NiK Kacy for NiK Kacy Footwear was interviewed on November 8th, 2017 by Kelly Reddy-Best via Zoom. This interview was 1 hour and 3 minutes. The oral history transcript reflects the history of the brand at the time of the interview.
Oral History Video
Oral History Transcript
KACY: Hi, I’m NiK Kacy and I’m the founder of NiK Kacy Footwear, which actually might end up just being NiK Kacy, because we’re doing more than footwear now.
REDDY-BEST: And can you tell me about your educational background?
KACY: Sure, I actually have a bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine. I had two majors, it was in fine arts and advertising and a minor in international communications.
REDDY-BEST: Then can you tell me about your professional background? Where you worked or other things that you’ve done besides your brand?
KACY: Yeah, so prior to starting my own company ,I have done pretty much the entire advertising job cycle. I started off as an art director, then graphic designer and then I moved into media buying, then I was a QA analyst when the web first came out, so I was one of the first people to work on websites and find all the things that were wrong with it and figure out what creates a better user experience. After that, I realized that with all of those jobs, I needed to do something that really blended both my sides of the brain and allowed me to be creative and also organized. So, I ended up being a producer, for about I think, nine years? At my ad agency I was a producer / project manager depending on different levels. I loved it, because you get to work with a lot of different people, you get to be creative. Then after that, I moved from my ad agency to Google because they were looking for someone to start their project management team in LA. So, I was there for three years and did that. I then decided that it was time to take a risk while I could, before I had a family or someone else to be responsible for. It was time to start my own adventure.
REDDY-BEST: Which term do you use to identify your gender identity?
KACY: Yeah, so my preferred pronouns are they/them/their. And I identify as gender non-binary but also trans masculine, or masculine of center.
REDDY-BEST: Which terms do you use to describe your sexual identity or your sexuality?
KACY: Queer, I guess, would be the closest? Yeah.
REDDY-BEST: How would you describe your personal clothing style?
KACY: I think, because I grew up in New York, my style is very kind of like… I don’t know, black? It’s pretty much like black t-shirts, jeans, or a suit. You can either find me in a tux, or casually I’m in jeans and a t-shirt. That’s pretty much my uniform.
REDDY-BEST: What was your experience shopping or wearing the products that you offer, before you started your brand?
KACY: So, the reason I actually started my brand was because of my experience. My whole life, since I was a kid, I couldn’t find shoes that fit, I guess, my inside? My outside and my inside never matched, you know, being born in the wrong body and knowing that I was in the wrong body, but never really being able to pinpoint what it was exactly, because I didn’t understand. But I knew that whenever I saw guys’ shoes I would be like “Oh, that’s what I want to wear.” Unfortunately, I had very average, female feet so I could never find shoes in my size that I liked and then, whenever they would have maybe a certain style that they would say that they have in the female sizes, I would put it on and I would look down and I just remember feeling like, “this is not the same shoe.” For whatever reason, their female version is always so much more feminized? They never looked right proportionally when I looked down. I just remember I would look down and be like “I have like baby feet all of the sudden.” It was very embarrassing and humiliating, I think, to walk into a store so many times and be like, “I would like to try these shoes on,” and they would be like, “go to the women’s section.” Even though when I was a teenager-to-an-adult presenting very masculine, still being directed to the women’s section was very hard. That’s why I started my company.
REDDY-BEST: When did you start thinking about creating your company, when was it still a thought in your mind?
KACY: Well, since I was a kid, I had always told myself, “Damn it, one day I want to make these shoes because nobody’s making them.” It wasn’t even just shoes, as a child, it was everything, right? I found myself wearing mostly, you know, sweatpants and sweatshirts because it was the only thing that was really gender neutral. My mom would try to put me in dresses and I would have a fit. Eventually, when I started being able to shop for myself and dress for myself, I found that it took me many years to really figure out what that style was, because it was a slow growth of becoming more confident in my body and, basically, reclaiming my identity, you know? I think throughout my whole life, I’ve always thought that one day, I’m going to do this. One day. But I was such a workaholic that it was always about going paycheck to paycheck and you can’t really delve in and do these kind of things and still try to make a living.
REDDY-BEST: Do you mind if I ask how old you are?
KACY: Right now, I’m 42.
REDDY-BEST: When did your company officially become a company?
KACY: So, I left my job at Google at at the end of 2013. I got myself incorporated right away, because I wanted to do everything right and by the book, but it took me a whole year to travel. In 2014 I had transitional surgery, and it took me time to heal. Then I spent weeks in Europe going to shoe fairs, talking to people in the industry, and trying to figure out, “Why doesn’t this exist yet?” You know, in 2014, why did this not exist? Basically, the response was, “Yeah, we know there’s this niche but it’s just not worth it.” I think that was what fueled me, because all of a sudden, I was being told like, “We recognize that there’s a need, but it’s not worth it.” Like, you’re telling me and my whole community – that I’m not worth it and that my people are not worth it? So that was when I was really like, “I’m really going to go and do this now. I will do whatever it takes now.”
REDDY-BEST: Were the people who were telling you that it wasn’t worth it, were they folks who were in the industry, who were already making shoes?
