Recently I started watching the HBO series how to make it in America again since It first aired in 2010 when I was a struggling footwear designer in NYC trying to make a name for myself. If you haven’t seen the show it’s about two friends who are trying to start a denim line in NYC and are learning on the go.
In one of the early episodes in season 1, they are trying to find a denim manufacture and they hit road block after road block. There was even a scene were they go to a Jean shop and try to bait the owner into telling them where he makes his jeans and he gives them a fake address uptown that they later find out is a Boucher shop.
This made me reflect on how I was able to get into the footwear manufacturing business and connect with factories, and it also reminded me of the shit I had to deal with to get there as well. I get asked all the time about factories from a lot of different people, and some of those people maybe reading this post right now. I just wanted to share some of my story and maybe you might find some value in it…or not.
There is another scene in the show when the main character Ben goes to see one of his old professors at FIT to try and get a denim factory recommendation from him. The thing that stood out in that conversation is his professor says something like “I will see what I can do, but people are very sensitive about giving out there supplier contacts” and that is so, so true.
Why are people like myself so reluctant to giving out this information? Is it because we don’t want to give out a recommendation and that person make you look bad with your factory, wither its because of a late payment or the factory not thinking your serious. Or Is it because we selfishly don’t want you taking up our factories time therefore taking away time from something they maybe working on for us, or is it because we know how hard it was to establish that contact and what it took to build that relationship. I would say all of the above is correct and I can think of 10 more reasons as well. For me, the last point is what resonates the most.
In 2006, I had my first opportunity to go to china as an independent designer. The key word is “independent” because I did not go with one of my past employers like New Balance, or Adidas which would be a much different trip if I did. Going as an independent allowed me to be everywhere and do anything. Going as an employee of a brand is cool but you know there are certain restrictions and you have to be very careful when crossing that line of trying to make your own contacts when your employer just spent $10,000 for you to go to china for 2 weeks to work on there stuff only.
I was working with an old friend and mentor of mine as a freelance footwear designer at that time. He was well established in the shoe biz with over 40 years of experience working for all the top brands as a creative director and designer. We had a great relationship and we still do to this day. When he went independent he used his experience to get design and development contracts with brands. He used my youth and creativity to meet the requirements of those design contracts and it also helped that I was consistently being paid for my work. The arrangement was simple, I would create the drawings, tech packs and blueprints which is experience I had from my days of working at New Balance, K-Swiss, Adidas and Timberland and he would go to china and develop the shoes with his factories.
One day he said to me, I think it’s time you come to china with me and see how all of this works. My first thought was, “sounds great, but I can’t afford that shit”. He said listen, let’s do this…you come up with the plane fare and I will pay for your food and lodging and you can pay it back with 2 months of free design work for one of my clients…without even thinking I said DONE DEAL!!! My next move was to try and get $1200 for a plane ticket, first I asked my parents who were both broke AF. Then I went to this guy who was a donor of my HS back in Florida and he also sat on the board of directors. He owned a massive accounting firm in NYC that was worth millions. I won’t say his name but I’ll just refer to him as AC.
AC supported the school, its students and alumni and i was always able to reach out to him for advance. I wrote him a letter that described the importance of this trip and what it would mean to go to china at this point In my career. I also included references, and a 6 month payment plan on how I would repay him the $1200 with interest. I thought for sure there was no way he could say no, and that’s exactly what he said to me…No! Of course I was pissed and I’m pretty sure at some point I even thought he didn’t like black people or something. It made no sense to me, but I knew I had to move on. I went back to my parents and told them what happened and they were able to give me a few hundred dollars, and then I went to my sisters and friends and was able to collect enough money to buy my plan ticket.
When we arrived to Hong Kong it was late, and after a 16 hour direct flight from NYC the Last thing you want to do is commute even more which is exactly what we had to do. We took a bus from HK to Dongguan which is a 2+ hr bus ride, were you have to cross the boarder from HK to mainland China which is a whole process within itself, but this was all apart of my learning process of how you get things done on this side of the world.
