BABE #199: ADRIANNE ASSENHEIM - Creator/Designer, Brave New Soles
Today’s babe is the designer and creator at Brave New Soles, a footwear line providing one-of-a-kind, custom-made shoes for the kiddos in our lives. Adrianne has been creating for as long as she can remember, and she hustled damn hard to make her passion come to life. In addition to creating unique footwear for kids of all ages, Adrianne is raising a little one of her own. She balances motherhood, entrepreneurship and all the other facets of her life like a boss, and we’re rooting her on as she continues to make fashion and footwear a more sustainable industry.
Hometown: Georgetown, Ontario, Canada
Current city: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Alma mater: York University; NYU Tisch
Degree: MFA, Design for Stage and Film (Concentration: Costume Design)
Very first job: McDonalds!
Hustle: Creator/Designer, Brave New Soles
Babe you admire?
Linnie von Sky is an extremely talented children’s book author and mother who I’m lucky to call a friend. She has always been open and honest about her struggles with anxiety and depression, and found me in a particularly difficult time in my life. Her zest for living and her grace and positivity even through the darkest of times has long been an inspiration. Her gorgeous books deal with topics like obesity, bullying, depression, breastfeeding and sign language, reaching out the next generation in hopes of obliterating the concept of otherness. When she struggled to find a publisher who valued her voice, she started Silk Web Publishing, which kickstarted all of her many books. She is a mama of two, a maker of magic and one heck of a role model.
How do you spend your free time?
I am pretty obsessed with true crime podcasts; I probably stream them for at least five hours a day. I also really like to watch “The Bachelorette,” and am fascinated by the bizarre concept of reality TV.
Favorite fictional female character?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the comic book imagining of Selina Kyle. I’ve always been drawn to how multifaceted and imperfect she was allowed to be. She is written to be strong, brash and powerful, but also wounded and compassionate and maternal.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Macaroni and cheese made with an incredibly sharp old white cheddar, and a glass of Howling Bluff 2009 Sin Cera.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
I have always wanted to learn to play the drums. Growing up, my father had this spectacular, sparkly red drum set. I don’t remember him playing, but I remember being in awe of the set and feeling like strong women play the drums.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Hands down it would be Shirley Manson. She is such an inspiration. Strong, imperfect, beautifully raw. I met her once in a shop and she was the most humble, generous and radiant soul. I’d also happily grab a latte with Abraham Lincoln any day of the week.
Tell us about your hustle.
I am the designer and creator behind Brave New Soles footwear. I hand make soft-soled crib shoes and sneakers for the whole family using rescued leather offcuts from the theatrical and design industries. This sustainable approach allows me to create truly unique, limited-run styles as singular as their wearer. For every pair purchased, a donation is made which facilitates the distribution of three pairs of used footwear to Canadians in need via Shoe Bank Canada. Being a solo entrepreneur I sketch, source, pattern, cut, stitch and detail every pair. I am also simultaneously the sales and marketing department, accountant, customer service, shipping and receiving—you name it and it falls under my umbrella. I think that’s a huge part of the thrill of starting out on your own.
What does your typical workday look like?
Part of the thrill of being an entrepreneur, especially in the early stages, is that I have my hand in every single aspect of the business. I painted our logo, I prepare every shipment, each social media post (and like, and comment), I handwrite every “thank you” card to each customer. This in-depth involvement keeps me connected to my clients and the pulse of the company. A typical day includes packing and shipping any orders from the night before, sketching new ideas or working on new leather pairings, sourcing materials, liaising with markets and shops, patterning new styles, cutting and stitching new stock and working on any marketing plans in development. The list is really endless. Most of this happens in the evenings when the house is quiet and everyone is asleep. This private time fuels me and keeps me engaged in the growth of Brave New Soles.
Have you always had a creative spirit?
As an introverted child, I spent days on end making crafts at the family kitchen table. I did this at a pace so feverish my parents set up a box on the floor beside me, which I would push my finished art into with my right hand while my left hand started on the next piece. As the box filled up, I was allowed to choose what I wanted to display in the house if I remembered I had made it within a week of doing so, otherwise the box was emptied to make room for the next onslaught. I’ve always struggled with anxiety; the world has often been a frightening and confusing place to me. I think my innate curiosity about the world, my interest to find a way to connect with it when I have so often felt like an outsider, and my deeply rooted belief that I can figure out how to solve any problem creatively has shaped the maker I have become. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and have been keenly aware from a young age that the life I want to live won’t be handed to me, but rather I have the opportunity to build it and curate the future I dream of.