KACY: Yeah. So, it ranged from shoe designers to shoe manufacturers to shoe brands.When you break it down, I’ve learned so much in the past three years. All these large corporations that already make millions of dollars making shoes. It would cost them nothing to branch out and add a few sizes or alter their designs a little bit, or create a separate collection. It would be literally pennies on the dollar, but they did not think that their return would be worth it, because they didn’t see the market, and they didn’t understand the market was there yet. They just knew there was a niche market, but they didn’t realize how great this market was, or how big. So, now we come to a time where it’s becoming “trendy,” it’s becoming hip, it’s becoming newsworthy, and all the sudden, they’re scrounging! They’re like “Oh, there’s this whole phenomenon.” I don’t think it starts off with, “Oh, it’s because we need to respect and like include these people that are human beings and part of the community.” But it’s like, “Oh, wow. This is hip. This is trendy. This is cool. This is a new thing. And we don’t want like parents to be upset that we’re not including their kids. So therefore, like we should do this.” It makes it very hard for companies like us, who, basically have taken, 20 years of our savings and quit our jobs and made so many sacrifices to do this, because it cost me exponentially more to create one sample versus how it barely costs them anything. The worst part is now I’m—and not just me but we, as a community of the entrepreneurs in our community, we’re in a place where we’re starting to see this wave that’s coming and it could very easily push us out, because we’re going to be competing with these billion-dollar companies who see the dollar signs now. They’re coming from a place of trying to make money, whereas we’re coming from our experience, our history, our hearts, and, you know, our beliefs. Sorry I went on a tangent, but that’s the stuff that gets me whenever I start talking about my experience of the people in the industry.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about your role in the company and what a typical day might look like for you?
KACY: Sure. So right now, I’ve kept it very small and by very small, I mean that it’s just me. I’m basically like a one-man show, right? I think it’s a different type of — I don’t want to say “business plan” because I don’t even have a business plan, but it’s a different way of running a company because shoe design and shoe making take so much longer than say shirts and pants. It’s hard for me to get to the point where I can have a team because there are sometimes where I’m just waiting for samples to be made, cut, or stitched, and then we go through so many samples because I’m changing this concept of sizing. So, shoe sizes have always been divided between men and women. No matter if it looks gender neutral, it says that it’s gender neutral, but they’re still made from a women’s last or a men’s last. What sets my company apart, besides children shoes, is that this is the first company that has created a unisex sizing that literally does not differentiate, and does not discriminate based on your gender, or identity, right? So, developing that whole series of sizing was very time consuming because I had to find really what, to me, is something that’s gender-equal. and gender neutral. Then from there — most companies, when they have a certain sizing, it’s maybe like, seven sizes, right? But, my sizing has 14 sizes because I have to include the entire range of what is considered female and male, and everything in between. It’s very hard to be inclusive. So, that makes everything take a little bit longer than normal and then, from there, the design aspect also takes a long time because I have to consider that not only all the shoes I wanted to wear that were more masculine, but also what I think I want to create for everybody. I don’t want to be a hypocrite and not be able to create stuff for other people, too, that might not necessarily want to wear masculine shoes. That’s why I started with my gender-neutral collection because I want people to literally look at my designs and not think male or female or anything except that it’s a good design or it’s not, whether they like it or not and whether it fits their style or not. So, my typical day involves every aspect of this from development to execution, to getting all the resources, whether it’s Portugal or Mexico to understand what I’m trying to do, and reviewing samples. I travel a lot to these places to work with them. I also work with a lot of nonprofit organizations to help create more exposure, visibility. I donate shoes to them whether it’s like the youth or the senior citizens who have been underrepresented or don’t have access. I tried to have an intern, but it’s hard to find people who have the time and also the passion for this.
REDDY-BEST: What’s a Last?
KACY: The last is — let me show you — it’s this. There’s a saying in the shoe industry which is that “you start with the last first,” because if you have a really great last, then you can make amazing shoes because it should fit. I always tell people, I tell my customers when they wear my shoes, it should feel like someone’s taking a pair of hands and hugging their feet. That’s the way it should feel..
REDDY-BEST: How does it work? Do people buy online? Is it e-commerce only? Do you sell in stores? Tell me a little bit about that.
KACY: Sure. Right now, we’re only online because I would love someday to have like a brick and mortar. The next step actually is to start reaching out to boutiques that are like in line with, I think, our vision. It’s very hard because being at the forefront of a movement means that most people aren’t going to quite get you, yet. I’ve talked to buyers at Nordstrom and Barney’s and they, you know, the response I got was like, “Oh, you know, we already have shoes like that. We have Frye’s and Doc Martens.” And I’m like, “Wow, you totally just missed what I’m doing, you know? So far, I’ve tried not to push because I realize that they’re just not ready yet and I don’t want to create an abrasive relationship. I’d rather just have them recognize I exist. Maybe they don’t think they’re ready for me yet or they don’t even know what I am yet, but I think once it catches on that eventually they’ll going to be calling me, like, “Hey, we need you now, because now we understand.”
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me about the different products that you offer and what the price points are?
KACY: Sure. So, right now, we started off with shoes because that’s something that I recognized that nobody else was doing and it’s my passion. I love shoes and I think shoes are, to me, not an accessory. Shoes, I think, are what makes your outfit. You can have the most gorgeous outfit but if you don’t have any shoes to go with it, it’s still a missing piece. So, shoes to me are very, very important, but I also realize that the price point for my shoes are a little bit higher than probably the average person’s shoes because 1) they’re incredibly great quality, you know they’re all hand-stitched and made with high craftsmanship, and really great leathers from Portugal or Mexico. The ones in Mexico are Goodyear-Welted, which are the crème de la crème of stitching for shoes. As I’ve said, for me, having such a small production and because I’m a no-name brand, it costs me so much money to create. I have to pass that on, obviously, to my customers. My goal is that eventually if enough people are buying it on a regular basis, and my production grows, you know, bigger and bigger, then price points will drop, and thereby making them more accessible to other people and all people, right? So, that’s my long-term goal is to be able to create a regular production on a constant basis where I can continue to have like my high-end line, but then be able to afford to also do maybe like a medium or lower end line for people who are not as privileged to afford like $300 shoes, right? I think the reality is that, for the LGBT community, particularly the trans community, we make the least amount of money out of the entire hierarchy.
