My earliest memories of loving everything to do with design were weekends spent with my father, the architect, at his office, drawing. There were always deadlines for his various projects, so weekends at work were pretty standard routine for him. I was his willing and happy confrère.
I loved to draw (still do), so his office was a magical place for me. There were drawers brimming with colored pencils and reems of paper at my disposal. All I was expected to do was put them to good use and amuse myself. Quietly. It was the early cultivation of flow for me; that effortless focus that blots out time and space; that utter absorption in the task at hand. A lot like meditation, frankly.
CHEERIOS & FLOW
According to my mom, I had that flow thing going from a very early age, continually counting and re-arranging the Cheerios in my tray as a toddler. And how I hated being interrupted or distracted by her! Nothing chapped my diapers more than being interrupted when I was in the middle of creating something. Still true.
B.F.A. & M.B.A.
Art school followed at the University of Michigan, where I straddled the art and architecture schools as an undergrad, and then much to my father’s dismay, graduate school at NYU for my M.B.A. I’d been accepted to architecture school at Columbia University, but decided, very last minute, that a business degree would offer a broader platform from which to operate.
I’ve never regretted that decision. The impulse to design never left me, but the business background allowed me to take my creativity in myriad directions and earn a good living. It also provided the foundation for what has become this serial entrepreneur’s career.
I started my first business in 1984: Square One Design Inc., which was followed by Annie J in 1992. Under both umbrellas, I designed and manufactured home furnishings for Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Pier I Imports among others, and produced my own proprietary line of products under the Annie J label. It was the perfect melding of my love of design, with the tools acquired in business school allowing me to orchestrate and finance production all over the world.
I worked in factories from India to China, Mexico to Thailand, producing thousands of products, all of which unquestionably informed my approach to shoe design years later.
I was in Paris on business on September 11, 2001, when the world as we knew it, shifted forever. It was particularly poignant for me, as a New Yorker, because the NYU Business School was still across the street from the Twin Towers at that time. I took the subway downtown every day from the upper westside of Manhattan to attend class and exited under those towers. But for the grace…timing is everything.
For some New Yorkers, 9/11 created a pivotal moment, a carpe diem urgency. The decision to sell my company and move from Manhattan to Sag Harbor, on the east end of Long Island, had finally arrived. I’d been thinking about it for some time. Manhattan would recover, faster than many thought possible, but I wanted to re-imagine life outside the city I had called home for twenty-four years.
MOVING TO THE EAST END
Leaving NYC and moving to the quaint village of Sag Harbor, was its own kind of existential shock. No noise. No bustle. No weekday comrades. Spectacular views of the ocean. Nice restaurants. Time on my hands. I quickly realized that that’s what continuing ed is for duh, and signed up for some classes – drawing, Spanish, and prophetically, beginner golf.
What followed were lots of buckets of balls at the range. Lots of pulled and shanked shots. (Relate?) No one died, but I was on the verge of handing in my clubs when it happened. I hit my first sweet spot and b-o-o-m. Hooked. Kind of like Thelma’s romp with J.D in that motel… I finally knew what all the fuss was about. I was a golfer.
NEW OBSESSION… DESIGNING WOMEN’S GOLF SHOES
According to my teaching pro, I needed golf shoes with cleats. Something about a dancing left foot. In earnest I looked, and looked – and looked – but couldn’t find shoes that fit – or looked good enough to be caught dead in. Not kidding. The dormant product-developer in me awakened and Equipt became a whisper in this entrepreneur’s ear. I really did buy and test 19 pairs of golf shoes – it may even have been more – to zero in on what I thought needed improving. Like adding some color. And playfulness. And for heaven’s sake, comfort.
