Marais USA's Haley Boyd on Why Her Chic, Affordable Shoes Can Be a Hard Sell

Marais USA is the shoe brand of my dreams: Understated, affordable and good quality. The brand's young founder Haley Boyd tells us how she's making it.
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Marais USA is the shoe brand of my dreams: Understated, affordable and good quality. The brand's young founder Haley Boyd tells us how she's making it.
Haley Boyd, designer and owner of Marais USA. Photo: Courtesy

Haley Boyd, designer and owner of Marais USA. Photo: Courtesy

I have these very Sofia Coppola-esque d'orsay ankle strap heels that I get compliments on almost every time I wear them and when I tell the complimenter that they're Marais USA, I am always surprised to learn that they hadn't ever heard of the brand -- fashion people included.

Marais USA is basically the shoe brand of my dreams: Each style is simple and pared back, but also affordable -- almost everything is under $200 -- and decent quality. These features are surprisingly difficult to find in one shoe.

Founder Haley Boyd has grown her brand slowly, though she got into the biz quickly: After just two years at Parsons, she launched the line with e-commerce only in 2009 with zero press. Now her stockist list is growing -- Shopbop, Steven Alan and Urban Outfitters are on it -- as is her list of collaborations: She recently completed ones with Of a Kind and Liberty London and has one with GOOP set to bow this June.

You would think shoes this perfect would practically sell themselves (at least I would), but that hasn't been the case. Read on to learn more about Boyd, how she's growing her business, and why retailers don't necessarily want affordable shoes on their floor.

How did you get into fashion?

I went to a boarding school in California and randomly one Christmas vacation I was at home and  constructed these tube tops that were reconstructed Hanes t-shirts and made little rosettes. It's funny stuff to look at now, but I really enjoyed making the clothing and I started teaching myself how to sew and I started wearing my pieces at school, and I didn't tell people I made it because I wanted an honest response and all my friends were like, 'Ooh I love that I want it,' so then I told them I made it and I started selling my clothes and I did an independent study in fashion design and decided that I wanted to be a designer through that process, and then I went to Parsons and studied fashion.

How did Marais come about?

I was on a student budget and I kind of realized that it was really difficult to find simple design at an affordable price. Like five years ago, even at Steve Madden, the ballet flats were duck-billed and had the wrong amount of toe cleavage and it was just so hard to find these super basic styles, so the mission of Marais is to make simple design accessible.

So how long after college did you start the line?

I actually didn't finish at Parsons. After my sophomore year, I got the idea for Marais and decided to go for it and I did get pretty lucky finding manufacturing and other things that can be roadblocks for other designers I think, particularly with shoes, but all the pieces kind of fell together for me.

Where are the shoes manufactured?

They're manufactured in China.

How did you fund the line in the beginning?

We had investors and we really boot-strapped in the beginning and everybody was paid back in full within a year-and-a-half to two years. 

I love that the shoes are both affordable and good quality. Is that a difficult balance to maintain?

I feel like I'm so glad that you love that because that's exactly what the mission is. So if you want a great-looking Chelsea boot and you don't want to spend $600 or more on a boot from another company, I want Marais to be that go-to if you need something super simple and obvious that everyone's shopping for, but is hard to find at a good price.

The Beatle Boot (Boyd's take on the Chelsea).

The Beatle Boot (Boyd's take on the Chelsea).

So yeah, the manufacturing costs have almost doubled in the past five years in China, so that's definitely something that I struggle with, so I'm always researching new materials and trying to find things that are really good quality and will last, but that are affordable. We always offer vegan options in most of the styles we produce, and vegan options are more affordable than genuine leathers, so that also helps keep the cost down. And doing fabric uppers. So we did a collaboration with Liberty London for this spring, so even with Liberty London textiles, we were able to keep the prices pretty accessible. 

What inspires you?

I definitely design things that I want to wear and my friends want to wear and I'm definitely really aware of what people are looking for. For my creative process I compile images over a period of like six months because we do two collections a year, so once I finish a collection I start compiling images that inspire me and then once at the end of my six-month period I look at my folder and it's so obvious what my color palette is, what the styles are and I have a lot of vintage inspirations and styles that are super classic. I have to pull it out of myself visually and once I look at everything I collected, I'm very clear on my vision.

Do you have a certain style that Marais is known for or that carry over a lot because it's really popular?

