In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
At just 26 years old, shoe designer Sarah Flint has accomplished as much as, if not more than, someone twice her age.
In the two years since launching her eponymous luxury footwear line, Flint has made her mark in an ultra-competitive industry dominated by towering statement heels. Her shoes boast an elegantly girlish aesthetic, rooted in classic shapes and designs, but all with subtly unique details. Think: a dainty asymmetrical bow, delicate piped ankle straps or a peek of toe cleavage on flats and manageable mid-heels, all manufactured in Italy. Flint's collection quickly caught the eye of luxury influencer boutiques around the country like Edon Manor in New York and Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco and, recently, the venerable Barneys New York. Celebrities have embraced Flint's work, too, but for their everyday lives as opposed to the stylist-groomed red carpet. Jessica Alba wears her pointy flats for errand runs, Heidi Klum wore her suede booties to her sons' game and Kate Hudson opted for her camel, fold-over boots for a flight home from Paris Fashion Week. Oh, and Blake Lively recently Instagrammed herself modeling a Sarah Flint python slingback and a swoopy, cap-toe patent flat.
Flint and her small team work out of a compact office set up in the second bedroom of her Manhattan apartment. (Although, they're looking to move into an official office space soon.) The room's immaculately arranged strappy heels, two-toned flats and gladiator sandals made for the perfect backdrop as I sat down with Flint to discuss how she entered the business as a teenager, convinced her teacher at Ars Sutoria to start working for her and the benefits of befriending Barneys sales staff — plus, all the ambitious plans she has for the future.
How did you start designing shoes?
So it’s kind of crazy, but I always knew I wanted to design shoes. As a kid, I was always sketching and drawing and was always really interested in fashion. I got a job at a luxury boutique in town — the only luxury boutique in my town; I’m from Massachusetts — and I started working there as a sales associate. I went in and asked for a job — I was 14 — and they were like, 'Come back in three years,' and I literally kept going every month until they finally gave me a job. I worked as a sales associate and then I started working with the buyer when she was coming to New York. Then I moved [to New York] to go to Parsons, so she actually hired me as a buyer, which was great, [because] she didn’t want to be coming back all the time. At Parsons, I really loved it. I was in fashion design there, but I really wanted to specialize in just footwear, so I moved to go to FIT where I could just do accessories. That was really a good move for me.
Then you studied in Italy at Ars Sutoria, a famous shoe design school.
I had internships at Proenza Schouler [while at F.I.T.] and I had a ton of amazing design background, but I felt like I really needed to understand the technical side of things. To move to Italy and to go this pattern making and prototyping school, Ars Sutoria, it was really incredible because you’re not only working on patterns all day, but you’re also going into the factories and seeing where each element of the shoe is made and going to the tanneries and the outsole producer and really learning a lot about the construction and the fit, which is really important to me and the way that I design.
Tell me about your internship experience.
The really great thing about Proenza was that they have 30 fashion design interns at all times, and I went in and said, I really just do accessories. So I got to work directly with Darren Spaziani, who's the accessories designer there. I actually got to do a little more than just messenger things, which was nice.
How did you decide to start your own label so early?
I always knew I wanted to do this at some point, but I definitely didn’t think I was going to do it this early. I was 22 when I left Italy and I had this amazing teacher there, Richard Siccardi, and when I met him I was like, okay, well, you know, this guy is not going to be around forever. I mean he’s not older, but literally every season everyone would ask him, 'Well, don’t you want to come work for me and start a collection?' and he always said no. I knew that he would say no to me as well if I just asked him while I was there, so I came back to New York and I put together a business plan. I was working as a nanny at the same time. I was designing in the mornings and working as a nanny in the afternoons, and then I went back and approached him.
I put together a board of advisors and said: these are the people that are behind me, you can still work at Ars Sutoria part-time and we can do this together and really this can be a partnership. I think no one had approached him in that way before. People were always just like, it’s my collection and I want to design beautiful things and I was like, look, this is going to be a business. This is how we’re going to do it and this is going to be a partnership, you’re going to be a part owner of the company and we’re going to build this together, and I think that he really appreciated that. He and I have very similar ideas in terms of design and shoes and what makes a shoe beautiful and really focusing on the fit and the construction, and he really appreciated that as well.
How did you learn to put a business plan together?
I talked to my dad a lot when I was little about businesses. He’s an entrepreneur and works with a lot of young entrepreneurs, so we talked a lot about what makes a business successful and why they fail and why they succeed. One of the things he said to me that always stuck with me was, you need to understand what you’re good at and what you can’t do and find people — you know, the best of the best — to do the things that you can’t. And Richard was definitely the first piece of that puzzle.
You also have an impressive board of advisors (including Desiree Gruber, CEO of the public relations agency Full Picture and Chris West of strategy consultant firm Marvin Traub Associates). How did you pitch them and get them involved?
