Sam Jones has had a long and illustrious career in footwear buying and now, fuelled by a passion for sustainable fashion and 70s style, she has launched her own brand Raíz Atelier.
The first release from the band is a tight edit of three wooden wedge styles, made from high quality, sustainable materials in ateliers in Spain. Wicker wedges are soon to be added to the line.
Jones tells us about the inspiration behind the new brand, why she is focused on owning the "wedge" category, and how she hopes to develop the business.
Before we get into the launch of Raíz Atelier, could you give us a bit of a background to your career so far? You have a very interesting background in fashion buying.
My career started off in the footwear industry, developing women’s footwear ranges for Marks and Spencer. In those days I was back and forth to our factory in China every other month for a number of years ensuring our designs were executed correctly and it was there that I really learnt the technical knowhow of shoe making and all the behind-the-scenes stuff involved in manufacturing. It was a very valuable time for me and enabled me to land a dream job as Head of Buying for Pied a Terre (cult British footwear brand of its time in the noughties). This job allowed me to work with some of the best factories in Spain and Italy and gave me an appetite for working with a more luxury product.
I left Pied a Terre after more than 5 years with the brand to have my first child. An opportunity to work as Fashion and Buying Director for a new multi-branded e-commerce platform focusing on resort fashion arose and I jumped at it as I was hungry for a change. It was there that I immersed myself in multi-branded buying across RTW and accessories, hopping from showroom to showroom, as well as learning about the world of digital start-ups. Following that I consulted for Fenwick Bond Street’s new MD at the time, David Walker-Smith, on his new store vision which in turn landed me a two-year consultancy developing the retail vision and curating & securing luxury & contemporary brands across women’s, men’s and lifestyle divisions for new London concept store Pantechnicon in Belgravia.
I feel really fortunate to have worked in so many sectors of the industry, from design, product development, buying and manufacturing. Essentially, they’ve all shared one commonality, my love of product.
Have you always wanted to start up your own brand?
In truth, no not always, but after spending two years working with so many inspiring sustainable brands, whilst at my stint with Pantechnicon, I developed a burning desire to want to build something of my own. I also started to become obsessed with sustainability and was curious how I could help the current situation.
What was it that inspired you to focus on footwear and specifically the type of footwear you have with Raíz Atelier?
Focusing on footwear was the easy decision for me, since this was the product area I knew most about and have a deep connection with. In terms of the type of footwear we develop at Raíz Atelier, I decided I wanted to be really good at one thing and get known for the go-to for something specific, like Ancient Greek Sandals is for flats or Castañer for espadrilles. Landing on being the home of the perfect summer wedge, made from cork, wood and wicker came very naturally to me as I always dig out my old Dr Scholl’s and cork wedges every summer.
I realised I had always struggled to find cool updates of these and that no one was solely focusing on this product type. So that was the deciding factor. Plus, the materials in my wedges tied in perfectly with the sustainability angle, which was very much at the forefront of my mind whilst developing the concept. More of that later.
The brand has a very distinctive 70s vibe, where did that come from?
I’ve always been drawn to the 70s as a style. Long messy hair, middle parting, flares, head scarves, the colour palettes such as rusts and mustard yellows. I have this romantic nostalgic vision of life in St Tropez in the 70s. Plus it never goes out of style. Ever. I’m not interested in following trends.
How did you conceive the designs and where is the footwear made?
For me, the designs always start with the wedge. I’m lucky enough to have kept hold of an entire back catalogue of photographs of vintage shoes that I took on my shopping trips to flea markets in New York, LA and Paris back in the day, so these have been a great source of inspiration. I love working with old silhouettes and tweaking them to fit in to our modern lives. I have two artisanal factories in Alicante, Spain who are super talented creatively and together we finesse the shapes and proportions.
Raíz Atelier isn’t just about the aesthetic, you are also committed to creating fully sustainable products, can you please explain exactly how you achieve that?
I knew that Raíz Atelier couldn’t be just another new brand hoping to get noticed. I didn’t want to contribute to the land fill crisis, so I set about reading and educating myself on what sustainability really meant, pros and cons with different materials and ultimately how to be circular.
There is no perfect way to be fully sustainable. I decided I wanted to make product that could be composted, which in turn limited me to the types of materials I could use. I enjoy working with a narrower material base as I favour the simplicity of it. I was under no illusion that the composting could be done safely and properly in one’s garden bin so I found an organic composting facility who’s environmental team scrutinised my material data sheets and tested my products in their vessels to confirm their safety and compatibility to be used as soil compost.
Once we got the go head, I knew I was on to something! Our shoes are made to last and be cherished first and foremost, however in reality some may reach the point of not being wanted anymore and I wanted our business to be responsible for this issue, rather than bury our heads in the sand. Therefore, we invite our customers to return their pre-loved Raíz shoes back to us where we take care of their circularity through our composting partnership. We call this program “reRaíz” – meaning re-root.
Can you talk us through the collection as it stands, such as the key styles and price points?
We launched with a very small, highly focused collection which currently consists of the perfect wooden wedge and the perfect cork wedge. Both are iterations of original ‘70s silhouettes. I’ve always found that once you have the best version of something, then there’s very little need for constant change.
We currently have 3 styles; 2 mules and a toe thong sandal, and each style comes in 3 delicious vegetable-tanned leather colours, Natural, Tan and Green. These leathers and wedges will form the foundations for future styles. Our price points are between £300-£350 which reflect the high-grade materials we chose to use and the artisanal factories we work with.
How has demand been so far, presumably as travel corridors open up, this will be great for you?
Demand has been super positive so far. The very small audience we have, have been incredibly supportive. The big focus now is to grow audience and awareness through various marketing channels.
You are releasing product in series. Tell us about this model. Are you eschewing the traditional seasonal model?
We’re really a non-seasonal brand, in the sense that we don’t develop winter product and we sell globally all year round, so the traditional categorisation by season felt inappropriate. Also, there’s a mindset of styles feeling old and dated if they’re associated with a particular year and, as a slow fashion brand, we didn’t want to be part of that cycle of ‘mark down the old to bring in the new’. Instead, we work with small batch production and will introduce a new Series which will consist of a new small collection of styles that may be defined by a new leather, or a design theme. We will also continue with our previous Series’ and “layer” in new styles. I like to think we can drum our own beat.
How will the collection evolve in the future?
The Wicker wedge, which has been a long time coming, will be introduced next and we are developing another cork wedge that will sit beautifully alongside our existing wedges. There will be a focused collection of new styles, in new veg-tan leathers across all the wedges. I get very excited about all the possibilities!
What about distribution, where is the brand available now and how do you see that developing?
The entire collection is available online at raizatelier.com and we are also stocked at French luxury concept store By Marie, St Tropez. We’re looking to broaden our wholesale distribution with selected global stockists.
On a slightly different note, how has it been launching a new business during the pandemic?
I was originally planning on launching last year, which quickly became an impossibility, so I used the additional time to really finesse the story and prepare all the things I never realised I had to prepare when launching a retail business! I’m quite an organised person, but in hindsight the pandemic made me realise I wouldn’t have been ready at all! I’ve learnt that slow and steady wins the race.