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Shoe Designer Nina Z on Why Women Who Wear Clogs Are Sexy

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A shot from Nina Z's new lookbook. All photos by  Ricky Chapman
A shot from Nina Z's new lookbook. All photos by Ricky Chapman

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Over the past few years, clogs have become as ubiquitous as yoga pants were in the early aughts. At least one girl you know (maybe two, depending on which borough you reside) has a pair, and they're the unofficial uniform of busy-but-fashionable Brooklyn moms and creative professionals who don't rely on taxis for transportation.

Shoe designer Nina Z has been designing them long before Urban Outfitters and Zara started selling them. Hers are produced in Sweden (where she grew up) and are well-priced: the classic styles and sandals are all under $200, and boots cap off at $290.

We caught up with her at her Brooklyn studio near Prospect Park last week, on the day she was due to give birth. (If that's not dedication, we don't know what is). Read on to hear her thoughts on how the clog scene has exploded over the past few years, and why a practical, not-super-sexy shoe is the ultimate symbol of female empowerment.

Why do you think clogs have been popular for so long?

First of all, it's a very simple design. Everything goes in cycles, but I think that lately—at least for the last five years—people like simple designs, craftsmanship, and locally [goods]. Before that, there was the decade of big labels and bling.

They're also very comfortable for women who are always on their feet and on the go. It's not a stiletto that's going to break. You can be an active mom or an active professional.

How did you decide you wanted to design clogs?

I don't know if I ever really decided, it kind of just happened. I had a long background in fashion and in the arts, and when I started the brand I was still an art curator but I was styling on the side. I never really took my feet out of the fashion industry. I was doing a lot with vintage. I've also always worn clogs since childhood and growing up in Sweden.

I came to New York in 2000 to go to FIT, and I couldn't find them here. I would go back to Sweden and get a few vintage pairs for myself or my mom's old pairs. People in the fashion industry were interested, and they'd ask me to get some for them when I was in Sweden.

In 2008, I was at the Brooklyn Flea selling vintage clothes. The clog trend hadn't broken yet and there was absolutely no place in America to make them. It was just an old-school kind of trade that no one was doing anymore. I found shoe people in Sweden and they've been doing it for generations, and they were open to work with me on my private brand and designs. That's when it started.

I made a braided sandal first that was copy of the '70s, like my mothers. I brought them to the Brooklyn Flea, but the response in the beginning was not at all what it is now. Back then, there were few people who really appreciated clogs. The New York fashion girl wasn't ready for it. It was, "What are these, grandma shoes?" Back then it was just plastic and stilettos.

In January 2011 I quit my job as an art curator, and since then I've been doing this full time. And in 2012 [my partner] Tshidi joined the company.

Do you think the clog design world is a more competitive now?

Absolutely, because all the big brands, even though they are not specifically a clog brand, have a clog. They have the resources to bring whatever design—or copies of designs—they want to do, and they can work so much quicker than a small independent brand like ours. We do it ourselves. But on the other hand, it's also gives the clog more exposure. It's a give and take.

There have been incidents where I've had friends who work for big brands that have told me, "They just keep putting your shoe and my desk. I can't send it to China to get copied." But there's always a customer base that appreciates the small independent brands and craftsmanship.

How do you keep your shoes at such a reasonable price?

That's the strategy that we've been working around for the company. With wholesale, I would have to up prices so much more. We've been taking the opposite route of trying to go grassroots with our direct sales. I do have key accounts and key markets, because I think it's always good for customers to have access and be able to see the actual product themselves.

I would love to be able to supply more stores, but since our end price is so low, it's more like a marketing tool at this point. I'm hoping that with more local production, we'll be able to have lower prices. We have really low prices now and we're producing in one of the most expensive countries to produce in—Sweden. But even if producing locally wouldn't change product price, at least we would cut the shipping costs.

I get a lot of requests [from retailers], but a lot of times I say no because my mark up is so low that it's not really worth it for me. I do want to explore that though, and not become too expensive for my customers.

What kind of steps will you need to take to produce locally?

Right now we're doing custom orders and specific custom colors and custom models, which I really enjoy because it's amazing to be able to offer that. The whole idea within the next couple of years is to be locally produced. It's about having enough resources and capital to get the machinery and the resources.

We've invested in small machinery so that we can start on a smaller level here. It's kind of a learning process for us, too. Once we go big we'll learn how to oversee. You know, with the real estate prices in Brooklyn, factories will be really hard to come by. We may have to go upstate. It'll be great not to have the Atlantic ocean [between us], because shipping is so expensive.

You've been at the Brooklyn Flea for a long time then.

I was one of their first vendors when they opened. My first production was the spring of 2009, so I brought it to the flea and have been there ever since.

Do you feel like it's changed a lot?

I think that the brand and the Brooklyn Flea have grown simultaneously. The Brooklyn Flea has been an amazing stepping stone just because we rely on direct sales. It would be different if our strategy was totally wholesale. If it were that, we'd do trade shows. I think it's been a very crucial part of the development of the brand and the product. It's immediate customer contact. I can now look at a women's feet and know what size she wears and what models would work.

If I develop a new model, I would know that we'd need to make the strap a little shorter because it seems like this was modeled for an average person, it seems like most people need it shorter. You know, someone could come in and say I love this model but wished it showed a little more toe, I'd think about that. People can come and ask when are you going to make something in red. I think that has been a very crucial element.

Do you think there's something kind of empowering about a shoe like a clog, that for women is beautiful and comfortable but men don't necessarily find it sexy?

It's interesting, I have male customers that just love it and they buy them for their wives. There is one guy who, whenever I come out with something new, he buys them. I've never dealt with his wife! But then there's also the boyfriend who's like, "What do you mean clogs? That's weird. That's grandma."

Our customer is more like, "Oh yea? I don't give a fuck. You have ugly shoes yourself. I'm going to wear my clogs because that is what I want." That's a reflection of our customer. Our customer is independent and doesn't follow fashion in the way of runway or seasons. I think our customer is the girl who wears sandals with socks, even though there are some people who will be appalled by it. Or she wears boots in the summer with shorts.

Do you have a category that tends to do the best?

I mean I would say this, the Nina sandal. I don't know how many thousands… I made it first in black and then I added brown. Then I started with color combos like brown and black. It just never… now those are the ones…. These are the ones that are custom made here… this one is for the man who buys for his wife…

I think the price point is less than the boots. When summer comes around, a girl is ready to buy a new pair of sandals. You might have a few pairs of sandals but boots you might get one pair a yea. I have women that have four pairs of the Ninas. Summer is just a better shopping experience in general.

What do you think of the ugly sandal movement: Birkenstocks, Tevas?

I think it goes back to the fact that there are just cycles in everything. It goes back to the [style of the 70s] where everything's homemade. Suddenly people are making their own kombucha and growing their beards. It's that whole back-to-basic movement. It's very prevalent in Brooklyn and New York, and certain areas of LA. If people can't make stuff with their own with their hands, they enjoy things made by other people where they can actually tell where it's from.

I also think it goes back to, like you said, where the girl says, "I don't need to wear skimpy clothes, or I can if I want to, but I don't need to to please anybody. I'm going to put on my red lipstick and my grandma sandals and still look sexy." That's that independent girl. For all you know, she could go out at night in booty shorts but that's only because she wants to.
· Nina Z Clogs [Official Site]