This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Prior to launching her eponymous footwear brand in 2018, Rebecca Allen had been working at Goldman Sachs for the previous five years, where she served as a vice president. She found searching for sophisticated footwear for work proved difficult; as a black woman, she could never find her perfect nude—everything was peach. She loved to wear color, but avoided it altogether because she couldn’t find a subtle nude shoe to go with brighter garments.
Recognizing this was a common problem for many women, Allen set out to create a brand that made Black and Brown women the target customer base, not an afterthought. She launched Rebecca Allen, Inc., selling women’s leather pumps with cushioned insoles in at least five shades of skin tone options.
Fortune recently spoke with Allen about what it’s like establishing and running a retail startup, her brand’s mission, and an upcoming partnership with Nordstrom and what that could mean for the future of her company.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: What inspired you to launch your own footwear brand?
Allen: I’d spent a long time searching for the “perfect shoe,” a style staple that could seamlessly blend into my wardrobe and complement my skin tone. The problem was that I could never find it and I’d been looking a long time, ever since I entered the working world. I spent most of my career, prior to launching Rebecca Allen, wearing business formal or business casual attire.
For many (white) women, the “nude pump” has always been a staple, living under their desks at work because it just goes with everything. For me, however, instead of blending in to balance a patterned dress, every “nude” I found was a pop of color against my brown skin. The limited color range wasn’t flattering to my skin tone and because I couldn’t find footwear that was a perfect fit for me, I made it.
Founding Rebecca Allen was more a fashion solution than a fashion statement. I just got to a place where I needed the shoe that badly and I knew if I was feeling that way, then so were other women of color. I launched Rebecca Allen for me and for them.
A major component for the brand’s mission is to offer more options to a more diverse customer base. What was the research and development process like for producing the initial collection?
I researched the market extensively in 2017 and found that, while white women owned an average of three to five nude colored shoes, Black and Brown women only had one pair and it wasn’t even the appropriate tone for them.
With that in mind, I got to work designing pumps in five shades of nude. Throughout the whole design process I pulled over 70 patent leather swatches and carried them with me wherever I went, trying them on different women of varying skin tones and under different lighting. Once I was happy with the results, we went to work manufacturing them in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and named the first collection “The New Pump.”
Given that events have been canceled for so long and we’ve been encouraged to stay home when possible for more than a year now, fancy footwear for work or play haven’t had much activity lately. How has that affected your business? Have you had to change direction in response to the pandemic and the resulting fallout?
It’s interesting because our footwear is premium but that’s not to say the Rebecca Allen customer is purchasing solely for work or occasion wear. The collection is designed to be professional, yes, but also to be comfortable. Anyone running errands, going for a walk in the park, and even those unable to work from home have found our flats, The Skim, to be quite useful and even our other selections have remained quite popular throughout this past year.
Like many brands, we have adapted and made adjustments. Take the roll out of our face masks, for instance, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have seen a spike in purchases last year. The renewed interest in racial justice has definitely bolstered our brand and raised our visibility. So, while exciting, the visibility is not without conflict and we are constantly examining our role in our collective responsibility to drive equality.
In terms of changing direction, we think about our customer constantly and how she moves through her world. We always want to help her arrive effortlessly so as our collection grows, we are taking into account how our customers’ world, and how her day, have shifted.
You have a new partnership with Nordstrom coming up. How did the two companies connect, and what can customers expect from the deal?
We fielded an inbound inquiry from a Nordstrom buyer into our generic inbox. With Nordstrom’s history in footwear, the retailer always felt like the right fit for us if and when we forged wholesale relationships. They are making big commitments to supporting underrepresented groups across their business over the coming years. We are excited to be a part of their initiative, and also very much view it as a partnership where we both have a lot to learn from each other.
Our customers will be able to find Rebecca Allen initially on Nordstrom.com, with several locations rolling out later in the year. Our online launch will be mid-May. Aside from our current offering, we will have new styles rolling out over the coming months.
The core collection right now includes three different pairs of shoes (as well as face masks, of course). Do you plan to expand the Rebecca Allen brand to more types of footwear or other types of apparel?
We started with a small collection to be timeless, but also seasonless as our initial core styles might be shoes you would reach for, for different occasions throughout the year. As we move forward, we plan to roll out more seasonal offerings and continue to meet our customer where she’s going, which hopefully is starting to look like back out into the world a bit more.
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