KACY: Yeah, so for me, my signature look is always with a holster, I’ve been wearing it for a long time. It’s just like, my wallet, it holds my business cards, I have a little mini-flashlight in there, you know for emergencies. I could put my phone in it if I wanted to. The one I designed is adjustable and versatile, in the sense of that you could add on a second wallet on the other side, so you could put other things. I have little loops, so that you can have like key chains on there. I mean, there’s just so many things. I want, I mean it’s a utility holster for a reason, because it’s supposed to be for utility.
REDDY-BEST: I should’ve prefaced this, sometimes I’ll ask questions that might be obvious or something I might know, but I’m only asking for the sake of the interview.
KACY: Actually, a lot of people are very confused by it, because if you just look at it without seeing me wearing it, a lot of people, even the factory that helps me make it, has had such a hard time with it because they couldn’t grasp the design. So, I have to like literally fly there and show them like this is what you do.
REDDY-BEST: So, you started off with shoes, and then you have the utility holster, do you have a desire to do other products? What other things would you love to do?
KACY: Yeah, so right now, I call it a footwear and accessories company, a gender-equal, footwear and accessories company, because I think accessories is a general term enough. I want to make things that are utilitarian and solve problems for everyday lives, or make your life easier, and also make you feel represented. It’s about coming up with things that I think can, can provide those things, therefore it’s hard to say like “Oh I want to make ‘bracelets.’” I have a leather bracelet-cuff, but that doesn’t necessarily fit into that passion that I have. It was just more that the design shows an equal sign when you wear it, so that it’s about promoting equality. A lot of things I design is multi-layered in that way where it’s representative of the positive impact you want to make in society. It’s about a secret nudge to one another when you see it, “I know you support equality – yeah, me too.” Also, being able to provide people with —- I have so many customers who are like, “you know, I’ve waited my whole life for shoes like this,” or “I’ve waited my whole life to be able to feel authentic wearing something like this.” So, the things I want to create are going to be along that line and I can’t say specifically what that is yet, you know?
REDDY-BEST: Are you thinking that you will stay within the shoe-accessory area?
KACY: Yeah, maybe. I thought about clothing. Clothing was on the top of my list, but it’s also hard because, I think there’s an influx of people creating gender neutral clothing. I have so much respect for them that I’m like, “I don’t want to compete.” A part of me kind of feels like, maybe I should just stick to the stuff that I’m doing, that’s not competing with anybody. If other people want to compete or come into the market, that’s great because I think that’s healthy and I think we need it. I want everybody to be making stuff for us because that’s the only way that it’s going to get to be so visible and so normal. I don’t know. It’s hard for me. It’s as if I’m constantly torn between: “Do I want to make like a jacket?” or, “do I want to make a suit?” because those are the things I love! However, then I’m like, “so-and-so is making these already and I don’t want to compete with them.”
REDDY-BEST: I think it’s just you and there’s one other person that does shoes, but they’re very different. They’re called Matriarch?
KACY: Matriarch actually have reached out to me before they did their Kickstarter campaign. I don’t know if they had talked to Kirrin Finch, but they talked to somebody that knew me. After my Kickstarter campaign I tried to help pay it forward and like help a lot of other Kickstarter campaigns, especially in our queer community. It’s all about being a community and teaching them and being like, “this is my experience, these are my learnings.” So, they reached out to me and told me what they were doing and I was just like, “Oh my god this is fantastic,” and, “how can I help you?” I spent a few hours talking to them and really giving them a lot of insight that I had. I tried to even offer like, “hey, if you’re making your shoes in Portugal and I’m making my shoes in Portugal maybe we can combine efforts and get one factory to do it for us because that actually gives us more leverage.” They weren’t into it, so I left it at that.
REDDY-BEST: It seems that helping each other out seems to be a common thing, right? I hear that over and over again, the importance of paying it forward.
KACY: Yeah, I mean that’s what it’s all about, otherwise what is this all for?
REDDY-BEST: What is your design process? How do you go from concept to product to final output, and as well as what is your inspiration and things that you might consider? Where do you find inspiration for your design aesthetic?
KACY: I’m still so much in the beginning stages of my development as a designer. I didn’t come from fashion design at all, and, certainly, I had no idea how to design shoes, but I knew what I liked. I’m the kind of person that is extremely OCD and detail-oriented, so like I knew all the things I loved in a shoe and all the things I didn’t like in a shoe. I literally just went to Portugal, rented an apartment, and I just sat down and I let my mind go nuts. I thought about all the shoes I’ve ever wanted, you know — monk boots, derbies, oxfords — all the very classic designs. The thing with classic designs is that, if you know my style, you’ll know that my style is very classic and simple and comfortable, so it’s really like you can’t perfect the wheel. Like, classic is classic in a way that you can’t do too much to it, but the way I looked at it was that what I’m doing is modernizing society to catch up with the evolution of human beings. The fact is that we need to be more inclusive, and that we need to embrace everybody’s rainbow colors, right? So, that’s what I did, I think, with these classic designs. I was like, “ok, I’m going to keep them classic. A monk boot is going to be a monk boot, but, I can improve upon the proportions and make it inclusive. I can expand the sizing to make them inclusive. I can add like accent colors or like signature looks such as adding the equal sign emblem on all of my products in order to modernize it in a way where I can utilize fashion as activism. That’s my way of designing. Eventually, I would love to, as I learn and grow as a designer, go crazy and really come up with something that’s like, off-the-wall. I guess, for me, right now, there’s only so much as “the first” that you can do. For example, if I’m already the first to create a unisex size, I don’t want to also be like here’s this crazy design to go with it. I feel like it would be very hard for people to digest. It’s like the story between the turtle and the rabbit, right? I’d rather just go slowly and allow people the opportunity to evolve with me versus forcing it down their throats.
