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Charleston shoe designer talks ins, outs of fashion industry

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West Virginia native Rachel Richards has always loved shoes. So much so, she now designs them for a living.

Richards, a Charleston native, spoke at the Charleston Area Alliance's May 8 Elevations luncheon about the fashion business and her own experiences as a designer.

"I've always loved shoes," Richards said, recalling photos from her childhood that show her in her mother's high heels and boots.

But Richards didn't know a career in fashion was possible. After graduating George Washington High School, Richards attended Miami University, where she studied liberal arts. She eventually earned a degree in interior design. After college, Richards worked with Global Brand Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif., home of the popular Diesel brand. That job helped Richards realize she not only was creative, but she could also solve problems.

"That part I really liked," Richards said. "I haven't really solved any problems with shoes these days, but it was a  very, very good education in design."

Richards said her parents were supportive of her career ambitions, and she encouraged other young women to stay with their own dreams and aspirations.

"One thing growing up in West Virginia, I didn't even know what design was. I didn't know that it was a job, or something I could make a career out of," she said. "I knew I was creative and it was something I wanted to try. I had very supportive parents. My grandparents thought I was crazy. I would just say stick to your gut and really go for it."

Richards has worked for both public and private companies and has seen first-hand how different companies operate. Because public companies answer to shareholders, they often can't take fashion risks like privately-owned companies can, she said.

"As far as financial decisions that drive fashion, at the end of the day, of you don't make money, it's hard to stay in business," she said. "As glamorous as fashion might be, there is still a bottom line."

That's evident in the sizing of some shoes. One woman in the audience asked why some brands didn't manufacture shoes in larger sizes. Richards said it comes down to profit.

She explained that three sizes can be made from a single mold. Because most women don't have large feet, creating molds for larger sizes costs the company money it may not recoup through sales.

Another way companies save money is by outsourcing shoe production. Richards said Chinese factories are careful about what they produce and pickier about the types of shoes they manufacture than European companies.

No matter where the shoe is designed or manufactured, Richards said it is always a good feeling to see a shoe she designed being worn in public or on a fashion blog. Another audience member asked Richards how companies interact with these blogs that often criticize fashion and design.

"Blogs are extremely important," Richards said, noting many brands have aggressive social media departments that interact with these blogs.

And like most in the industry, Richards said she values fashionable shoes, but doesn't want to sacrifice comfort.

"I'm super (into) function myself," she said, adding she often has more trouble finding functional handbags than shoes. But, thanks in part to a line she's helping to design, comfortable shoes are becoming more fashionable.

"Some shoes … it really doesn't matter," Richards said.

"Not to say they shouldn't be comfortable, but if you're not walking five blocks to the subway, then down into the subway and then three blocks to the restaurant, then it doesn't become as painful. It's funny. I think there's a big trend right now coming back to more comfortable shoes, like the Gentle Soles. Even like the trend of Birkenstocks is coming back into fashion. Paris Vogue just did an editorial where the model wore Birkenstocks. … I'm feeling this trend too because I wear comfortable shoes as well. I walk probably two miles a day to and from my job. I want something comfortable, but I want something that looks cool, too."