When did you decide to start your own business?
I studied costume design at a time when technology and offshore production was really changing the game for craftspeople in Toronto. I was often reminded that the skills I was cultivating were “dying arts” and would likely become irrelevant. I don’t tend to take no as an answer. So, in my spare time, I created an independent study in shoemaking, had it approved as curriculum and reached out to Jeff Churchill of Jitterbug Boy Shoemaking to apprentice me. He graciously took me under his wing—even after I accidentally lost a labour-intensive Orc boot for “Lord of the Rings the Musical” through a belt sander—and taught me how to make lasted shoes. At the time, Jeff was essentially the only shoemaker in show business, just building his empire and refusing to go the way of the dinosaur. I went on the get my MFA at NYU, but never really considered shoemaking a possibility as the equipment alone is an incredible investment and I didn’t have the funds or space to accommodate it. Fast-forward almost a decade and I was a new mom. I found myself struggling with postpartum anxiety and a deep feeling that I had lost myself. In an effort to calm my spiralling mind, my father sent me to a one-night class in crib shoemaking at Art and Sole Academy. That night I realized two things: first, a lot had changed since I was making shoes; I had not been at the end of an artform, but at the beginning of a burgeoning renaissance that has only grown in the past decade. Second, I could make, cut and sew styles without any equipment startup! I started with a single pair of moccasins, which I modified into pretty adorable high tops, and just kept going. I couldn’t stop making shoes for my son. Within a few weeks I was getting requests via Instagram and thus Brave New Soles was officially born.
What makes Brave New Soles different from other shoe making companies?
I began making Brave New Soles with not a single penny to invest in the business. I begged and borrowed studio time with friends who had sewing machines before I saved enough coffee money to buy a refurbished vintage machine for $50 from an old man in wine country. I reached out to Jeff and asked if I could take his scraps off his hands, and those were my only materials. Making lasted shoes requires an attention to the natural stretch of the skin you are using, and that shifts every foot or so. This means one is often left with a lot of oddly shaped offcuts, similar to what your dough looks like after you’ve cut all your Christmas cookies out of it. The leather I use is all new, but it has been earmarked for disposal because it’s too small to be thought useful, or because it is imperfect. Imperfection has always been an inspiration and an aspiration to me. I get such a thrill out of giving new life to these forgotten and discarded pieces. When you buy a pair of Brave New Soles you’re investing in an heirloom quality piece of your story, you are choosing to express yourself uniquely, you are doing your part to live sustainably and you are supporting a maker, a family and at least three people in need of footwear.
What needs to happen in order for more companies to implement the use of sustainable, reusable products in their products?
Primarily, the change needs to be demanded by the consumer. For the concept of sustainability to be seen as more than an avocado toast trend to companies, their clients need to hold them accountable, and be willing to take their money elsewhere. Global leaders in the industry need to lead by example. Companies like Burberry need to stop being so afraid to damage their brand that they are willing to burn millions of dollars worth of product instead of adapting their product and innovating their design. Rather than standing motionless in the quicksand of the past generations conspicuous consumption, major corporations need to make sustainability itself fashionable. There are some really exceptional examples of this change in North America. Arc'teryx, for instance, uses the remnants of their their proprietary textiles to create weatherproof capes to Vancouver’s homeless population which are distributed free of charge via the Vancouver Police Department. Patagonia’s famed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign prompted customers to bring in their old Patagonia products for free repair, believing that their product should last a lifetime. Initiatives like this actually gain customers (and typically more loyal customers) who are truly aligned with the company’s values. In short, having values adds value. Interested consumers can check out fashionrevolution.org, and fashiontakesaction.com for more suggestions.
How do you balance running a business with motherhood?