REDDY-BEST: Could you show me two pairs or a pair of your shoes and then talk through some of the details by showing me?
KACY: Let’s see, what do I have? Okay, so this one is actually a good one. This is the newest design in the second collection called “Destiny.” Well, the collection is called “Destiny” because the first collection was called “Fortune.” And the reason it was called “Fortune,” was because I was really inspired by the color red and, in Chinese culture, that’s the color of Fortune. The color red brings you good fortune – good luck. I thought that, in starting my brand, I wanted the idea of, you know, good fortune to be brought to all the people who want to support this concept of equality, right? So, for the second collection, the reason it’s called “Destiny” was because it’s the first collection that’s going to be not only gender-equal but also gender-neutral, and that’s ultimately my destiny to do that. So, when you look at this design right here, it’s got dual zippers on both sides – it’s got the equal sign emblem, and the zipper is actually dual toned – two-toned, so that it’s actually, this specific YKK zipper is only available in Mexico. So, that’s the attention to detail that I have, it’s like every little thing even from like the pull tab, you know . This was inspired by George Michael, actually. So, I’m a huge George Michael fan and this design is called the “Georgios,” which is his first name. I guess the reason he inspired me to do this design is the First Time I Ever Saw Your Face video. In the video he has boots that are cowboy boots, and I think cowboy boots are something that’s so masculine. Like, in American culture, cowboys that’s the ultimate masculinity, right? At the same time, for the whole time I was growing up, I think George was just this vision for me that was both so beautiful and so masculine. I knew that I loved him because his music was so soulful. His look was so masculine, but there was something about him. I don’t know if it was my gaydar, I don’t know what it was, but I knew that there was something about him that just encompassed everything that I love about human beings. It’s like this blend of masculinity and femininity. So, I knew that I wanted to make a shoe like this because I’ve always wanted to wear one. Even though it was inspired by the cowboy boot, it’s also inspired by Flamenco dancer boots. I’m a huge fan of like watching Flamenco dancers and I love the male dancers’ boots. They have like the heel that’s like this, you know? It’s tapered and higher. It reminds me very much of a cowboy boot and a Flamenco dancer boot, put together. I really think that this is a boot where you can look at it and think that it’s neither masculine nor feminine, and yet all of it at the same time. Wherever I go, I’ve had the most masculine men, cisgender men, be like, “Where’d you get those?” and I’d be like, “Oh, I designed it,” and they’ll be like, “Wow I want to wear it!” And I was like “Ok, you have to wait, you have to wait,” you know? Then I also have super feminine girls, telling me they love it, and everybody in between. That’s the part that makes what I do worthwhile, are the moments like that, where I get to fulfill my dream of creating something like this that blows people minds and they’re like oh like that’s neither a men’s shoe or a women’s shoe, and that everybody can wear it. I can get to look at my designs and say they want to wear it and then later l learn that they’re opposite gendered or that somebody totally different from them could also be wearing it. I think that’s where they’re going to learn to expand their minds because no one’s telling them like, “you have to wear this,” or that, “because of how you identify you have to wear this.” I think that is how I want to change the world is by literally getting them to change it themselves by being exposed to things that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to. Even here, on the bottom I say “break the binary.” I don’t know if you can see that?
KACY: Yeah, so it’s like details like that and the red stitching on the side of the welt.
REDDY-BEST: Cool. The description of the process, that was so beautiful. Do you have another one you’d want to talk through?
KACY: Well, I had actually started designing a high heel, but I don’t have that sample, I left it in Mexico with the, a new manufacturer. Let me find something else that I think would be interesting… Alright, I think this is signature design of my brand that everybody loves – the monk boot. I guess, I should show you a non-black color because I feel like I’m showing a lot of black footwear. Hold on, let me find another color.
KACY: Otherwise everyone’s going to be like, “you only make black shoes!” Alright, here’s a monk boot but in a different color. So, this was like one of the first designs I came up with for the Fortune collection so and this was a very, very popular shoe. Everybody loved this one because it’s different, you know? It’s again, you know, it has the equal sign, the red stitching, our logo – even the bottom stitching is red. So, you know, that’s what it was all about, that red that I wanted everyone to kind of key into that. Like, “let’s all live in good-fortune together.” Good fortune doesn’t necessarily mean success, or power, or money, it’s like good fortune that we all live in harmony, peace and joy – and that we live authentically together. The monk boot is something that’s so classic that’s been around for very long time, so there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, but using accent colors and contrast with adding a toe cap are things like that, I think, really help bring out the look. I think what a lot of my clients really loved about it is that it’s a shoe that really conveys a masculinity, but it fits all of us in a different way than would a traditional men’s shoe. I think that was the first phase of the company was getting maybe female-bodied people or trans-people to be able to find out that there’s somebody that’s representing them and thinking about them when designing. Then it kind of just like branched out and caught on to the rest of the community and, and the goal is that eventually we’re going to reach mainstream.
REDDY-BEST: Would you say with all of your shoes, your signature is going to be the equal sign and then the stitching in the color red?
KACY: The stitching color is going to change. My plan has always been that it was going to be like seasonal because feel like I’ve been in the season of development and growth and I feel that I’m not done with that yet. I’m not ready to get to that next phase for that next mood, I guess. It’s all so inspired by my mood and my inspiration, obviously, is my life and what’s in my surroundings and my experience, so I feel like I’m not ready to let go of that red yet, because I still I need everyone to get to that point of being fortunate together. I think at some point I’ll be ready to be inspired to use a different color. I already have an idea of what that is, but that will affect the stitching and the stitching is so important, so changing that color is going to affect really all the other colors of the leathers that I’m going to use. So, I have to be really ready for that when that time comes.
REDDY-BEST: And then, do you look at trends in shoes or is that not something that you necessarily think about because you’re doing a lot with classics, or classic aesthetics and styles? Or do you look at anything like that?
