Calleen Cordero was walking along Third Street in Los Angeles when she spotted an elaborately studded vintage belt in the window of a denim shop.
Not only did Cordero immediately take to the belt, but she couldn't stop thinking how it could be transformed into a stylish shoe.
"I fell in love with it. I was obsessed. I would go and visit it," said Cordero, 39, who at the time was selling hand-sewn Indian linens out of her Hollywood home. "I have a very bizarre instinct."
She followed that instinct and had a contract factory create the shoe she envisioned, with prominent studs. It was the prototype of her collection of studded and embroidered clogs, sandals and other shoes that are sold in nearly 200 boutiques worldwide.
Calleen Cordero Designs Inc. is one of the few shoe companies that manufacturers domestically, out of a North Hollywood factory where workers use hand tools to shape the wood, cut the leather and apply the studs and embroidery.
Her factory produces fewer than 100 pairs of her earthy footwear daily, but retailing at close to $400 a pair, it was enough for her to gross nearly $2 million in 2004. This year, the mother of two expects to sell $3 million.
Kathy Bailon, director of career development at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, noted that Cordero has the advantage of charging top dollar for a boutique item produced in small quantities. "What Los Angeles is known for is the creativity and the design," Bailon said. "It is still a vibrant business."
It wasn't easy for Cordero to get going. With local production long since decimated by cheap labor in Mexico and China, there was virtually no Southern California infrastructure for shoe making. "Everybody was like, it doesn't make sense," she recalled.
But Cordero figured she could pull it off if she targeted well-heeled women and charged a premium. She took a $5,000 loan on her house to buy materials, brought in a boarder to help make ends meet and scoured the area for a factory that could turn her high-fashion designs into wearable shoes.
She found a 900-square-foot facility in Sun Valley that had been churning out low-end plastic heels, but had once made leather footwear and still employed a handful of employees who had the skills to do it.
Cordero contracted with the factory to craft the basic shoe that she would decorate in her house. "I was running it out of my basement with no windows, with the washer and dryer going. I was robbing Stroud's garbage cans for boxes," she said.
Cordero's shoes caught on in stores such as Beverly Hills' Madison, where she sold her first collection. "The thing is that they are handmade. They are fashionable and comfortable at the same time," said Silvana Tucciarone, Madison's store manager.
Tucciarone said that the shoes' bohemian feel sets them apart from highly stylized footwear. "Her sandals are unique enough that if you are wearing something simple during they day, they add a little something to the look," said Carter Bradley, an L.A. home and garden designer who has nine pairs of Cordero sandals.
To keep up with demand, Cordero moved her business into a 5,000-square-foot factory in North Hollywood that she leases for $4,000 a month. She also brought on more employees, and now has workforce of 23, along with some contractors.
Cordero remembers her first expensive shoes: a pair of $250 red-leather boots that she held on layaway for seven months, as she saved the money by babysitting and other odd jobs. "I had to have those boots," she said.
At 15, Cordero started selling shoes at Groundlevel, a shoe boutique in Marin County where she grew up. She worked her way up at the boutique and ended up traveling overseas with the owner on trips to buy inventory. Cordero also tinkered with design, commissioning pointed-toe cowboy boots after she was inspired to bring back the pass & #233; fashion when a customer came into Groundlevel wearing vintage boots.
The shoe industry became her life's work. Cordero skipped college and later went to work helping design a hip line of shoes for Vogue Shoe Co., a Monterey Park company that crumbled as production shifted off-shore. She's also had stints at several major shoe companies, including London Underground, which was the sole distributor for Dr. Marten's in the United States, and Kenneth Cole Productions Inc.
Relying on her experience and contacts in the industry, Cordero's collections are now carried by Harrods, Barneys and boutiques as far away as Italy, Saudi Arabia and Japan. (Her distribution is concentrated locally, with her collections carried in more than three dozen California stores.)
Now she must grow her business in a notoriously fickle industry. Earlier this year, Cordero opened her first retail shop, spending $75,000 to design and build it, and another $50,000 to furnish the Beverly Boulevard store with inventory.
And she specially manufactures shoes that eventually become collectibles. "Customers are coming back every month wondering what are they going to get next," she said.
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