May 9, 2017
Alexandria Wills has been making everything under the sun since she was small. In 2014, this Chicago native decided to focus on shoemaking, and boy, are we so glad she did! From speckled cowhides to candy pastels, Alexandria’s eye for unique color and texture is equally matched with her perfectionist-level shoemaking skills. It was such a thrill to learn more about Alexandria and her process!
Have you always been passionate about design?
I believe it has always been in my mental code. I actually believe design is in everyone’s nature, that is why we enjoy it. It’s just that some of us try to create or visualize it. I enjoy designing in every medium. From when I cook, to how I arrange my studio, to the way I make my bed… at least most of the time ;)
Why did you start working in this particular craft?
Currently, I am making shoes – all kinds of shoes. It has definitely taken a lot to get here because shoemaking is a very intense craft. I started my business about three years ago now – making jewelry, handbags, clothing, pottery, and just about anything I could creatively think up. It started out as an experiment – literally everything I made was an experiment. The best part was that people kept buying what I made and then I had to make more! It was a great excuse to keep doing what I love so it turned into my livelihood pretty quickly. I kept experimenting and learning, looking for more ways to create until I fell upon shoemaking. I have been designing shoes for the past two years now and have enjoyed crafting every single pair. They are the most difficult thing I have learned to make along my creative journey which is I think why I love it so much. I really love the challenge of making a shoe from scratch.
What do you think sets your designs apart from others?
I am always trying to be different, just like any artist. The goal is to be unique when you are making something by hand because it is such a precious thing to give someone a piece that you made with your hardworking hands. Most people know me for my speckled cowhide patterns. I use natural cowhides with unique freckles on each shoe or tote bag, showcasing the unique characteristics of every animal. I am so intrigued by the beautiful patterns that are created on their coats and always wonder what determines the placement and size of each color. I have also found that it feels much more natural to wear shoes made from other living things. The material ages and shapes with our bodies harmoniously, which is why people say that leather feels so soft and comfortable. 99% of my work is with leather, with the exception of a vegan custom order and some rubber soles. But most of all, I design and create every shoe from scratch tailored to each person’s measurements. That is what custom shoemaking is all about – made for your feet.
What has been your favorite moment since creating your business?
Well, this is going to sound cheesy but it was actually the first Renegade Craft Fair market that I was accepted to. Ask my family, I promise I’m not saying this because of the blog! It had been about a year after I first started my business and I had participated in craft fairs all around Chicago – all except for Renegade. Ever since my first visit to RCF I had dreamed about having my own booth and displaying my work in an elegant way like all the other vendors. So one year I went to a Renegade Craft Fair on Damen St. in Chicago and made the decision to really dive into making my creative life into a career. I dropped out of college and started everything from scratch. From making, to selling, to brand development and running a full time business – all by myself. A year after that show in September (literally one year later) I had started and successfully grown my business into a full booth at that same exact fair that inspired it all. This is one of my favorite moments solely because of the ultimate joy of accomplishing something that was once a dream. Of course there were many more after, but this was one of the first for my business. Now I am happy to say that I am in my third year as a vendor at Renegade Craft Fair – we’re going steady. And every year I try to bring something new and exciting to the table. Last year was my first “all shoe” show with the exception of a few handbags and clutches. And this year I’ll be bringing well… come see for yourself!
How does the city you live in influence your work?
Right now I am living in New York City, specifically Sugar Hill/Harlem. I started by business in my hometown, Chicago, and travel back often because tickets are insanely cheap. I definitely feel that both places influence my work, or more so what I do in those places influence my work. I love hiking, walking, biking, and exploring rooftops in all weather conditions so that developed into a heavy duty, but stylish, boot that I now sell and wear year round. Chicago has a very harsh winter and New York always has that one day where it dumps all of its snow on you so I had to make something for that! I also love sailing and spend my summers sailing in the Hudson River in NYC, or Lake Michigan in Chicago, so that influenced me to start making boat shoes. Next on the list is to make a pair of clip-in bike shoes because I’ve recently picked up this fun and dangerous sport called bike polo (both NYC & Chicago). It is exactly what is sounds like and I had no clue what it was before either.
What valuable experience did you have before starting your business?
Honestly, I had no experience with running a business. The only thing I had were the skills I had acquired from all my interests in making things as I was growing up. I had skills in sewing, drawing, photography, jewelry making, screen printing, graphic design, woodworking, ceramics, origami….but nothing related to business planning. Most of the skills that I apply to my business today are what I have learned on my own through trial and error. I heard the best way to learn how to run a business is just to make one, so I did.
What made you take this leap into being your own boss?
I had gone to college knowing it wasn’t what I wanted to do but decided to try it so I could know for sure. After about a year and a half in, I was fed up with overpriced tuition that wasn’t meeting my standards. Or maybe I was just tired of waking up early? So I took a “year of absence,” got an internship, and started my business on the side. When that internship ended I saw two roads: go back to school and accumulate more debt, or focus on my business to pay off my debt. Obviously I took the second road and am loving it! I can’t say that it was always easy, especially at the start, but that doesn’t matter because I am doing what I love now which is priceless.
What are some inspirations for your work?
This is tough because I am inspired by so many things. I find that I am most inspired by living, growing things. When I was younger I loved mathematics and learned about its applications to nature in the way all living things grow in a sort of code or formula. Naturally, I have been drawn to materials and patterns that are a result of these codes like the freckles on a cow hide. When I am shopping for my leathers I hunt for exotic patterns in each hide and design shoes that accent those features so their beautiful details can be admired once more.
What are some tips or suggestions you’d like to offer to fellow makers?
Jeez, there are so many. But I think it all boils down to this: “Do what you love, and do it often…” – the beginning of a quote by the Holstee Manifesto. I’m sure some of you have heard or seen it before and if you haven’t google it and read it NOW please. The reason I say this is because it’s true. There are many times in your life when you will make excuses for yourself not to do something, or discourage yourself away from a passion or dream. When I was first starting out my business I was going against what a lot of people were telling me to be correct. “Finish college or you won’t succeed”…. “ artists are always poor”…..”you’re too young, you’re not ready yet” You know, they were right to tell me those things. Those suggestions may have been right for them, and I appreciate that they cared about my future. But, they weren’t right for me and I knew it. What I want everyone to know whether you are a maker, student, seasoned adult, or crazy cat lover – You can do anything. There is nothing you cannot accomplish, and I believe in you.