KACY: Yeah, I definitely, you know, I follow like Footwear News and a lot of like footwear publications. Obviously, fashion magazines and shows, looking at, what are celebrities wearing? What are trendsetters wearing? I try not to let it influence me too much because we’re on different planes. I’m on the plane of creating a new movement where people weren’t even able to wear the original old style, so I’m not interested in like creating stuff that’s like, “Oh this is the latest trend, therefore I MUST create something just like that.” No! What I like to do when I see it is to be like, “Oh like this… is cool,” or I’ll find aspects of it that I think are inspiring. More than anything else, I think , is when they use materials that are not maybe available yet or that I have—I don’t know about. That’s where I get to learn a lot more like, “Oh my god! That’s made with mushroom leather. Ok, where do I get that?” You know, because I really want to create stuff in a more sustainable, non-animal-based material, but that’s not chemical-ridden, or made with plastic. So, it’s a lot of challenges.
REDDY-BEST: Are there any celebrities that you look to specifically?
KACY: Oh, yes and no. I feel like there are definitely are ones for whom I am fond, in terms of styles, but I wouldn’t say that they’re the only inspirations? You know what I mean? There’s always stars I’m not familiar with that I’m like, “Oh wow, like that’s amazing.”
REDDY-BEST: And then, if you could describe your customer, like how would you sort of distinctly say who they are?
KACY: Mm. Let’s see, I would say that the core customer base is majority female, and maybe the majority also is LGBT. I think, they are more fashion-conscious. I would say maybe 60% of the customer base would be more masculine presenting, but that’s about to change with the new collection. There are fans that can’t wait for the high heels to come out because they’re just dying to support the cause. You know, it’s not even so much about the design sometimes. but yeah I mean they’re from all over the world. The majority of them are in the US but I have like customers in New Zealand and South Africa, London, you know, Singapore. So it’s really cool like when people learn about what I’m doing and the fact that they’re so passionate about it. Like they’re fans for life. So, yeah.
REDDY-BEST: And then how do they—oh, can you tell me how many collections have you made so far?
KACY: So, the one you just saw with the Georgios, the George Michael one, that’s only the beginning of my second collection. I’ve been in development for a long time because I’m such a perfectionist. I’ve had really tough issues with the materials, for example, the leather that I wanted – I wanted to create a certain look with that shine, but when you have that kind of shine and you have one piece of leather – so here’s a little leather education – is this particular design? [showing the show]. From here, all the way to the other side of here is one piece of leather, right? So, with most shoes, if you pay attention, they have a lot more pieces, because 1) it’s cheaper to cut more pieces; and 2) because in order to get one piece of leather into this form, it requires using heat to mold it into this shape. So, it costs a lot more money and process to do it. If you have a piece of leather that has shine, that means there’s been some sort of coating, and when you have coating and then you add heat, it changes the leather, because leather is organic. So, the leather stretches, and it expands, and it contracts. I had so many problems developing this design. I could’ve made it easier by just adding a stitch somewhere, so that it becomes two pieces, but since I’m not willing to sacrifice the design, I spent a lot of time finding the right leathers. I had leather imported from Europe. I tried so many tanneries, I’ve gone through so many samples—I think this was possibly the twelfth sample of this shoe, which is crazy. I think my factory is ready to kill me, but I’m very lucky that he and I have built a wonderful friendship and he gets my perfectionism. The idea is that when we finally find it and we finally produce it, people are going to love it because they’re going to see the detail and the passion that we have put into it. It’s so hard, but I think I understand it now. A lot of it is because I’m new to all of this, as well. For example, I didn’t know that if I go shiny, I should go with a smaller piece, but now I know so that next time I design, I’m going to know right away: you’re going to have to give up the shine. I forget, what was the question?
REDDY-BEST: Oh, I was just wondering how many collections you had made.
KACY: Yeah, so I’m releasing the second collection right now. We’re going to have five designs, so two are going to be shoes, but the two shoes I’m really proud of because that’s when I started to design based off of like stuff I’ve never seen before. So, I’m excited to see what it looks like, but I’m also frightened because, again, as a new shoe designer it could look really horrible. For all I know, it’s going to come out and it’s going to be like, “Oh my god, but why did I do this?” Or it’s going to come out and be like, “No one’s ever done this before and it looks awesome.” Some of these designs were inspired by clients of mine who have become lifelong friends now because of our love of shoes and of the mission. One client, in particular, Mindy, has become this fashionista icon in the queer community because her style is so unique and so colorful. It’s the complete opposite of me, you know, I’m always in black and like she’s always in color, but like she inspires me so much with her style that I actually designed a shoe based off of her influence. So, I’m excited for that.
REDDY-BEST: How do potential customers find out about your brand?
KACY: I’ve like done several interviews and usually I always find that it’s actually easier to find me because I’m like the only one really doing what I’m doing? I always recommend the people on your list. So that’s why I always recommend the people on your list. So that’s why I was like, “Well, this is new,” and, “They’re already on here! Ok, well I won’t need to recommend them anymore this time.” So, but it’s awesome! I’m happy that you found us. If you ever come up with a list – if you ever have to do research and you have to come up with a list of all of like the companies that are looking for brands like us, I would love a copy of that list.
REDDY-BEST: The companies? What do you mean?
