Shoe Business: Art & Sole Academy

Today we are featuring Jennifer Allison from Art & Sole Academy to talk shoe business!

What is your background? How did you make your way to the world of shoemaking?

I initially studied Fashion Design at Ryerson University and during this time my specialty was evening wear. The thought of designing footwear had never crossed my mind! Upon graduation, I stepped into the footwear industry unexpectedly. My first corporate job was a Footwear Illustrator position and then I quickly worked my way up to becoming a lead Footwear Designer for various brands. Over the past decade I have had the opportunity to live and work throughout Canada, United States, South America, Europe and Asia fine tuning my craft and gaining industry experience with companies such as the Aldo Group, Abercrombie and Fitch, Awamaki and Pour La Victoire to name a few.

In the early days of working as a designer I felt really insecure about never having made a pair of shoes myself. At the time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what went into the assembly process. My role as a designer was mainly to develop mood boards, concept sketches and then travel overseas for sourcing and product development. In order to further my understanding, I took the initiative to work closely with the technicians on the factory floor. They were a wealth of knowledge and provided me with the fundamentals I needed to become a more confident designer. The factory process however is very different than the handmade process and it wasn’t until moving to New York and later Peru, where I had the opportunity to take private classes from artisans to learn the art of shoemaking. During these sessions I acquired the skills to continue experimenting and making shoes for myself from start to finish! This experience sparked the idea for Art & Sole.

Tell me about Art & Sole Academy. What were your goals for the business?

I launched Art & Sole in 2014. I started off by offering pop up workshops out of the Bata Shoe Museum and Ryerson University. The positive response from these events provided me with the motivation to look for a permanent studio space. In February of 2015 I found the perfect space located in the Leslieville neighborhood and started offering full-time programming. My goal was to create a space where like minded individuals could connect, create and collaborate. I also wanted to make shoemaking accessible to a general audience. The classes were taught without any heavy industrial equipment and this enabled students to continue creating on their own at home.

Why did you choose to open the Academy in Toronto?

Toronto holds a special place in my heart. I was born and raised in Northern Ontario and moved to the city when I was 17 to study fashion. Throughout these years, I grew into my own creative voice as an artist and maker.

When the time came to choose where to set up shop, Toronto immediately felt like the right fit. Art & Sole is a very niche business and I knew in order for the studio to thrive it would have to operate out of a vibrant and diverse city.

There must have been challenges along the way. Can you share some of them?

Yes, so many challenges! One of our ongoing challenges is sourcing. Over the past few decades, footwear manufacturing in Canada has disappeared due to the competitive rates of overseas facilities. This shift, has made it really difficult to purchase proper tools, supplies and equipment for shoemaking.

I am fortunate to have kept in touch with the factories from my design days, although even with these contacts, it can be very difficult to meet the minimums required. From day one, I have self-funded the studio which has definitely had its pros and cons. This decision has forced me to grow the business organically and often slower than I would have liked at times. On a positive note, as a result I have become very resourceful. For example, In terms of materials, I often use up-cycled leather and source dead stock or scraps from other leather companies such as upholstery and apparel brands. By using the offcuts from other companies, it keeps our raw materials down, reduces waste and allows us to actively partake in the sustainable fashion movement.

How have the shoemaking courses evolved? Have you added other courses?

Our shoemaking workshops have always been the star product but we have also offered on rotation apparel, handbags, millinery and small leather goods workshops. I am constantly sourcing new materials, chaining our workshop offering, paying attention to the trends and trying to improve the overall work experiences based on the feedback from our students and clients.

Who are your students? Makers, shoe aficionados or future entrepreneurs like yourself?

All walks of life have stepped through our studio doors over the years. Whether you are looking for a new hobby, creative outlet or thinking of stepping into the industry we have a wide selection of workshops and services suited to all skill levels!

What gives you joy and satisfaction in your work?

I find joy and satisfaction from my daily interactions with other creatives. Creativity is contagious! I am constantly learning from my students and other makers within the community. They keep me on my toes and forever problem solving!

You moved your business to North Bay just as the COVID-19 pandemic got underway in Ontario. Why did you make the move? What was your vision for the company at that time?

Having run Art & Sole out of Toronto for the past 6 years, I was itching for a change! Our rent had also been increased by 60% with very short notice due to new ownership so that ended up being the ultimate push! After much thought, I came to the conclusion that moving to a smaller town would actually provide me with the time and space needed to achieve all of the bigger plans I have had in mind. I felt moving closer to family would also provide a better support system and sense of balance which was an area that was really lacking in my life. North Bay is located a short 3.5 hour drive or 45 min flight North of Toronto. It is a beautiful city surrounded by lakes, beaches and parks making it the perfect escape from the big city!

We now have a beautiful store front located downtown North Bay, ON. In order to maintain our relationships and connect with our past, current and future clientele I am currently working on creating online content, courses and kits with the hopes this will make our programming more accessible to a wider audience. Once the pandemic settles and it is safe to do so, we will also resume our group workshops, studio intensives, offer northern retreats and perhaps take some of our workshops on the road and teach pop ups throughout Canada!

Has that vision changed with the pandemic and as we contemplate the aftermath?

If anything the pandemic has provided me with confirmation that the plan to expand into the digital world is an absolute must if we want to survive these surreal times. As difficult as this pause has been financially, it has also been really refreshing creatively. It has given me time to settle into our new studio, get organized and for the first time be proactive instead of reactive about the future and next steps.

I notice that you are highlighting some of your former students in your Instagram ‘Shoe Stories’ series. You always ask them ‘If you were a shoe what would you be?’ So I’m asking you the same question!

If I was a shoe I would be: A Black Pointy Toe Chelsea Boot detailed in a combination of leather, suede and python with a 2.5’’ heel height! I think this would be the perfect style for a spontaneous Sagittarius like me! A style that you can dress up and dress the down! Ready to tackle whatever comes its way! I believe this versatility really reflects my personality, business and lifestyle!

Thank you so much Jennifer for taking the time to answer our questions! To learn more about Art & Sole Academy, visit her website here.

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