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Innovation Economy

Shoe entrepreneurs step into design, marketing

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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On a Thursday last August, Monika Desai set out a few dozen pair of shoes on tables in the cafeteria at CommuniSpace Inc., a Watertown company, and invited the 200 or so women who work there to abandon their desks and try them on.

Desai probably didn’t need the big yellow sign that read, “Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!’’ “We got a mob of women,’’ even though none of the footwear was for sale, says the Roslindale entrepreneur. Desai is the founder of Open Runway Inc., which plans to allow women to customize their own pair of heels online, starting at about $140, and receive them in the mail three weeks later. “We were looking for input about how they fit, and our overall concept.’’

Shoe entrepreneurs like Desai go back a ways in Massachusetts: The first shoes in the United States were made by Thomas Beard in 1629, for the Pilgrim colony. In the 19th century, Massachusetts companies helped develop much of the factory equipment that enabled mass production of footwear, with cities like Haverhill, Lynn, Lawrence, and Brockton turning out millions of pairs of shoes and boots. But making shoes, like all sorts of other manufacturing, began to move overseas after World War II. A city like Brockton, once home to nearly 100 shoe factories, saw its last factory, which made FootJoy brand golf shoes, close in 2009.

The new shoe entrepreneurs acknowledge that it’s hard to beat the low costs of making things in China so it’s unlikely they’ll be hiring hundreds of workers here. Instead, they’re focusing their energy on design and marketing, and getting advice on business strategy from executives who have worked for local footwear leaders like Stride Rite Corp. and Reebok International Ltd.

The Open Runway website, not yet fully operational, will eventually allow women to start with a basic shoe silhou ette. “You’ll be able to change the material and the trim; it could be a metallic leather or a snakeskin or a suede,’’ Desai says. “The heel could go from stiletto to wedge to a thicker heel. You might want to add a ruffle or a buckle.’’

Though the site will start with heels, Desai plans to expand into boots and ballet flats, and customizable handbags. She’ll invite emerging fashion designers to create their own special shoes on the site, and share in a percentage of every purchase.

Though Desai hasn’t yet raised outside funding for Open Runway, she’ll be pitching to investors in New York this Wednesday, as part of an event organized by Springboard Enterprises Inc., a group that says it has helped female founders raise more than $5 billion so far.

“The concept is so right, giving people the ability to create something unique,’’ says Pam Salkovitz, a footwear executive who has been advising Desai. (Until last year, Salkovitz was president of Lexington-based Stride Rite.) The big challenge in making Open Runway a success, according to Salkovitz? Establishing the right partnerships with Asian manufacturers, so that the shoes can be made quickly, and at the proper level of quality.

Another entrepreneur, Candice Cabe, founder of Day2Nite, has just one prototype pair of what she calls “convertible heels.’’ “The shoe has five different heel heights, from one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half inches,’’ explains Cabe, a graduate of Babson College’s MBA program. Different heel pieces can be snapped into the shoe, or removed by clicking a release button. (Cabe hasn’t yet set prices for the shoes.)

“We have a little pouch that holds all of the pieces in it, so you could wear the highest heels, but carry a smaller pair with you if you had to walk somewhere,’’ she says. “It’s much better than carrying extra shoes.’’ (Both Cabe and Desai were part of the MassChallenge start-up competition, which concludes this Thursday.)

Waltham-based Fit in Clouds is trying to solve a similar problem. The start-up has already sold more than 10,000 pairs of stylish, slipper-like shoes that fold in half to fit into a purse, according to its founder, Patrizia Damiani, another Babson alumna. (The shoes start at $20.)

Women wearing painful high heels often carry a change of shoes to wear at the end of a long day; Fit in Clouds designs lightweight and compact “spares’’ that come with a carrying pouch. Founded in June 2009, the company recently found a retail partner in Torrid, a division of California-based Hot Topic Inc. But Fit in Clouds is facing competition from Dr. Scholl’s, which sells a less expensive product called Fast Flats, which start at $10.

“We must be doing something right if Dr. Scholl’s wants to have a similar product in the market,’’ Damiani writes in an e-mail. “Just wish we had a multimillion-dollar advertising budget and national distribution like them.’’

Do small companies have a shot in a world dominated by brands like Dr. Scholl’s, Nike, and Nine West? “No one thinks Dr. Scholl is a real person anymore,’’ says Jules Pieri, founder of the Lexington e-commerce site, DailyGrommet.com. “The key strength of a small company is having a personality, an actual face, and a name. And I think companies like these can do well just with positive word-of-mouth, which is much stronger with women than it is with men.’’

Nelly Reyes-Colberg was one of the CommuniSpace employees who tried on sample shoes from Open Runway back in August. “The whole concept of customization allows you to show your personality a little bit more,’’ she says. “I’m a mom, but I’m also still very much a fashionista.’’

I asked whether the price tag of $140 or more might dissuade her from buying a pair when the site goes live. “No, I’m absolutely going to order a pair,’’ she said. “I might buy more than one, but don’t tell my husband.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.