KACY: If there’s like retailers or like big brands or stores that are looking for brands like us, because we are this new movement. I actually was talking to Vicki last year about trying to have a proposal, for big department stores or big brands or retailers to, basically, be at the forefront of creating departments for them that are focused on what we’re doing. That way Nordstrom could be the first retail department store to have like this gender-neutral department of all the gender-neutral brands, because we’re in contact with one another, like all of us in the community, right? We kind of fell on the side because, you know, we got so busy, but we all still go on these fashion show circuits. So, we all know each other and we all try to work together and collaborate on things and just help one another. So, the big brands, like Zara or Gap, they just want to start creating stuff of their own, but it’s like so off. The stuff they create is off, because they’re not us. So, they just create things they think is what we want, but it’s so off. Like, when Zara came out with their gender-neutral collection, and it was just grey sweat suits. I remember looking at it and just being like, “Wow.” Like, “that’s what you think gender neutral is. Just subtract all the fashion and create sweat suits that are grey.” I’m sorry but sweatpants have always been gender-neutral. I don’t know why now you think it’s a new thing? But anyways.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah. It’s interesting, what you said about looking for retailers who are looking to buy from folks like you all.
KACY: Yeah. It’s going to happen eventually. It’s just a matter of time. I’m just curious, as to who are those first few people that are going to be like, “We need this.”
REDDY-BEST: Right, who is innovative and who would push the boundaries.
KACY: Yeah, so I don’t know if you remember Selfridges in London. It was the first largest, oldest department store to have a gender-neutral section. They did an experiment, basically, where they had a whole floor that was just non-gendered, and got rid of the women’s department and the men’s department. I thought to myself, “that’s amazing.” The oldest, original department store ever taking that step, you know? I’m like still waiting for all the other, more modern, ones to like catch on. Like, hello? You know. But, it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.
REDDY-BEST: Yeah, ok. So, a few more questions. What are you most proud of, so far?
KACY: That I haven’t quit yet? Let’s see. I mean at the end of the day… remember I go back to what my mom told me. My mom and I have become very close as I have become older, I guess. When I first started this company, she was very supportive—although she was very worried, because she’s, you know, everybody thought I was nuts quitting my job at Google to do this, but she was very supportive. She even modeled for me at my first fashion show in New York. It was Rainbow Fashion Week and she modeled the runway for me wearing my monk boots. She told me at one point—in Chinese, obviously— she was like [speaks Chinese], which was like “You’re so brave, so courageous.” Then she said like, “You’re not afraid to take risks and when you set your mind and you say you’re going to do something, you always do it. You always make it happen no matter how hard it is.” I think that’s what I’m most proud of when I think about it, because there’s so many things that we can be proud of, right? There are so many hurdles that you overcome that you’re proud of all of those moments, and all of those moments combined together, get you to your present, right? When I think of like what is the most monumental thing that I can say that I did that I quit my job and started this shoe company, even with zero experience, and I did it. I didn’t do it alone, I had this amazing support from my community. My community here in LA, and around the world, and people who didn’t know me who now are my friends somehow. They believed in something, like, they believed in why I was doing what I was doing, and I think, at the end of the day, as Mindy told me, “It’s about your authenticity and that you’re so genuine that people want to invest in your story.” That’s something to be proud of. Not everybody can be so transparent and be so open about their journey. To me, it’s like, “I’m making shoes.” It’s a journey, and it’s about the journey, you know? You have to walk with me, right? We have to walk together on this. So yeah, I’m proud of that.
REDDY-BEST: Was there anything that surprised you starting your brand? Were there any initial things that you didn’t expect?
KACY: There were so many. I didn’t expect it to be easy, that’s for sure, but I didn’t expect it to be so tremendously hard. I think one year into it, I think I was at a trade show for shoes with somebody I met along the way that heard my story and wanted to help me. He said to me—because he had been in the industry for like over 35 years—he said to me, “You literally picked the hardest industry to go into.” You know, like, “Shoes are the worst industry to go into,” and I was like “Come on, like, it’s just another, you know, product,” and he’s like, “No, it literally is the hardest industry to go into.” Now, after two years I’m like, “Yeah, I agree.” I finally get it now. My aunt has like a clothing factory, so I grew up watching that part of the world. You know, seeing kind of behind the scenes of how clothing becomes reality. It never seemed like so hard to me because I would be in the factory clipping little threads and stuff, and it just seemed like very- like, it’s hard work, but it’s doable. But shoes… people don’t realize, for example, [holds up shoe] you know, this is not a good example, but let’s say this is a boot with lots of shoe laces, right? You look at the shoes and you think, “Oh yeah, this is a great design. Oh, it’s so easy to make you stitch this together and whatever.” But nobody thinks about that there’s a resource to make the buckle, there’s a resource to make the leather for this heel, and then the rubber injection, and every single part of thi – even the guy who stitches the equal sign is a whole different resource. It’s all about, that if you want quality you want to have experts that do each part of those things, do each part. Like, you don’t want me to make your shoes – they’ll last you a day, right? So, I think those are things that people don’t think about. The eyelets, the shoelaces – somebody’s making each one of those items to make a whole shoe. Those are things I took for granted. I didn’t know. I just thought like, “Oh! Shoe factory! One guy makes all of this.” Then there’s delays and if there’s problems for something that I want to change, I’m not changing with one person, I have to change it for everybody. That was, I think, the thing that really blew my mind. Even the expert who’s been doing this for 35 years and I have to literally argue to death with them because they’re like, “Your last is wrong.” You know, “it’s a woman’s last,” or “it’s a men’s last,” and I’m like, “No, it’s a unisex last and you’ve never made it before because it didn’t exist before.” Every single part of what I do was literally having to argue my way into it and then getting them to understand why I was doing it, and how I was doing it. Even the last guy, when he finally finished the design, after all of my changes, I had to ask him, “Ok now, tell me the truth. What do you think? Do you think this is a nice last?” And he was like, “Yeah, it’s nice.” Those are moments that I feel [sigh of relief], because, he’s the expert! He’s going to tell me the truth because he’s been doing this for 35 years or 40 years or however long. At the same time all of these people who are such craftsmen at what they do, they’re also still thinking about what it was like 30 years ago when they were doing it, right? So, it’s very hard, and it’s a very archaic industry. It’s a very old, old-school industry, but that’s also why they’re so good, because they’ve been doing it for so long. To be able to change their minds and get them to understand where I’m coming from, and not only to do what I say, but to enjoy what they’re doing for me, because they’re doing something different. I don’t want them to be like grudgingly like, “Oh, you said this, so now I do it.” I don’t want anyone to work with me if they’re not going to enjoy it, but to see like their eyes light up when they finally like grasp what I’m doing, is amazing. Sorry, that was very long.
