INTRODUCING: AKSHA FERNANDEZ
An architect by training inspired by Italian traditions in shoe crafts and attention to detail, Aksha Fernandez shifted careers to study shoe design in Milan, and launched her eponymous line together with her life partner in 2011. Designed in the heart of London and handcrafted in a small, family-run artisanal factory in Veneto, Italy, the collections are inspired from Aksha’s life journey, bringing together contrasting influences in a creatively original result: vivid colors and floral details inspired by her Indian roots alongside clean lines and bold silhouettes coming from her relationship and travels to Scandinavia. We caught up with Fernandez to discuss growing her brand, launching on Kickstarter and collaborating among the next generation of designers to transform the fashion industry.
Tell us about your background and what you were doing before launching your own brand.
I worked as an architect in India, before I took the plunge into studying footwear and accessories design in Italy. I followed the industry norms of interning and working for a few brands, before I started my own company. I mostly worked with accessories and bags, and found it hard to find the right kind of work with shoes.
Color-blocking and architectural lines are your unique points. What other elements set your products apart as opposed to your competition?
Other than the obvious aesthetics of the shoes, an integral part is the story behind the brand, where I draw a lot of my inspirations from my roots and diverse life journey. I would personally like to believe that the influence of various cultures makes my brand unique and dynamic. Another key aspect I would like to mention is that the shoes are made in Veneto, Italy. This region is known for its high quality, artisanal shoemaking skills. Most of the luxury fashion brands get their shoes made here. And for the quality and craftsmanship that goes into our shoes, the price point it sits at is quite affordable, and makes it less exclusive.
What criteria do you use when designing new pieces?
Firstly, it should have a strong identity of the brand and follow the aesthetics of what I call “minimal whimsical.” I like to design with modern, clean-lined silhouettes, and to contrast this minimalism I add a splash of color and cut-out details as part of the whimsicalness. Secondly, a very key point, which I have been focusing on a lot over the past few years, is it needs to be comfortable to wear for our customers. Even with the heels, I try my best that it not just looks good but it is easy to wear all day long without much discomfort. As one of my customers recently said: “the shoes are chic and sexy yet so comfy!”
What are the challenges for keeping the design and production in separate locations?
When I started the brand, I tried my best to look for manufacturing in the UK, but it was not easy to find many artisanal shoemakers for women’s footwear. Italy was the best and nearest option for me. The first two years were the most challenging because the factory and I had to be in sync and understand each other. So, initially, I had to fly down almost every month during the sampling process. However, now I think we have developed a much better understanding of each other’s skills as well as strengths and weaknesses. I guess the only limitation is it would be more fun and personal had I been designing and working with the production in the same room!
You recently launched on Kickstarter. Tell us about how you came to this decision and how your brand will benefit from this experience.
The campaign was launched in March for a month. We did not reach our goal, hence never got funded. However, we’ve been receiving much more interest than before in the shoes, since then. The reason to do a Kickstarter campaign was to make it more affordable for our customers. We reduced our retail margins, and broke away from selling through wholesale so that these high-quality shoes are reasonably priced. Any individual interested in the shoes could place a pre-order through Kickstarter. Once we reached our minimums, we would have gone into production and delivered those orders in two months time. Since we did not reach our target in that one month of the campaign, we have extended the pre-order period onto our own web store until the end of this summer.
Many young designers use their lines as portfolio in order to join a design team later. Is working for a designer in your future plans or you want to focus entirely on your eponymous label?
I do not look at it as working for my brand or another. I think what really matters is if I find a brand whose values and purpose resonates with me, then, sure, I would love to work with them. At the moment, I do not find any of the big premium fashion houses exciting. There are a number of small- to medium-sized brands that are doing cool, interesting things. It would be great to collaborate with some such brands; I am always in search of those opportunities!
You explained on your blog the challenges all young designers face. Which would you say has been the most learning experience?
I think my biggest challenge is brand awareness; more people knowing about us or the shoes and without throwing money into promotions. I am still learning and working on this front. So far, I have understood that even if I had enough funds to spend on advertising and marketing, I would only be able to engage with an audience momentarily. What I am looking to grow is a community that trusts us and believes in our brand and our values. They are part of our journey, and stay in it with us for the long run and not just for one design or one season. I have also learnt the power of people. We keep being bombarded with information to use this app and that system to improve the growth of our brand, which are all great, and great tools. However, I have also realized we’ve got to go beyond that, and connect with individuals, invest time or meet with them because, ultimately, the shoes are designed for people!
You take time to document your experiences and struggles, and views on the fashion industry in your blog, especially advocating the need for a change in the industry. In your opinion, do emerging designers have the power to ultimately transform it?
I do believe, if we work and collaborate together, we could transform this industry for the better. There is this saying “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together.” And I think this is very true. Not just the designers working together, but journalists, buyers, retailers and every person working in this industry.
What are some company goals for 2017?
We are focusing on building a strong community over the next year. It needs not be massive in number but a strong following. Also, we are working on a few ideas to collaborate with more brands and magazines over the next few months.
Images © JC Candanedo & Lars Rosengren
Models: Cleopatra Wood, Cara Rose Marshall, Paula Riberio Guarducci & Shuna Iijima