, Antonia Dunbar, was vivacious and smart, followed through with her vision, and did a tremendous amount of research. Plus, she knew from her previous experience developing a new product to take the time necessary for rounds of prototyping before creating a perfect prototype that proves her concept.

I’ve always wanted to be just a bit taller. That feeling of elevation when you wear the high heels make you feel strong, sexy, and tall. Historically, heels were worn by men.

Women are always ready to wear flats. But having that option, the choice to elevate ourselves, is freeing. If there’s a high-heel that is comfortable and elegant, and fits my wide-front, narrow-heel feet, then YES! I’ll wear them when I want to, and it’ll be my choice to wear them.

Brooklyn Shoe Space
Photo of Brooklyn Shoe Space by kubilusphoto.com

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