The next day we went straight to the factory. Shoe factories are very interesting, there are so many moving parts and just the size of them can be overwhelming. From this one trip I was able to meet and work directly with the factory GM’s and other shoe industry people who live in china. Once you know a couple of guys like that it becomes very easy to meet more industry people, the key however is you need to consistently go to china and I recognized that almost immediately.
China can be an intimidating place if you don’t go with someone who knows the ropes but after a couple trips with my colleague I knew I needed to build on the foundation of relationships that he helped me start. Eventually I began consulting on my own and would use those same contacts in china to make new ones, and I also started traveling to china on my own. I learned that when you show up people take you serious, I wasn’t trying to do everything through email and Skype and I knew I had to be there as often as I could and they respected that. I did whatever I could to keep buying those plane tickets, and before I knew it my network grew. My colleague didn’t just hand me the contacts he made me work for it, and when I was able to show him I was serious about taking that step and going to china, I am sure that showed him something that made him comfortable with introducing me to his colleagues and friends. He cracked the door open for me, then I kicked that shit in and took advantage of what was on the other side.
Even at that point there is still more work to do to gain the trust of people. The dinners and drinks you have to buy, bringing gifts from the states like “l love NY” t-shirts which was always my go to. It was those little things that allowed them to believe in me along with my work ethic and they were willing to help me and watch me grow. Like all relationships some of them come and go, but over the last 12 years I’ve been able to establish a core group of people, factories and suppliers that I will continue to work with for the next 12 years and beyond. I don’t even know how much money I spent over those years going to china, and I can’t remember how I made it, but I do remember the grind, always thinking ahead and how to get to the next opportunity.
So before the next time you ask someone “do you know any good factories you can put me in touch with?” really give some thought on how you can answer that question yourself. It could be an industry event in another country, or an article you read in WWD or you just wake up one day and say I’m gonna go to china and figure this thing out.
One thing for sure, I can guarantee your answer is going to require you to do something that everyone else is not willing to do and that right there is what will separate you from the rest of the pack.
Good luck on your journey and maybe I will see you on the other side of that door you kick down.
How to MAKE in America
As you could probably guess (or know first hand for those of you reading this) Building a shoe brand is very difficult and a constant up hill battle and sometimes can feel like your in a movie. It sounds funny but I am not joking, if you break down your experience after the fact, there will more than likely be some sort of Narrative Structure. There is obviously a plot and then there is the drama, the suspense, your lead characters, conflicts, resolutions and more. When you think about it a shoe factory could very easily be transformed into a Hollywood movie set or at the very least a great canvas for a realty TV show.
As I just mentioned, building a shoe brand is very difficult, and damn near impossible if your doing it in America. We are a long way from the early to mid 1900’s when shoe factories like LJ Simone and other NYC based shoe factories were thriving in the US market. A matter a fact that time in history is virtually erased as you can barely find any information on the web about it.
I launched my made in New York City brand of luxury kicks in the summer of 2017, but technically I started it in the fall 2015. I think there are some key things that are very important to know when trying to accomplish such a feet, but there are also something’s that are very important that you don’t really know until you need to know it as well.
Allow me to elaborate….
first off I don’t think there is much you can learn in school to prepare for launching a brand “yes I said it” and Yes I went to college, but I learned a great deal from my internships with brands like New Balance, K-swiss, Adidas, and Hewlett-Packard. I can still remember very specific lessons from those experiences that I do apply into my work today.
I think the number one thing you need more than anything when building a brand is relationships. In my mind quality relationships are key and more valuable than money itself in many cases. When I was in my late teens and early 20’s I was doing my internships and really worked hard to make a name for myself. I knew pretty early on from those internships that working full time for a shoe company was not my interest. So I busted my butt on projects and soaked up as much as I could from one brand and moved on to the next one.