In the beginning, especially when you just have sketches, it's so hard. It got to be a lot easier once I had a first collection and I could actually show them the product. But in the beginning, it’s just really just explaining to them what my vision for the brand was, and I think meeting me and seeing how passionate and determined I was about it, and they sort of understood that this was something that was going to work and each of them had their own specific experience that was so helpful, like Desiree [Gruber] in PR and then Chris West with the business side of things. So I think that they just really saw the vision, and we came into this really trying to fill a void and create a kind of footwear that women have been missing for a little while.
When we were launching, the new brands had been like Charlotte Olympia and Sophia Webster — and those are amazing brands, I love those brands — but they’re a very different aesthetic than my own. They’re really whimsical and I think that there’s definitely a woman who is looking for this kind of elegant, sophisticated, hand-crafted, unique, special, but that she doesn’t feel is too… what’s the right word to say?
Yeah, exactly, She doesn’t feel too conservative. A lot of my customers are professional women and they don’t feel like they can wear a Charlotte Olympia platform with a crazy head on it or whatever, even if she likes it. So it’s been an interesting niche. We had our Barneys product knowledge thing yesterday morning and I was asking them, 'Who do you feel is the customer?' Because I see who it is at trunk shows, but it’s interesting to see their take on it. And what was interesting is that they were saying it’s very multi-generational. I do a lot of kitten heels, and they were saying that they see a lot of young girls buying the kitten heels and they’re doing it with boyfriend jeans and a blazer, versus an older woman buying a kitten heel and she might be wearing it with a dress or with a suit or something like that. But it definitely appeals to multiple audiences, which is interesting.
How did you fund your label?
It’s all privately funded at this point, just different angel investors, although we will be looking to go out and do a second round of fundraising.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
I think the biggest challenge was just coming in at a luxury price point and asking people to spend what they’re spending on Prada or Gucci, and they don’t know the brand. Actually, we didn't have as much trouble with the customer, as we did with the buyer. I think [my customer is] looking for something that doesn’t have labels on it and is new and unique, and [that] everyone else isn’t wearing.
You started selling through smaller boutiques and now you’re at Barneys. What was that process like?
I thought we weren’t going to have any boutiques the first season, because I met with so many people and it was like, 'Oh it’s great, it's beautiful, let’s watch it for a couple of seasons.' Finally, I got one boutique in Massachusetts, which is where I’m from. I think [the owner of Tess & Carlos] liked the product, so she took a chance on it. And then Edon Manor, and they’re great because they do like to find things that not everyone else has. Getting those initial two boutiques was big and then we went from there to six stores, and we went to eight, and we’ll be in 28 this spring, and then Barneys. As soon as the Barneys thing happened, it was like a stamp of approval.
How did Barneys come about?
With a lot of anxiety. Calling, and you know, at first we met with some associate people that probably didn’t have the decision-making power, and really liked it but they were like, 'Okay, we’ll go and tell the higher ups' and then finally we got the buyers in, the ones that needed to see it, and they were really excited by it. They really felt like they saw a space in their floor for this kind of product. They bought all into our mid-heels and kitten heels and flats, which we do a lot of, and I think women are also really looking for right now. It worked really well and the sell-through was phenomenal, so that was really exciting.
Looking back, what advice would you give a young designer about getting into a store like Barneys?
I would say, have patience, stick with it. Just know that it’s going to happen eventually and you have to keep trying and I think the most important thing. [But] you actually have to have the sales to stay there, so I would say, make all of the sales people your best friends. Listen to them, because I think a lot of designers don’t even talk to the sales people. I walk the floors every week. They really appreciate it, and they want to get behind you.
What was it like launching e-commerce?
It’s been great, it’s the easiest part I would say. Whenever we get press hits, we see a lot of e-commerce traffic. We had a Blake Lively Instagram the other day and that was crazy, because we got so many orders off the website from that. And then we got so many emails from people abroad, too. I got an email from someone in Austria, I got an email from someone in France asking if we ship abroad, or if we’re located anywhere there yet.
What’s your next step?
We’re going to start showing resort for the first time. We’re going to be starting to show in Paris, so going out to European retailers for the first time, which should be really exciting and we're hoping to expand to a big international presence. I’d love to get an international department store. We actually are hoping to open our first boutique, which would be great. Just figuring out the timing on that and if we can raise the money and everything. The first season, we did big business in private trunk shows, particularly on the Upper East Side. We did an insane one on 92nd and Park, where we sold like 60 pairs of shoes in an afternoon. So I definitely feel like we have our customer, we just need to find the right space and all of that. I’d love to launch a number of stores.
Do you ever want to venture out into other accessories?
Definitely. I did handbags, too, at F.I.T. and Richard has a connection with one of the great factories in Italy, so we’ll definitely do that when we can. But I want to really get ourselves established in the footwear realm first and not spread myself too thin. There’s a lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.