REDDY-BEST: No, it was great! What types of positive feedback do you get from people about your brand?
KACY: If you ever need testimonials you can go on my website. I have testimonials for every product. I think the majority of it really is about how they’re very comfortable or that shoes finally fit them properly. For me, I spent my whole life wearing shoes that were too big and so I would put in two insoles, and I would wear super thick socks, double the socks, just so I could fit into a pair of shoes that fit my exterior. Now to have something where—I remember the first time I put on my own design, and I was in Europe, I was in Portugal, and I put on my design for the first time and I remember the joy of having it just fit me. It fit me without extra insoles without anything else. I just started tearing up and walking so proudly on the streets, even though they were cobblestones and it was the first sample so they hurt like hell, because they hadn’t been perfected yet, and we were still figuring out the nuances, but at least it fit, and it was my design! It was so amazing. Whenever I get an email or a social media post from my clients, it’s that same—I understand. I understand what they’re trying to say, because I’ve been there, I’ve experienced it, and it’s this joy. One client was like, for the first time they felt like they didn’t have children’s feet because they were finally wearing shoes that look proportionate to their body. Or someone else who felt they walked differently, you know, they felt that they walked proudly and with confidence. Yeah, I mean the stuff about being comfortable, or they look super cool or are great quality — those are all great and I’m super happy to receive that kind of feedback, but it’s the stuff that is so powerful are the things that impact the way they see themselves. That’s the stuff that I really love to hear.
REDDY-BEST: Do you ever receive negative feedback?
KACY: Of course. I think most of the negative feedback is just the price point. I get it. I mentioned earlier that it’s one of those things where if I could help it, I would.
REDDY-BEST: How did you fund the business? Was there a business partner or anything else like that was involved? How did that work?
KACY: When I first started, I was using my own savings to fund the research and development, and then, once I had the first samples of the first few designs, that’s when I started a Kickstarter campaign. I think I raised over my goal of $35,000. I think my total was like, 40 something thousand. I took that money and I went into production and paid for the rest of the samples, finalizing everything, and then shipping all of those. It’s very expensive when you’re importing . Whatever was leftover, I utilized to help develop, you know, the rest—the new stuff. After that was gone, it’s now basically my savings.
REDDY-BEST: Why do you produce in Mexico and Portugal?
KACY: When I first started with the research part, I went to like the shoe fairs, you know, and, and met shoemakers from literally around the world. When you go to stuff like, Magic in the states, most of the people that come to it are like from Asia. There’s not as many European manufacturers that come to fairs in the United States. Instead, they mostly go to the ones in Europe, so I had to go to the ones in Europe. If there was, just a rough number, like a thousand manufacturers from around the world at this trade show, I would try to talk to maybe 80% of that number. Out of the 80% of that, only 10% of those people would even comprehend what I’m talking about. Out of that 80%, not even to the 10% yet, maybe only 5% of the people would even bother to talk to me, because I’m nobody, right? So, it’s a very old industry where everyone has been in the industry for many, many years and they all know one another. It’s a very old industry where everyone— I was so surprised like everybody knew everybody. So, I come along and nobody would talk to me because they were like, “We don’t know you.” Understandably, too. I found that later it’s because 1) I’m Asian, so they thought I was trying to like go and like steal ideas, and then 2) I wasn’t represented by like an agent or like anyone who knew them? So, it was very hard for them to want to communicate with me, right? Let’s say that after the 50% that would talk to me, then 10% of that actually understood what I was going for. Otherwise they just thought like, “You want to make men’s shoes in women’s sizes.” I’m like no that’s not what I want. . So. And even within that percentage was like, how many were homophobic? How many were male-chauvinists? How many were transphobic? Like, there were so many things that really limited the amount of people that I could actually work with. Luckily, you know, I did end up leaving meeting a few people, you know, thanks to the grace of people paying it forward. I met this amazing agent from Italy, Giovanni, and he was amazing. He taught me so much, he introduced me to all these people, and that’s the only reason I think I was able to talk to as many people as I did. When I was in Italy I had two factories, that he highly recommended, that understood what I was saying, and would make samples for me. Then I had samples made in Portugal. Then I had samples made in Spain. Out of all of those samples, I just ended up choosing Portugal, because the quality was amazing. In fact, the samples that I received I found were better than the ones from Italy. So that was one, right? So quality, obviously, is huge factor. Secondly, when I was in Italy, unfortunately, my experience was that the factories I went to had poor environmental standards or there were none. Like, there was no venting, there were no fans, there was no protection of any kind. I walked in and I could barely breathe, you know, because of the fuzz. Those are things that I know are important not only to me, but for my customers. In the states, those are things that we care about. We want to be environmentally friendly, we want to do things properly for people’s employees’ health. So the health standards were another thing. Thirdly, they were just so damn male-chauvinistic to me. They acted like I knew nothing. They were just like, “You know nothing,” and I’m just standing there like, “Okay, if you think so. But, just so you know, I’m the one paying you to do this for me, so, I know something, right?” It was very interesting. It was just such a different culture, and it didn’t matter that like I was trans, and it didn’t matter that I was masculine presenting, because they would just still think of me as a woman and that I didn’t know anything. That was hard for me. Then, I got to Portugal and the Portuguese are just so lovely and so kind. I was so lost and most people would just be like, “go that way.” Like, this gentleman literally stopped what he was doing and walked me all the way to where I was going and went back the other way. That really made just such a huge impact on my outlook of this culture? Their economy —well, all of Europe was actually doing really badly at the time. I just thought that, if I’m going to support any economy, I’m going to support these people because they showed me the kindness that all of us should show to each other. It was just icing on the cake that the quality of the shoes was more to my liking. As far as Mexico, it’s because I still have had problems with Portugal. Nothing’s perfect. So far, so it costs so much and it takes so long, so that’s why I’m giving Mexico a shot to see how that progresses. Also, because I wanted to do Goodyear welt and to do Goodyear welt in Europe is like three times worse.
