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Kari C: Hitting the right step

Entrepreneurs 02-03-2017

Shoe designer Kari Chaudhry meets Ellie Parsons on the eve of her move from bespoke to ready-to-wear. She talks about the challenges she faces being an independent brand breaking into the world of retail.

Renowned French shoe designer Roger Vivier once said: “To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give a reality to one’s dreams.” This is something Kari Chaudhry knows all to well, having taken her passion for shoes mainstream with the launch of her brand Kari-C, makers of bespoke and ready-to-wear footwear.

The very first high heels Kari designed were typically extravagant in light blue python leather. “When I made my first shoe I knew it was my calling,” she says. Receiving them from the factory “was like having a first born.”

Kari has two collections: bespoke heels, fabricated in a London workshop, and her new Made in Italy ready-to-wear line of 15 styles. The latter line comprises eveningwear, casual and bridal, such as the Sasha peep-toe mule in white ponyskin, laser cut in a baroque pattern. Fetishist heeled ankle boots have a street edge and there are elegant point-toe stilettos that can be dressed up or down. The sexy, party-ready heels scream luxury and feature intricate beading (sewn by hand in India by skilled artisans) and lots of glitter.

“I don’t mind the extra bling, in fact I embrace it,” says Kari. The signature flirtatious ankle straps and the various textures make her show-stopping designs stand out, so much so, that when worn the whole room is likely to turn and stare. “The woman who wears my shoes has to be bold, they’re not understated pieces,” she adds.

For the past two years, Kari has been developing her brand and fitting bespoke shoes to the pedicured feet of brides and shoe addicts. Her shoes are popular with the Asian wedding market and many of her clients have become close friends. Now she’s ready to sell the coveted pairs online and in select boutiques, and is gearing up for the challenges ahead. The brand’s motif is a proud peacock in resplendent colours and her logo, Kari-C written in her handwriting, adorns every dainty shoe.

A passion for fashion

Kari was born in Bombay and grew up in Toronto where her mum’s family are from – she still has the friendly Canadian accent. She’d always loved fashion but she moved to her ‘backyard’, New York, to work in finance – her Indian parents felt that she should have something to fall back on rather than go straight to fashion school. Eventually, and inevitably, the pull towards fashion won out. With the full support of her family she switched careers to study fashion illustration and styling at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and ended up styling shows and working front and back of house production at New York Fashion Week for Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein.

When Kari moved to the boundary-pushing fashion capital of London, she landed an internship at the fantastical world of the genius that was Alexander McQueen. McQueen’s towering, otherworldly ‘Armadillos’ and ‘Alien’ shoes, which caused a fashion furore, first sparked Kari’s interest in footwear. “When you’re at McQueen every creative bone in your body is bursting to come out with something,” she says. “It reaffirms your love for the business and how much you want to be a part of it.”

A further Fashion Marketing and PR degree at London College of Fashion (LCF) and a long apprenticeship at an East London shoe workshop helped pave the way for her to launch Kari-C. She realised she could create a “sustainable business out of her dream” and drew upon her savings and some money offered from the family. It took one year to do the initial research, draw the designs and find factories and suppliers to work with. She launched an A/W line at LA Fashion Week and the rest was history.

Creating a brand

The initial focus was on one-off shoes handmade from start to finish at the London factory where she can personally oversee the whole process. The shoe fit is better than any shoe coming off the factory assembly line and the in-built shock absorbing, bounce-back soles keep feet comfortable. Kari is a great believer in getting the mechanics perfect to create a beautiful silhouette and encourage good posture. Ergonomic and often made using exotic skins, the bespoke shoes cost around £1,000 a pop, while the ready-to-wear collection is more affordable and no less tempting! Pricing is based on the materials, and Kari makes sure to factor in what her time is worth during consultations where clients can enjoy getting involved in the creative process, sometimes asking for crystals or even a hand-painted heel. “With bespoke sky’s the limit. We never say no to anything because we can find someone to get it done,” says Kari.

There has been no need for marketing the bespoke shoes because clients have come largely through word of mouth. Kari turns over a healthy trade and the proceeds have been reinvested back into the business.

Ready-to-wear line

Producing a ready-to-wear line is the next big step and the future looks rosy, or shall we say sprinkled with glitter. Competition will be fierce. The shoe industry is male-dominated with Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Nicholas Kirkwood leading the pack, plus mammoth fashion houses like Valentino and Louis Vuitton are major players in high-end footwear. Female shoe designers are on their up though – Tamara Mellon, co-founder and former CCO of Jimmy Choo sold to Labelux in 2011 for £525.5m. Demand is high and Kari hopes that her designs will attract shops wishing to buy her creations at wholesale price. Sophia Webster and Charlotte Olympia have done it and she may soon be following in their footsteps.

Kari was a finalist in the 2013 British Footwear Association’s annual award by Footwear Friends and she’s exhibited her shoes at the International Footwear Museum in Italy. She travels to Milanese leather fairs and design exhibitions and she’s learning Italian to be able to communicate better with the small, generations-old shoe factory she uses outside of Florence. It dates back to the thirties and is run by the grandchildren of the original owners. She employs one person in Italy, the home of shoemaking, to ensure the quality of the work of these skilled craftsmen who still handcraft at lot of the components rather than using machines.

From vision to reality

It takes four months to convert a design into a sample. “The design and concept stage is the most enjoyable,” says Kari who is inspired by her Eastern roots as well as paintings, prints and leathers. “I grew up in an Indian household, so the design culture is inherent in me and I use intricate beading and embroidery, I don’t shy away from that. There’s no concept of minimalism in my designs and that probably comes from that side of me,” she says. Kari begins with mood boards before sketching the designs, without losing sight of the fact that “they must have a commercial appeal”.

Next the task is to find suppliers to turn her dreams into reality and like any designer or artist she has perfectionist tendencies. “I see a shoe from start to finish. I have a vision and though I change it as needed I don’t like changing it as a compromise. Those are the times when I’ve not liked the finished product so you just have to start over until you get it right,” she says assertively.

There’s an extensive supply chain and Kari has worked hard to hunt down the right factories that have fixed production and delivery schedules as well as high quality workmanship. Some of the factories she collaborated with in the early days she no longer uses because they can’t cater to her needs. “Any designer will agree, you can have wonderful designs but do you have the right people to create them?” she asks. Maintaining good connections is crucial for the success of Kari-C. “Every business decision is managed by how strong your relationships are with your marketers, suppliers, manufacturers and clients. Building those long-lasting bonds is what’s serving me right. My suppliers trust me as a person and allow me to place small orders because they know that if they invest in me now they’ll reap the benefits later.”

She’s growing Kari-C organically and her sister Nikita in New York is boosting the brand’s social media presence and handling US enquiries. This year Kari will have launched an e-commerce site and she’s planning to open a pop-up shop in London. “Day by day my business is forming a life of its own,” says the ever-positive Kari. “Every single day there’s new growth and two years on we’re looking to expand this into something more.” Now who wants a pair of new shoes?

Photographs by Rahul Khona

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