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.
Ever since Isa Tapia figured out how to balance her senior year at Parsons School of Design with a full-time job at Oscar de la Renta, the Puerto Rican designer's work ethic has served her well. Coupled with her resourcefulness and passion for footwear, it helped her find her footing again after a brand she launched straight out of college failed. She went on to work at Juicy Couture during its peak, and Ann Taylor, before self-funding her distinctive eponymous line in 2012 — while also balancing several consultant jobs for major brands. With the help of the CFDA Fashion Incubator Program (she's a part of the 2014-2016 class of designers) and an investment from Pentland Group, she was finally able to focus full-time on her line last May. Her bold, colorful shoes are as comfortable as they are festive and are now sold by top retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, Shopbop, Lane Crawford and Avenue32.
I spoke to Tapia last week in London during a W Hotels trip for graduating Incubator designers about how she got her start, the hard lessons she's learned along the way and how consulting for other brands made her think differently about her own.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you first develop an interest in fashion?
[I started taking] sewing classes and making Vogue patterns and reading the magazines and then it became really obsessive. I actually wanted to come to London to Central Saint Martins but my mom refused to send me that far away, because I'm an only child.
Did you like your experience at Parsons?
Parsons was amazing. It was the first time that I had a lot of people in common. I made all my really good friends there, like Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] who launched Proenza [Schouler]. They were really good friends of mine.
I thought I was going for an internship at Oscar de la Renta, and then all of a sudden I was in front of him, in an interview, and he offered me a position and hired me on the spot. I said, "I still have a full year of school," and he said, "I'm sure we can work something out." I basically had a nervous breakdown of excitement. And Tim Gunn [then the dean at Parsons] said, "You have to do it, we'll find a way."
What was it like to work with Oscar de la Renta?
He was amazing, he used to call me Ms. Puerto Rico. Because we have so many beauty pageants, everybody is Ms. something. He would always make fun of me and it was so endearing. At that time he was still doing Balmain Couture. I didn't help directly but I got to sit through the whole process, so it was priceless and amazing. From him, I learnt so much: my sense of color. I think there's always an uptown, lady feel to my shoes even though they have studs or it looks downtown. A little more ladylike thing that definitely comes from working there, and embroideries and color. And that's how I fell into shoes. I travelled with him to Florence and there was a freelance consultant that used to come in and do shoes and I got to go on the trips. I thought, "Oh my God, this is exactly what I want to do, I don't want to touch another garment." And then of course, [de la Renta] being so amazing, he said, "Oh, Ms. Puerto Rico, you can stay here and learn how to make shoes, no problem." And he left me there for the summer.
So in that summer you learned how to make shoes?
Yes, spending time at the factory, shoemakers, learning how to make shoes and working with the tanneries — learning how to build to last and all that stuff. That was it for me.
So when that summer ended, what happened?
I decided that I was going to start a shoe company, and I did and I failed miserably within a year. I was 23 and I thought I knew everything and I didn't know anything. I had business partners that didn't understand being creative, everything was just not set up correctly. I didn't even own my trademark or my name. It was just a typical horror story. Everyone had the best intentions but I feel the timing wasn't right, and there was a lot I needed to learn.
What did you learn from that experience?
Just to stay humble and to not think that you know everything, because you don't and you have no control. It takes the right people, and the right business partners and the right time in the market. It takes so many things, it's not just one thing.
Then I got hired by Jones New York — at the time, Nine West group — and they were relaunching, they had all these big projects pre-recession. I ended up spending almost eight months in Florence working on the relaunch with Joan & David. [But] the project just didn't take off. And Pam [Skaist-Levy] and Gela [Nash-Taylor] from Juicy Couture were going to launch accessories. It was an apparel brand at the time with pink track suits with "Juicy" on the butt, and totally the opposite of me. [Tapia was hired to design handbags and accessories.]
How long did you stay at Juicy?