Balance is such a tricky term, and its pursuit is really an ever-changing game board. Generally, I try to work once my son is asleep, so that I can be as present as possible while he’s with me. When he’s awake and I have must-do items, I try to include him in any way I can. He’s only 2, but he’s constantly asking to help. Whether it’s organizing my (already organized) threads by colour, “hammering” the eyelets on a scrap piece of leather or helping me pick his favourite product shots, I try to keep him as involved and engaged as possible. I think it is really important that a child sees their parents follow their heart, work towards their dreams and hustle hard.
Tell us about your partnership with Shoe Bank Canada.
When I was a child, an uncle of mine lived homeless on the streets of Toronto for a decade. I have seen firsthand what homelessness does to a person, and how it affects the entire family. As I grew up I realized how frighteningly common this was, and that none of us is entirely exempt from the situations that lead to poverty. At least 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year. One in five children lives in poverty. Since 2010, over 40,000 pairs of shoes have been distributed to Canadians in need via Shoe Bank Canada. These donated shoes are more than just footwear; they are an opportunity. Donated steel toe boots allow their new wearers safe working conditions; gifted dress shoes offer an opportunity to ace that interview; and contributed booties keep little ones’ feet warm when they take their first step. In January, I joined forces with Shoe Bank Canada offering a donation from every pair of Brave New Soles purchased, which facilitates the distribution of three pairs of used footwear to Canadians in need. I couldn’t agree more with their mission statement: “Every Canadian should have access to a decent pair of shoes.”
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
My biggest career milestone, as it pertains to Brave New Soles, has been my first repeat customer. I had a client send me photos of her infant son wearing my crib shoes, stating it was his very first time in footwear. She then proceeded to purchase a pair in every size I offer. She became one of many repeat customers, but that gesture of encouragement has not been forgotten.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
We are making great strides in equality, and now is a really exciting time to start a business as a woman. More women are being funded and supported. More female lead brands are being trusted. I think being a female entrepreneur often puts me in positions where I’m underestimated and, personally, I find that very empowering. I also believe the compassion and empathy often associated with feminine energy is becoming a more and more sought after skill in the workforce. We are building companies not because we can, but because we must, and we are doing our damnedest to ensure they make a difference.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
I think people believe designers spend their days in fancy studios sipping martinis and sketching effortlessly chic renderings in perpetuity. It’s not often that I meet someone who truly understands that design work isn’t glamorous and business ownership isn’t easy. I spend most of my time in torn jeans and a messy bun (by circumstance, not design) taking a perpetual leap of faith that this will all work out.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
If you have an original idea—something to give to the world—put your all into it. Keep going. Most small businesses fail in the first year, and primarily for the simple reason that their owner simply gave up. Like the first year of marriage, or parenthood, the first year of small business ownership is hard as hell, but so incredibly energizing and immeasurably worth it. Don’t get hung up on what others are doing, or what their versions of success look like. Don’t get bogged down by the haters and the copycats. Just keep creating, embrace what makes you different—and try to get some sleep now and then.
What is your philosophy on work/life balance? What helps you wind down and manage stress?
In my experience, balance is an ever-shifting game board. There are very few moments so far where I have managed to grasp it. I am a notorious workaholic when I allow myself to be—an urge that’s like an angry cat constantly scratching at the door—but that doesn’t pair well with parenthood. Most days I fall more to one side or the other, but I try to be grateful for the chance to live either reality, and let myself off the hook as best I can for not figuring out how to live in both at once. When I am really stressed out I sing more. It’s a trick for anxiety that keeps me breathing and it brings me great joy. Also, there is nothing a bowl of shredded cheddar can’t fix!
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
You really never know what this life has to offer. Dream big, but allow yourself space to discover the universe’s real plan for you. This life has opportunities for you that are so much more spectacular than anything your mind and heart can dream up, and you can have it all if you just keep your head up, eyes open and continue walking through open doors. Sometimes the pieces don’t make sense until the entire puzzle is complete.
In collaboration with: Warby Parker
Warby Parker is home to a trendy, socially-conscious eyeglass collection (with a kickass startup success story.) We're big fans of their Home Try-On Program, where you can select 5 different frames online, have them delivered to your door, take 'em for a spin, pick out your faves, then send them all back — all before spending a dime. Learn more about it here.
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