REDDY-BEST: Can you tell me what Goodyear-Welt means?
KACY: Yeah, sure. [shows shoe] For example, this is the first collection, and this is Blake stitch. The Blake stitch goes this way, so it just, goes around and they just stitch in here, right? This is like an open channel, which means you can see the channel. For a Goodyear welt, which is this one, [shows stitch] you can’t see it because I did a closed channel, so it’s closed up. A Goodyear welt is a specific type of machine that, I think Goodyear invented, and it stitches in a very different way. I think there are debates on like if there’s one that’s better. Everyone thinks Goodyear welt is the best. I don’t think I’m knowledgeable to refute that, but, some other shoemakers think that they’re both equally durable. I just liked the Goodyear welt because, for this design, I could do a closed channel and so that you can’t see the stitching. In that sense I think it could be like an additional layer of durability because now you don’t have an open channel, so water can’t seep through and less things open to the elements. Both of these types of stitching are great for shoes and the reason they last so long is because you can literally take it out. When this wears out, you can just stitch on a new one. You don’t have to do the glue type, which is what most shoes are using. So, they just last for a really long time. This is all stuff I’ve learned that I’m super excited to share. Most people don’t realize that, when you get your shoes resoled, whenever you open up the bottom of your shoe, you lose your shape of your shoe. If you don’t have the last, right? Like, you don’t have this to go with this when you, when you fix your shoe, so you always lose some of the shape. I guess with a Goodyear welt, I’m still not sure what it is exactly, but, apparently, it is a much better way to change the sole that better keeps the shape of your shoe. That’s what they tell me.
REDDY-BEST: So, you talked a little bit about thinking about ethics in manufacturing, is there anything that you do that is community outreach involved? Or Is there anything that you hope to do in the future? Do you think about that? How does that come into play?
KACY: Yeah, so, one of my core missions for, not even just my brand, but myself, personally, is to support the LGBTQ community. I’ve always been a huge supporter of most of the LGBTQ non-profits. For example, in LA it’s like the LA LGBT Center, and there’s HRC, there’s the Trans-Latina Coalition, there’s Lambda Legal. There are so many great organizations that do so much for our community. When I started the company, I wanted to translate that for my Kickstarter. Part of the Kickstarter campaign, was that, for every fifty pairs of shoes that I was able to back, I would donate one pair to the youth center. So, that was something from the very beginning that was very much part of the vernacular of what I want my mission to be. Even though I’m only what – two and half years old as a company, and barely sustaining, I still donate a huge chunk to all of these organizations because, again, that’s what it’s all about. You can always make more money later, but to be able to continuously like support them, and to help them keep doing what they’re doing is what it’s all about.
REDDY-BEST: So, at this point I sort of summarize: I asked about your background, about your own experience with style and shopping; about like how the company started; how it works; where people buy and find out about your products, and then the process of going from concept to product; things about customers; things about what you’re most proud of regarding ethics, feedback, and funding, is there anything else? We covered a lot of topics, but is there anything else that I didn’t ask that would be important for me to know or for me to understand about knowing the history and the reasons why your brand is here?
KACY: Mm, no, I guess, I mean… Yeah, I mean, I, I think like the… The summary, I guess, would be just like for me is that, we’re not here for ourselves as businesses, you know? We’re here for, literally, a movement, for changing and creating social impact. So, hopefully, that’s what it will do.
REDDY-BEST: So then the one question: can you talk a little bit about some of the imagery, some of the models, or the folks that you might choose to include in imagery that might be associated with your brand?
KACY: Yeah. I think in creating the ad campaign for it was something that I had to be very purposeful about? Because, when creating a brand that is about being for everyone, it’s hard to include everyone, like because “everyone” is so subjective, right. I did keep in mind being body positive, and being inclusive. My models include trans-people, cis-people, queer people, straight people, everyone. For my Kickstarter campaign, I had a photoshoot where I had just reached out to the entire community and I was like, “Whether you’re straight, gay, male, female — whatever you are, this is what I’m doing, and if you believe in supporting this, then come.” We just ended up having a big party with a big photoshoot. Everybody volunteered, and it was amazing, you know? I made cocktails and brought food and it made it like it wasn’t just my brand hiring you. It was about, how we’re coming together as a community and we’re going to do this together. I think I’ve kept that mentality since then. Even when I do photoshoots that look amazing and they look so professional, and they are — I mean they’re professional because my friends who donate their time are professionals, but, it’s still about that community. It’s still about how they believe in being a part of it because they believe in the mission of the brand. Even though, right now I hate the fact that I can’t afford to pay everybody what they’re worth, but I try my best to like give them what I can or trade them what I can and keep it authentic.
REDDY-BEST: Cool. I think that was that was the only thing. I added that question in, but I think it’s an important one to ask.
KACY: Yeah, absolutely. It is important. It’s about the image of their brand and what they’re about, you know?
KACY: And because my brand is about authenticity so everyone is like—it’s real people. Even the photo where it looks like it’s a couple — they’re a real couple.