This Chelsea boot [points to own feet] we've been making since our first fall collection, and it actually didn't sell that well in 2009, but in 2010 it was a huge runaway hit and it has been ever since, so we were a little bit early on the Chelsea boot I think but it's still our best seller every fall. Then for spring we do the Jitney sandal, which is the one with the espadrille mini-wedge, with the criss cross toe area -- that one is definitely the best seller every spring, And our jelly sandal. Flat, colorful sandals in the summer are always great for us and then really simple ankle boots.

Any new styles you're working on?

I'm working on designs for spring 2015 right now and we have a new heel height. It's like an inch and a half high and it's a square heel that gives you that little boost that I feel like so many people want in the summer if you're wearing shorts or a skirt to lengthen your legs but you want to be comfortable and walk around all day, so it's got variations on that little kitten heel, and also slingbacks. we're doing a slingback peep toe oxford. 

What's been the biggest challenge in growing your business?

The biggest challenge has been that our styles are so simple. It's really hard to sell super simple design to a retailer because they're looking for shop appeal and when something is so basic they aren't sure about it. Also, normally, the really simple designs are more expensive, and we sell to a lot of specialty boutiques that mix the high and the low and those boutiques want an expensive plain chelsea boot if they're going to stock one chelsea boot, not something that's $150 dollars which is what ours is. 

Why?

They're looking at their profit margins per square foot and they could make a lot more money selling an A.P.C. Chelsea boot than they can on a Marais USA Chelsea boot. They'd have to sell a lot more. It's easier to sell directly to customers than to wholesale a super simple design. 

How much of your business is direct to consumer versus wholesale?

A little more than a third of our business in revenue is on our website and then two-thirds is wholesale. We sell mainly in New York, Los Angeles, Japan, San Francisco, Australia, Canada. Those are our sweet spots. 

Has there been one milestone or moment where you felt like you'd really made it or this started to feel like a real business?

It actually came so early, I mean I have them all the time, where I'm like, 'yes I took another step forward,' but right when we first launched our website which was in the spring of 2009, we actually put the website up with all the products before they were in stock so we gave our customers the option to click 'notify me' instead of purchase the item. We didn't contact any press, we just finished the website and told our parents and went out to dinner to celebrate and we set up notifications on our phones so we could know any time someone said 'notify me' and our phones were off the hook immediately, like I guess it was word of mouth, we didn't have any analytics back then, but right when we launched the website we had like 1,000 notifications in the first week without any press. It was really cool. We spent a year developing this collection and as soon as we put it online, people were excited about it.

From the Spring 2014 lookbook.

From the Spring 2014 lookbook.

You've never done much press. How do you think people find you then? Is it word of mouth?

I feel like it's definitely word of mouth. We also have really loyal customers, like girls that buy our Chelsea boot or Jitney sandal, they come back and buy it every season, or they wear it every day and they wear through it and they're ready for the next pair or they just want the new color. 

[Pointing to my own Marais shoes] Yeah, I have these in two colors. 

Oh my god! I didn't know you were wearing Marais! So cute! I am trying to do a little bit more press, but it's a really small business so we do what we can.

Are there any other brands or designers that you admire or that inspire you?

This is totally random, but Rodin, you know the face products, Linda Rodin, her packaging and just the simplistic nature of the business, that they only have like six products. She definitely keeps expanding, but it's like one face product, one hair product, a perfume all these amazing essentials. I just admire the way that her business is super edited and it's beautiful in its simplicity. Her website is gorgeous. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own line?

I would tell them to talk about it and share their ideas with people. A lot of people that I know have great ideas and they're afraid to tell people about it. If you share the idea you give someone else the opportunity to criticize the idea, but I think you get so much further. Also, spend money on product development, not press.

Where do you see Marais USA in five to 10 years? Do you want to add more categories?

I do. I want it to be a full-blown accessories line, so we're introducing handbags for this next spring and then from there we'll probably do small leather goods like wallets and little pouches, and maybe a hat, sunglasses, belts, that kind of thing, so definitely expanding the product assortment and I would love to open a retail locations, flagship stores probably in New York and L.A., maybe one in Asia.

Oh and I forgot to ask: Why did you name it Marais USA? I assume it has to do with the neighborhood in Paris?

People are always asking me, but yes it's a neighborhood in Paris and the philosophy of the company is kind of to mix the effortless style of the Parisian and the confident practicality of the New Yorker. 

You can shop Marais' (super cute) new spring styles on its just-relaunched website.