I like to think that I am a friendly person so I got along with people very easily. I was broke as hell but that quality gave me a lot of value. Over the years I stayed in touch with many of the people whom I met through these internships and focused on developing and building them. My intentions were always genuine but anyone who knew me also knew I was hungry to learn. I feel that relationship building is a true skill and like all skills the more you do it and practice the better you get at it. I always tried to be ready for that random moment to give my 60 second pitch when standing next to a big wig in an elevator or on a plane sitting next to businessman (or businesswoman) and overhear them discussing a large deal on the phone prior to take off. you never know who you are sitting next to and how they can help you.
There are so many moving parts when trying to develop footwear in the United States. Wither you like it or not, it’s just not possible to complete all the steps in the US. Due to a lack of industry resources here it’s not easy to do the simple things like adding a heat transferred logo to your upper or building a Last without paying a fortune for it. Fortunately for me I am able to use my relationships abroad to get key components created which would otherwise be impossible or extremely expensive to create here in the states.
Even with the relationships in place it is still very difficult to MAKE in America because in many cases you need to coordinate the development of other components in different countries, and oh by the way you need to make sure your doing it in the correct order as well. For example, my sneaker soles are custom made in Asia, then the soles need to go to my last maker in Europe, then the last and soles need to come to me in NYC were my pattern maker grades all my patterns according to the last received from Europe. If you make a misstep and do one thing out of order or do step C before step B that can be disastrous… and the cynical part about it is you won’t know it until the very end, and at that very moment is how the shoe biz can chew you up.
Once my patterns are done then they need to be shipped backed to Asia were I have a very special component being produced that can only be made there because we do not have this kind of equipment in the states or it does exist but it’s extremely expensive. Next, After all that is done and multiple fires have been put out with the factory (there are always fires to put out with factories in the form of problems of course) everything is shipped back to our shop in NYC. This is the moment when you get on your knees and start praying to the heavens that everything in the DHL box in front of you fits and you have no issues which is still 50/50 even after taking all the proper measures and precautions.
…Yes, everything did fit.
Shipping gets very expensive and there is nothing like an $800 usd DHL bill for shipping shoe Last from Portugal to the states, or 80 pairs of rubber sneaker soles from China to Brooklyn. This is the one thing that scares the shit out of me the most because shoe components are dense and take up space and if your not careful a couple crazy shipping bills can put you out of business just like that. Everything adds up fast when starting a shoe brand, and the funny thing is even after everything I mentioned to this point I haven’t even made a shoe yet.
At the end of the day wither you like it or not in order to MAKE in America as far as footwear goes it’s not possible without MAKING outside of America in some capacity and the way you do it is with good relationships and reliable suppliers. One day I would like to think I will be apart of the change that makes MAKING shoes in America cool again, and it’s going to take those who really understand how to connect the dots when it comes to the footwear development and production processes.
I don’t think you have to have 15 years in the shoe biz like me or even have to do so many internships. Obviously some experience would help, but I don’t think it’s required. You just have to want it bad enough, be willing to learn, take risk and not wait on people to do things for you and with that kind of mindset you just may surprise yourself with what you can do.
Sourcing is KING
I’ve always said your products are only as good as the materials you source. Sourcing materials and components is crucial to creating new collections of footwear and knowing where to get them from is just as important and it’s especially more important when you or your clients are working on a budget.
I’m going to walk you through my journey on sourcing materials in Guangzhou China earlier this summer for a new collection of footwear I am developing for the India domestic market.
I live in Brooklyn NYC and fly Emirates out of JFK to Dubai on the 11am flight. With a quick stopover in Dubai to handle some business with a local shoe retailer for Omar Bailey Footwear it takes 22 hours for me to get to Guangzhou.
I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve been to Asia but I’ve been there at least 60 times, and I’ve paid my dues flying economy on many occasions, so now when I get that business class upgrade I’m going to enjoy it.
Arrive to Guangzhou (CAN)
After arriving pretty late at night and grabbing a quick bite to eat at the hotel I start to get my game plan ready for the next couple of days when I’m in the materials market.
