Fancy footwork: Bucketfeet gives artists a new kind of canvas by Courtney Subramanian @FortuneMagazine May 16, 2014, 11:54 AM EST E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons FORTUNE — Sneaker art is often thought of a pursuit for the artfully minded. Limited-edition designs from famed artists often draw long lines and overnight crowds of fanatics at high-end shoe stores. But an indie Chicago shoemaker is showing the world that people from all walks of life can use shoes as a form of expression. Bucketfeet, which partners with independent artists to design its shoe collection, has grown from an online Chicago startup to a global brand in in less than three years. Artists – from a stay-at-home mom in Atlanta to a Japanese artist who worked with big-name brands like Coca-Cola KO – are paid upfront for their design and collect royalty fees for every pair sold. Anyone from aspiring designers to established creators with a unique idea or story can submit a print through Bucketfeet’s website. The vibrant shoemaker has commissioned around 75 artists from Cartagena, Colombia to Kathmandu, Nepal to design the men and women’s casual footwear, which is available in more than 20 countries including Japan, South Korea and Australia. In fact, international customers account for about 40-50% of Bucketfeet’s total sales, according to co-founder Raaja Nemani. MORE: J.C. Penney: Call it a comeback? The company was created after co-founders Nemani and Aaron Firestein met while independently traveling through Argentina. Nemani was backpacking, looking for an exit from the finance world when he met Firestein. The two bonded over a passion for shoes and art before Firestein gifted Nemani with a pair of personally designed shoes that he would go on to wear across 25 countries in six continents. “There’s so many talented people around the world and so many interesting people to connect with, but people tend to be confined to their bubble,” Nemani says. “We had this idea to create a brand where, through working with artists, we could connect people and give them a vested interest in new places and people around the world.” Last summer Bucketfeet was featured in Nordstrom’s own now-shuttered pop-up, Treasure & Bond in Soho. The department store took notice of Bucketfeet’s rapid success and invited the brand out to pitch the line. Nordstrom JWN began featuring the shoe collection online and in 48 stores throughout the country earlier this year. “A lot of brands do collaborations but it’s really all we do,” Nemani says. “It’s authentic to our story and a core focus for us. Every product we create is a collaboration.” The shoemaker is on the verge of announcing a second round of funding to add to the $2.1 million it has raised since its inception and has pop-up shops in the Los Angeles fashion retailer Fred Segal as well as Chicago, Taipei, and now New York’s Soho neighborhood. MORE: Wal-Mart: Have any executives been penalized for recent scandals? The Soho pop-up, which launched earlier this month, also features installations as well as a gallery displaying a monthly artist-in-residence, exhibiting artwork as well as featuring prints for sale. Small dressing rooms have also been converted into mini-galleries for other featured artwork. New York artist Jayson Atienza, the inaugural resident-in-artist, first heard about Bucketfeet while getting a haircut at a salon downtown about two years ago. Atienza, who designed a bench installation for the pop-up, released his first shoe last year and is aiming to release a second pair next spring. He adds that Bucketfeet has continued to open new doors to different audiences and other possible partnerships. “It’s really exciting getting random texts from people taking pictures of my sneakers in Nordstrom,” he says. “It starts a conversation and it shows people they can actually afford and own a piece of art. It makes it a lot less intimidating.” Bucketfeet has also rolled out a line of socks and is about to launch a new style of high-tops. The indie brand is also partnering with the Lollapalooza for Lolla Loves Chicago, celebrating the music festival’s 10th anniversary in Chicago. The brand will release a limited-edition sneaker along with other Chicago institutions, sold at the festival as well as online.