Up Close With Footwear Power Couples

Designers share the perks and pitfalls that come with working as a team.

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Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen

Photo By courtesy of Dualstar Entertainment

Steven Cox and Daniel Silver

Photo By courtesy of designers

Jennifer Portman and Natalia Barbieri

Photo By courtesy of designers

Working as part of a designing duo is often proof that two heads are better than one.

Creative teams, made up of both high-profile personalities and up-and-coming designers, said there are certainly benefits to having a close partner. That is, if the co-designers in question are able to negotiate the distribution of duties without stepping on each other’s toes.

“It can be a difficult industry, but one of the biggest advantages of having a partner in business is you are able to be in two places at once,” said Mark Badgley of luxury label Badgley Mischka. “James [Mischka] could go off and travel for [production] while I stay home and work on the collection. We share a single vision and there is trust, which is a tremendous asset.”

Other design teams interviewed by Footwear News — including sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; college friends Natalia Barbieri and Jennifer Portman of Bionda Castana; partners Steven Cox and Daniel Silver of Duckie Brown; and brothers Shane and Shawn Ward — echoed similar praises about collaborating, but they acknowledged that it takes a special skill to make the arrangement work.

“Ashley and I respect each other’s opinion. We hear each other out and ultimately come to the decision that’s right for our business,” said Mary-Kate Olsen of Elizabeth & James. “If we disagree, [the design] just doesn’t happen.”

For Barbieri and Portman, who met during college in London and launched Bionda Castana in 2007, working with a partner adds a new perspective. Barbieri said she wouldn’t have that while designing alone, and it keeps her grounded.

“Sometimes you get caught up in your own head and your own world. You get this fantasy idea and it doesn’t make sense whatsoever,” she said. “It’s nice to have that banter and to brainstorm and have someone who also has a structure.”

Working in tandem also can help ease self-doubt.

“You can second-guess yourself, [but] when you have a partner who shares that vision, you can challenge each other and make the process stronger,” said Badgley, who started his line with Mischka in 1988.

Added Mischka: “We second-guess ourselves all the time, but together we reconfirm what’s right and come to a resolution very quickly.”

At contemporary label Madison Harding, designers Barri Budin and Hilary Rosenman, who met while attending Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and launched their label in spring ’07, said that having two points of view ultimately helps the brand reach more consumers with a wider range of styles. “Barri wears 4-inch heels all day. I can’t do that. I have to wear boots to be comfortable,” Rosenman said. “Barri might be geared toward the pumps from our line, while I like the cowboy boot. It provides a well-rounded collection.”

For some designers, it works best to clearly divide the daily duties and day-to-day operations.

Danielle and Jodie Snyder, the sisters behind accessories label Dannijo, which launched in 2008, have split the business responsibilities.

“I tend to do more of the creative and Jodi handles more of the business side, but we have fun designing together,” said Danielle Snyder. “It’s a happy and healthy marriage because we are still really involved in what each other is doing.”

The Wards, who started their namesake line in 2004 before partnering last year with Pentland Group Plc’s Kangaroos brand to create Roos–Shane & Shawn, said the decision on how to best operate their business was an easy one. Shane, an art school alum, spearheads the design, while Shawn, who studied engineering, tackles the finances.

“Our training is in different fields, so there is never a lack of ideas,” said Shane Ward. “It’s always great to have a partner in crime and a support system.”

There are other, more personal, factors that can work toward a successful brand model.

At Duckie Brown, it’s about being vocal. Silver and Cox founded their label in 2001, and in 2009 teamed up with the Florsheim label to launch Florsheim by Duckie Brown. “We’re not afraid to keep asking what we want from one another, whether it’s personal or a work thing,” said Silver.

But Mischka pointed out that partners have to leave their attitudes at the door. “We have very little egos when it comes to each other, and that’s very important,” he said.

Ashley Olsen, however, said that challenging each other is what gives their brand its edge. “When we don’t see eye to eye, we challenge each other [to come to an agreement]. ‘How does this fit into the story we’re telling? Why this material? Are we designing for the Elizabeth girl or the James girl?’” she said. “If we don’t come together on an idea, big or small, we drop it.”

Bally co-creative directors Michael Herz

and Graeme Fidler began working together in 2003 when they joined Aquascutum, and then ventured out as a team in April 2010. And after almost 10 years in the same office space, they have perfected the work-life balance.

“We both have separate, full lives away from work, and that’s been an important factor for each of us as it helps provide balance and a perspective away from fashion,” said Herz.

When two heads share the design process, it can be difficult to maintain the brand’s focus, but successful duos said they work hard to keep a consistent aesthetic.

At Bally, the label retains a singular vision by always connecting back to its Swiss heritage. “We took time at the start to really understand Bally, what the brand is about and what it wants to be,” said Herz. “That helped ground us in Bally’s DNA, which in turn, keeps your focus aligned with brand values.”

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