A Rising Star

Stacey Howard has made a quick rise in the world of fashion design

 By Bianca Heyward

On the eighth floor of a glass building in New York City’s lower West side, Stacey Howard, 25, spends a lazy Sunday afternoon in her apartment wearing baggy black pants, and a baggy black sweater with a seemingly infinite supply of holes and rips.

With her long straight black hair swept across her pale face, she looks looks like your typical urban graduate student. But, she is anything but that.

She is a shoe designer who is making a name for herself in the wider world of fashion.

Her unbound creativity and resourcefulness that got her where she is now – designing shoes for the successful fashion line, Elizabeth and James, started by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Her trajectory to success has been rapid and steep.

Stacey Howard

Howard, a Los Angeles native, attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she studied graphic design. During her senior year there, she jump-started her career by catching the interest of Steve Madden, a world-renowned fashion footwear mogul, who over the past 20 years has turned his brand into a household name.

“One of my projects for school was to customize a product,” explained Howard. “So, I went down to visit my friend in Savannah. And we were going to all these military bases, like all these flea markets, and I was really into it. We found so many combat boots that they were selling in Soho for like $150. And these boots were $10. So I decided to take all the boots back to New York and buy all these clothes, and cut them up and glue them on to the boots. And so I wanted to start selling them, and someone told Steve Madden about my project, and he wanted to help.” Madden is the founder of the successful footwear company, Steve Madden Ltd.

When Howard started working with Madden, they created their own line called “Stacey and Steve”, which was sold on the Steve Madden website. It consisted of combat-style boots, which came in various colors.

While working there, Howard recalls, there was no such thing as a typical day. Exploration and creativity were not only encouraged, but, part of the job description. “At a certain point I was taking military jackets and putting fabrics on it, and he (Madden) was like ‘Alright, lets sell it in the store’”.

Her experience with Steve Madden was invaluable. Working for a large company that attracts a wide audience, the challenge, as a designer, was finding out what other people would buy.

“I’ve gone with Steve to different cities, and watched how many girls love his shoes, and how many different shoes there are. For example, the girl in Oklahoma is loving a shoe that I would never think someone would love, but it’s awesome. They’re screaming over that one shoe. So you give them a wide range [of styles], and people are happy, and he does it for a good price.”

After having spent almost two-and-a half years working with Steve Madden, Howard was ready for something different. “I didn’t even have an office,” she says laughing. “I would sit with Steve at his office. It was really cool for awhile, and then I was like alright, I’m 25 years old, I need to start actually working.”

A few months ago, Howard starting designing shoes for Elizabeth and James, which is one of Steve Maddens licenses. She works as a team alongside her co-worker, Jackson Moad.

Elizabeth and James is a much smaller company then Steve Madden, and more expensive as well. It is run by fashion icons, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The twins, who began their careers acting on the television series Full House, are now entrepreneurs, and are very involved in the design process.

As their shoe designer, average day-to-day responsibilities include sketching, figuring out the correct measurements, and meeting with leather companies, among other things.

“I really get some sort of high after I sketch it. And, you sit there with the leathers, and all of the sudden it really comes to life. I think that once you see the shoe, it’s so exciting.”

Finding inspiration was easy living in a city as fashion forward as New York, where Howard looks at street style for ideas.

“And I also think it’s a lot of designer stuff, that most people wouldn’t be able to afford, or they wouldn’t understand. And it’s about meeting in the middle, and using and incorporating those designs into something else.”

An important aspect of working in the fashion industry is being able to anticipate the newest trends, as well as keeping a very close watch on them. When Howard designs the shoes, she has to keep in mind that they won’t ship to stores for five or six months, on average. “Designing ahead of time can be hard, because you have no idea what people really want to wear next year.”

Luckily for her, fashion repeats itself. By knowing the history of fashion and trends, she can look backwards in order to move forwards.

You would think that by having the creative ability and the resources at her disposal to create any pair of shoes that her heart might desire, they would end up dominating her closet at home. That isn’t the case for Howard. “When I first start making them I’m like ‘I want this, I want this! I need it in white pony hair!’ And then by the time it ships, I’ve seen that shoe so many times that I hate it. I hate it. I’ve changed five millimeters on every single piece of it. Please throw it away.”

And as for Howard’s own personal style? She has been loyal to her long-time favorite designer, Dr. Martens. Dr. Martens shoes are comprised mainly of combat style boots known for their air-cushioned soles, and have largely been associated with youth culture in the 1960’s.

“I never liked shoes. I never really owned pumps or anything like that. I’m not that girl.” She recalls never even having gone to a Steve Madden store before working there.

Interestingly enough, for a girl who designs so many different shoes, they don’t represent her personal style in the least. But, nonetheless, she enjoys it, and even more than that, she’s good at it. She particularly likes designing what she calls “slutty” shoes, described as pointy toed and aggressive, meant for the type of girl who would wear that shoe to spend the evening in a nightclub.

“But, yeah, you’re definitely creating shoes for a customer. You have to go out and look to see who’s buying Elizabeth and James clothing, it wasn’t me. You know, it wasn’t. And that’s okay. It might be my mom, it might be the girl that’s in a sorority at Wisconsin. You know, that wasn’t me. I wouldn’t be in a sorority. But, I get them, for some weird reason.”

But above all, Stacey Howard is an artist. She is an artist who is passionate and emotional about her work.

“I think it’s really hard to not be, for any designer, to not be emotional. That’s the hardest part, really. Any artist is really emotional. You’re kind of disconnected sometimes, and really in your own head. But, I’ve learned that when you design shoes, you can’t be sad when someone doesn’t buy it. It’s difficult, because you work really hard, and you believe in it so much, that to hear people give such negative feedback can be emotional.”

In fashion, rejection is unavoidable. But at the end of the day, she tries to make the best shoes she is capable of making, which sometimes isn’t always right for everyone. “Its just shoes, its just fashion. You have to tell yourself not to let it hurt you.”

Despite the inevitable rejection, there is also approval. Which, for Howard, is the best part of the job. She describes the first time she saw someone wearing a pair of shoes that she designed. In a city filled with over eight million people, what were the chances that a girl riding in the subway with her would be wearing something that she created?

“It’s just a random person, and you’re thinking ‘She has no idea who I am. She has no idea that she’s wearing these shoes that I designed.’ I never thought I could relate to these people, but they walked in a store and were stoked about these shoes, and paid money for them. And, that kind of makes you excited and, you know, makes you feel like you did something right.”

Through all of her experiences, both the good and the bad, Howard has greatly evolved and matured as a designer. She started off just making combat boots, moved on to pointy stilettos, and then everything in between. Designing shoes that she never thought she would know how to make, having fun and making people happy along the way.

Howard knew she wanted to work in fashion long before she started designing shoes. But, unlike many others in the fashion world, she sees things from a slightly different perspective.

“At the end of the day if I lose, what, people aren’t getting the shoe that they want? So a lot of times I feel like I’m not really helping to make the world better. But, I love it, and it’s interesting…still an art.”