Waiting for the other shoe(s) to drop

The news we’re ALL talking about, plus a fashionable diversion

Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.


IN THIS ISSUE

  • News for the not-yet-election-fatigued

  • One-on-one with shoewear designer Myriam Belzile-Maguire, co-founder of Maguire

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MYRIAM BELZILE-MAGUIRE IS DESIGNING HER LABEL (AND LIFE) HER OWN WAY

When Montreal designer Myriam Belzile-Maguire quit her job at one of the world’s biggest footwear companies—an admittedly great gig, with a sweet salary and the ability to travel the world for work—to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams, her parents’ reaction was a quizzical “What are you doing?” Her sister, Romy, then a marketing and communications director, volunteered time to help her out, “out of pity or just hoping my project would work,” says Myriam. The plan: to start a direct-to-consumer line of luxury footwear, cutting out the middlemen to keep prices fair. Maguire was founded in 2016, and about a year and a half in, so many orders were coming in that Romy quit her job, too, to focus on being a co-founder.

Since then, the two have launched an e-commerce site that ships worldwide, as well as showroom-style shops in Montreal and Toronto, pitched on an episode of Dragons’ Den, and hit record sales—despite a pandemic that has rendered sweatpants the sole fashion trend. “Last month was the best month we’ve ever had,” says Myriam, noting that she quickly retooled the fall/winter collection to favour walkable styles once it became clear that no one needs teetering party heels right now. You’ll find designs for function (see the sheepskin-lined Rachel boots, keeping you cozy in -40 conditions) and for fun (like animal-print statement sneaks).

Read on for my chat with Myriam on how she stepped out on her own, what it’s like working in a manufacturing sector still largely led by men, and how she’s doing business differently—and more sustainably.

Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

You previously worked for Aldo Group, where you designed more than 3,000 styles of women’s shoes. When did you think, I’m going to do my own brand—the time is now?

I always knew I wanted to have a business, so when I started at Aldo Group, I told myself, Okay, you’re gonna work there no more than five years, because you’ll get comfortable and you’ll never do it. I gave myself a timeline. And then after five years, I felt unchallenged in my work—I was only doing design. I didn’t see a way to move up the corporate ladder, because there aren’t many shoe designers; it’s not a job where you can easily be replaced. That’s why I felt kind of stuck.

So I began listening to podcasts and to stories of female entrepreneurs, like Emily Weiss of Glossier. I just decided to do it, to leave everything and start a business. When I left the company, I had enough money to live for three or four months. I had to find new factories because my project was different than what I used to do, which was in fast fashion and big production, mainly in China. But I wanted to produce a smaller line made in Europe, so I had to start from scratch.

Was it hard to get manufacturers to take you seriously, especially at the beginning, being a small, independent startup?

I think because I worked for one of the biggest shoe companies in the world, they were just like, Okay, good. They all knew who Aldo is, and a lot of them knew him personally. The factories want people who are going to produce bestsellers over and over. So when you come with a lot of experience, they have confidence in you and feel like, Okay, this girl won’t do some crazy style that will never sell. Because a lot of people come in, they do one order, and then they leave because the project doesn’t work.

But I would say, all the factory owners I work with are men in their 50s who’ve been making shoes by hand all their life. So sometimes at first, when I come in, they’re not sure. When they see that I speak the same language, and I know stuff about the technical parts of the shoe, then they trust me and we have a more equal conversation.

How does Maguire do business differently and more sustainably? I’ve read that you produce in small batches to minimize end-of-season overstock waste.

My main factories right now are in Portugal, Spain and Italy. We work with smaller factories that have suppliers close by, like a leather supplier and a heel supplier, so the product is made locally, and that limits the transportation a bit.

We don’t have a calculated markdown strategy. In retail, that’s when you start your product at $250, but you know the real price is $200. Two weeks after, you drop it with a promotion of 20 percent off. And then the final markdown is basically what we give to the customer from the start.

What we do is just order smaller batches. Then if an item is doing really well, because we produce in smaller factories with a fast turnover, they’re able to start another production. And we do a lot of presales. So people buy the product in advance, and we’re able to calculate, Are we going to run out or are we going to be okay for this season? Right now, everything I have in winter boots is pretty much sold. There’s no waste.

For me, a markdown is like pollution. It’s a product no one wanted, and you’re trying to force it to people at a lower price, so your garbage becomes their garbage. Also, because we’re still small, I see the volume of product coming in the warehouse. I see all the boxes, all the wrapping. So it’s my responsibility—the product needs to make someone happy, and needs to last more than six months, for all of this to be worth it.

You started as a two-person operation with your sister, handling everything. How did you grow from there?

At every stage of the business, we were asking ourselves, What are the things taking a lot of time we could spend doing something else? At each stage, the answer was something different, and that was how we hired. With every hire, we saw a boost in revenue. The mistake we made at the start was taking people we liked and giving them tasks—but then we would be stuck doing the time-consuming work again. So we learned we first have to decide what we need, and then find a person who loves doing that.

What advice would you give to other aspiring women founders, whether they’re in fashion or any other industry?

Work for a business in the same field or something related to what you want to start. You’ll see what you like, and the things you don’t like as much. When it’s your turn, you’re going to know which problems to solve. I think you just have to take any experience you can, just to see how it works.

When I started, I did an internship in London [with Jonathan Saunders]. I was spending most of my days on public transit, going around the city to pick up silk and clothes. But I didn’t mind because I could see the backend, and what it takes to have a really glamorous label—it’s a lot of not glamorous tasks.

What’s next for Maguire?

We’re working on building a pop-up in New York as soon as we can, and opening in Europe somewhere. That’s where our product is made, so it makes sense to sell it in our own store there. So the future is to go outside Canada and keep growing.

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