I was there until Pam and Gela said they were going to sell the company. In 2009, I went to Ann Taylor. My title was head of non-apparel. I built a handbag and a shoe business, it was an amazing and all-encompassing. I got to do shoes again, I got to use my passion again. I got to go to Paris and travel, I would get paid to shop the trends, but that's when I knew I wanted to have my own company, because I thought, "I can't find this and I wish there was that." I was there from 2009 to 2012. I actually spent almost eight months working as a consultant [for Ann Taylor] while I started my company.
Were you apprehensive about doing that, having had that prior failed experience?
I was scared to death. I wasn't ready, I don't think anything makes you ready. I actually self-funded the company on my own. I was going to buy an apartment and instead, I put money aside and I funded the company myself.
And at that point did you already know what you wanted your brand identity and price point to be?
I knew that I didn't want to make $2,000 shoes, and I knew I could build a beautiful shoe in Italy and make the most amazing things. But I wanted shoes that I can walk in, and I want comfortable shoes and I couldn't find a mid-heel that was sexy and pretty. How do I actually make shoes that I can wear all day and not carry my flats in my bag? I love flats, why don't I make pretty flats so I don't have to? I felt that was missing and I thought it was missing at a price point. I would say most of it, there's some lower and there's some higher, goes from $300 to $600.
So the first collection that you made, how did you go about talking to retailers or did you already have connections from having worked so long in the industry?
I had no connections, I didn't know anyone. I talked to a friend who was an editor. The shows were at Lincoln Center at the time, so she said, "Book a room at the Empire Hotel, which is right in front of Lincoln Center. Rent the room for two days, gut it, buy flowers, make it pretty. And then give a window so when people are going to the shows, they have time to stop by whenever, in between, so you are not pushing everyone into 'You have to be here at this time to see this.'" And it worked. I had Saks through the door, placing an order the next day.
You joined the CFDA Fashion Incubator in 2014. Who were your mentors?
I had Ari Bloom, who has an investment company and he's very good with numbers and projections and he's helped a ton of other companies. I really wanted help with digital, and I got Tony King from King and Partners. I got Roopal Patel as a mentor. I mean, it was priceless.
Where were you consulting after you left Ann Taylor?
I launched Loeffler Randall handbags somewhere in between, and it blew up. When I left Ann Taylor, I had already started working [there]. And then Loeffler started getting crazy and I said, "Ann Taylor, I got to go." Then Kimora Lee Simmons was relaunching her brand. I started working with handbags but they never launched it. I consulted with Rachel Roy for I think one season and I was ghost designing a high-end handbag line they wanted to do. I consulted at Cole Haan until May of last year, helping them rebuild their women's line and they were very generous and kind with me. I have no idea how I balanced it.
So you had at least two to three projects going on at any given time.
I would work on my stuff on weekends... And I think consulting at other companies, managing other creative people, in a non-creative way has been really instrumental to my business, because I've been able to detach myself from the artist complex.
Why did you decide to seek investors for your own line?
While I was in the Incubator, I was at Cole Haan and then I realized that I wasn't spending enough time on design, and it was very compromising to the company. I also knew that it was a matter of time before I ran out of fuel and collapsed and it was affecting my designs. I found a business partner, but he wasn't the right fit. We started looking for investment, and we found investment [from Pentland UK]. Then I knew I had to handle it on my own, and that I had to run my own company.
And what has that investment allowed you to do?
Not work three consulting jobs. [laughing] Hire people. Everything has changed. The collections are much stronger, I'm focused, I've been more involved in just the operational side of the company and the long-term goals of where the company needs to go and how we get there — sourcing the right factories, the right partners, right distribution, right production. I'm not just struggling to keep my head above water just to keep things going. It's a well-oiled machine now, and I can be efficient at my job, and have my role instead of having 20 roles.
Have you had a breakthrough moment that really stands out?
I mean [Diane von Furstenberg] today was pretty major. She said, "I love your shoes." That's amazing. She said, "These are very clever." She used the word clever, that stuck. That was pretty major.
Disclosure: W Hotels paid for Fashionista's travel and accommodations in London.