As early as 2002, I began playing around with design ideas for the kinds golf shoes I wanted and wasn’t concerned about the ‘making’ part at the time. My background in global manufacturing would come in handy eventually. I knew I could figure how to produce them when the time came. The sketch books came out and the doodling commenced. (I’ve never shared these drawings – but glad I excavated them for this post.) The shoes below were the very first samples I had made in China and test-drove at the Los Angles Country Club in 2009 for proofing. (Thanks for the invite, Jeff.) Looking at them now I think I should produce this version for you. So fresh and pretty.
My mission was to create women’s golf shoes that looked innovative, unique and stylish – and just as important – were comfortable enough to walk 18 holes. It still is. There’s no reason comfortable shoes have to be ugly. No reason at all. The sketches below were the early precursors of our Aprés and then OMG zip-up shoes. The concept was to add stretch for comfort – something no one else was doing back in 2010 – and amp up the color and style.
AN IDEA COMES TO LIFE
And here’s what resulted in 2010: Aprés (left), the lightweight, stretchy shoe that zipped. Perfect for women with problem feet (and bunions, like mine…). Like walking on clouds.
MEDIA COVERAGE & DESIGN RECOGNITION
We enjoyed some pivotal media coverage when Oprah found us in 2011 and put us on her famous O list; Golf Digest featured us multiple times; and MSNBC invited us to present a pitch on their Sunday morning business program. The New York fashion industry noticed us in 2014 and nominated us for a Rising Star design award.
THERE’S MORE TO GOLF THAN WHITE SHOES!
These were critical junctures in my journey as a shoe designer, offering validation for the tone and direction of my company. This was the first time women’s golf shoes, and to my knowledge, any athletic shoes, received recognition as high fashion. And just to remind all of you what women’s golf shoes looked like when we arrived…vanilla pudding (them) vs crème brulée (us). And kid you not, that white shoe below is what Foot Joy is still offering you today. (No one looks good in solid white shoes, btw. No one.)
Thanks to O Magazine, I heard from women all over the world who wanted style with their sportswear – who were setting a trend in fashion now known as athleisure – where gym clothing was becoming street fashion. Companies like mine, and soon others like Lululemon, sprang up to answer the call.
PRODUCTION SOUTH OF THE BORDER
As always, life is full of synchronicities if we pay close enough attention, and I’d say that has been true of Equipt’s voyage. There have been plenty of struggles along the way (China production being a particularly difficult one), but miraculous breaks, too. Mexico.
When unexpected leads emerged for factories south of the border that would allow me to move production from China, I jumped at the chance. I’d dreamed of having factories closer to home and working with people who actually loved what they were producing. For a budding venture like mine, that was critically important.
TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAMWORK
My ideas had to be sampled and tested, and I needed factories willing to take the long view with me. In my experience, the Chinese were interested in volume and one-shot deals. Not continuity. In Mexico, I found a more sustainable base of operations – abundant raw materials, smaller factories – and skilled colleagues interested in crafting a beautiful product.
The photographs above are of my team. The gang on the left specializes in rubber outsoles. Skilled engineers. Fun guys. On the far right, is Irma, my agent (middle), who oversees product development and production. Chuy, to her left, green shirt, is the product development manager of our factory and works closely with Irma and me to develop new designs. A true artist. Jorge, to their right, is a brilliant mold designer and CAD (computer design) specialist. Our OMG outsoles and the new golf shoe outsoles were designed by him. Those are his drawings on the right and prototypes below. Pretty awesome.
ALWAYS MAKE SOMETHING MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN IT NEEDS TO BE
That’s really the nugget in the end. Love what you do. Love it enough to keep going when the road is long and hard. Find and work with people you like and respect.
Here it is mid-2021, more than eleven years after the launch, and I can say with certainty that Equipt’s mission hasn’t changed. We continue to be committed to designing fashionable, comfortable shoes for active women, and aiming, continually, to improve our products. If you’re like me you want footwear that works with the way you live: comfortable, modern, stylish – at home on a city street or rugged golf course – exploring Sydney or ________(fill in the blank), looking so good.
Golf. Walk. Travel. Relaaaaaaaaax.