Sourcing materials can be very overwhelming if you let it be. In the GZ shoe market there are literally hundreds of options but you have to stick to your plan. I try to keep notes on me as a reminder of what I need to focus on. On this particular trip I was looking for some dope women’s sneaker soles for the Athleasure categories. In addition to that I was looking for embossed and textured neoprenes, pre moulded TPU components, and cool closure components.
I always try to look for things that are unique and I have never seen before and that is sometimes very difficult to do. If you know anything about china then you know there the masters of copies and as you go from shop to shop you will see the same things over and over again. Wither it’s Nike Vapor max soles or ballenciga copies its all right there out in the open, but beneath that all and with time and a whole lot of patients there are gems that exist and you know it when you find it, and that shit feels good.
Sourcing is exhausting and that shit can wipe you out, so after a few days of it and placing orders for samples of soles, materials and components I usually head to the factory wither it be in china or India to start my work with the sample room.
When I am in the factory we will make mock up samples and experiment with the materials I just purchased. I cant really describe it but when you create something that works using exiting components it’s just a feeling that you and your team can feel. I guess the best way to describe is like writing a hit song…you know when you hear it (btw-I have no experience with writing hit songs. ha)
Hi my name is…
For my first post it probably makes sense that I introduce myself and tell you a little about me and what exactly qualifies myself to even be give you any sort of professional footwear advice…so, here we go…
My name is Omar Bailey, I am from both New York and South Florida. I loved sketching sneakers as a kid, one day in HS I learned about industrial design through a recruiter from CCS. I applied and was accepted. Two years later I transferred to the university of Cincinnati for their Co-op program. Co-op is basically a fancy way of saying internship, except these were more like full-time gigs opposed to traditional internships. My first co-op was with New Balance, followed by K-Swiss and Adidas, then I switched it up to HP, M3 design, then back to a footwear design firm based in Southern California. I used my experience and got a full-time job with Timberland boot company and was laid off one year later. In 2006 I started my first company the Bright Idea design studios as a product design firm. I was able to pick up a couple good clients that got me into a good Rhythm and allowed me to establish myself as a design consultant.
Eleven years later as a 34 year old I have seen and done just about all you can do in footwear. Ive produced large quantity of shoes for large and small brands, I’ve blown through 250k to open a shoe store that failed, I’ve managed shoe factory’s, I’ve developed shoes for Supreme, and now I have launched my own shoe brand amongst many other things.
I now live full-time in Brooklyn NYC still working for myself. Today I have only a few priorities when it comes to my business and if you know me, you know that I always have multiple “sticks” in the fire.
Omar Bailey Footwear: I launched my made in NYC brand of luxury footwear in 2015. At the present moment we are focused on establishing this brand in the international market. By 2018 The brand will be available in Dubai, and we have plans to be in the Japanese and Egyptian markets in the near future.
Lotto: currently i am the CD for Lotto India. I oversee all design and Development for the India market. Currently I am working on the FW 2018 collection. You can find me in India once per month working in our shoe factories there.
Shoe Ventures: this is my consulting company that I established specifically for working with start ups and brands. Whether it’s sample making, design, development or production shoe Ventures is here to provide footwear development services to those who need it.
The Kicks Factory: we are working on something that will be special within the footwear community. I cannot give anything away as yet, but keep in touch through our IG @thekicksfactoryInt and concept kicks. Trust me it’s going to be worth it.
Now that the intro is over we can get to business…As a contributor to CK my objective will be to give you guys insight and authentic content when it comes to footwear design development, and the business of shoes. I am always on the move traveling from Dubai, China, India, Brazil, Portugal, etc in shoe factories, meeting with suppliers, departments stores, you name it. As a writer sometimes I may go off on tangents and other times I just might be pissed off about something within the industry. For example: what makes a shitty client? Or how not to get thrown out of a shoe factory. I’ve been in this business for along time and seen a lot of shit and it can and will drive you crazy and it will be my pleasure to show you the good, the bad and the ugly.
So buckle your seat belts and get your popcorn ready…I hope you enjoy the show.
I will do my best to post as often as I can but my schedule can get crazy at times but bare with me as it will be worth it.