If I said, "Rag & Bone," more likely than not, an image of Newbury ankle boots might pop into your mind. Same, maybe, with "Chloé" and those flat, studded Suzanna booties or "Isabel Marant" and — whether the designer likes it or not — wedge sneakers. So while you might not yet recognize the brand name Freda Salvador — a faux moniker concocted by co-founders Megan Papay and Cristina Palomo-Nelson — it, too, may soon be known for its distinctive-yet-classic footwear. (I've been obsessed with the Star Jodhpur ankle boot, essentially a flat Chelsea bootie with a removable ringlet of metal-tipped fringe, since last year.) In a competitive marketplace packed with derivative designs or worse, it's refreshing to come across an original footwear brand that focuses on cool-girl details and wearability.
Papay and Palomo-Nelson founded Freda Salvador in 2011 and interestingly decided to base the company not in fashion-saturated New York or the runner-up American style capital, Los Angeles — but rather in San Francisco, a place better known for tech startups and North Face. Previously, Papay sampled different parts of the fashion industry in New York: the celebrity services department at Calvin Klein, fashion and beauty public relations, and her own accessories line. Her husband's job brought her out to San Francisco and she joined the design team at a shoe company, Anyi Lu, and met her future business partner, whose family has been in the shoe business for more than 65 years. Shoemaking "was always in my blood," said Palomo-Nelson, who holds a masters in fine art from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and who also trained at Italian shoe design school, Ars Sutoria (Sarah Flint's alma mater).
Papay and Palomo-Nelson, who are so in sync they tend to finish each others' sentences, decided to name their brand Freda Salvador to "resonate a lifestyle." The "Freda" comes from the duo's admiration of feminist artist Frida Kahlo. "We love her badass-ness," says Palomo-Nelson, whose family business is based in El Salvador — hence, "Salvador."
The two founded Freda Salvador with a common mission and aesthetic. "We wanted the shoes to speak for themselves and be beautiful and be incredibly designed and just interesting," Palomo-Nelson said. "And once you put them on, and were wearing them for a couple hours, you would have this fun element of surprise, 'Hey, my feet don’t hurt!'"
Freda Salvador does prove that style and comfort aren't mutually exclusive. Inspired details, like detachable fringe and multi-patterned straps, make them special. "The silhouette of the shoe has to be simple and classic and understandable," Papay says of their design process each season. "So if you start with something like a jodhpur boot that every girl knows and loves, but then you add a removable ankle bracelet with hardware, it’s all of a sudden super exciting." Everything is manufactured in Spain.
"I think at the end of the day we really push ourselves to make sure that everything that we’re offering isn’t out there already," Palomo-Nelson says. "And if it is, how can we add a twist to it so it is unique and different and has our point of view?" The first collection basically sold itself during Papay and Palomo-Nelson's first ever market trip to New York for the fall 2012 season. After meeting with a few showrooms, the two landed their first retailer: Saks Fifth Avenue. (Mic drop.)
"It was like literally one of those movie New York moments," recalled Papay. "Two girls fly to New York with two suitcases and crash this showroom and we’re like, 'Let us show you our shoes!" Once the showroom presented the initial collection to the buyers, the reaction was "incredible" — and the rest is history. Now, Shopbop, Forward by Elyse Walker and and Revolve Clothing, plus boutiques like Milk and American Rag in Los Angeles, carry the line. Ever ambitious, Papay and Palomo-Nelson are gunning to expand their international presence and break into that holy grail of retailers: Barneys, plus trend-making boutiques like Bird in Brooklyn. "We feel like that would be a really good fit for us," says Palomo-Nelson.
The two are also busy with the Freda Salvador flagship, which relocated from San Francisco's Union Street to the hipper Fillmore Street neighborhood, home to Rag & Bone and Steven Alan. Offering better foot traffic, the locale also serves as "a little test lab" to experiment with new products and categories with the "Freda girls." "We wanted to create a comfortable environment that embodies our shoes," says Palomo-Nelson. " It looks like a cool girl’s apartment."
While the two admit that having their home base in San Francisco can make networking with the fashion industry a little harder, they wouldn't trade their location and lifestyle for anything. "It's such a San Francisco brand," says Papay. "The need for our style of footwear is definitely here. We have such huge hills and steps and not much public transport, so we’re walking everywhere."
"The world’s eyes are on San Francisco right now," she adds. "There are so many interesting people here doing such interesting things, even outside of work, and the fashion lends itself to the lifestyle here. So maybe if someone is wearing a fleece, that’s fine, but their shoes are amazing and their denim’s great. It's laid back, but it’s cool."