Kiri Blakeley 04.09.07
No animals are harmed in the making of Mink shoes. Just bank accounts.
For years Rebecca Brough, a Hollywood stylist, refused to use leather or fur when putting celebrities in nice clothes for public appearances and magazine shoots. Most of her clients, including actresses Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson, were happy for Brough, a vegan who doesn't eat or use products made with animal meat or by-products, to dress them in fake leather and fur apparel. But only now is Brough, who turned her passion for animal care into a product--Mink, a line of vegan shoes--starting to persuade suppliers, retailers and consumers to accept a $400 (retail price) alternative to fancy leather heels.
Brough set out to create a hide-free shoe line in 2000 when, armed with her sketches of playfully elegant stilettos made from fabric and cork, she bought a $1,500 plane ticket to the Lineapelle Fair shoe convention in Bologna, Italy. There, she scooped up swatches of cotton, linen, denim and imitation silk--the real stuff is unkind to silkworms--and took them to Italian shoemakers. At 16 factories Brough, 36, was all but shoved out the door by eye-rolling cobblers who didn't want to make smallish batches of labor-intensive nonleather shoes that, to meet Brough's standards, would require animal-free glue. "A lot of times the shoemakers were almost yelling at me," she says.
Finally, Brough found Marco Gambassi, 44, a third-generation cobbler interested in taking small projects after selling his family's factory in Tuscany to Gucci. In 2002 Gambassi agreed to make Brough's footwear, which has to be stitched by hand, since standard machines would rip the thin strips of fabric that are part of her dainty designs. Gambassi also developed a durable, sticky resin from a Para rubber tree plant, to bind the sole to the top of Brough's stiletto and platform heels.
This kind of work doesn't come cheap. Each pair of shoes consumes ten hours of labor, two hours more than leather shoes. That turns into a manufacturing cost of $120. Brough spent $43,000 before she saw her first samples--60 pairs of shoes in six different designs--in 2004. She gave each of her designs a tongue-in-cheek name. "Pig" is a pink velveteen stiletto topped with pink crystals.
High-end retailers, many of whom associate vegan wear with a Birkenstock crowd, were even more dismissive than the cobblers. Brough spent the next year carting her designs to 287 stores in Los Angeles, New York and London without making a sale. Despite her connections, stores refused to put a $600 (Brough's initial suggested retail price) nonleather shoe by an unknown designer next to footwear made by Prada and Jimmy Choo. "At that price, customers expect leather," sniffs Christine Campbell, who owns Crimson Mim, a Los Altos, Calif. shop.
Brough turned to her celebrity contacts, including Paris Hilton and actress Natalie Portman. She slipped Mink designs on 37 celebrities in 2005. The exposure helped Mink get plugs in 23 magazines. Now doors opened. Brough sold 90 pairs of shoes for $200 each to four stores in Utah and Arizona in 2005. The stores sold their stock of the shoes, priced between $350 and $400, in less than five weeks. Since then Brough has capitalized on economies of scale to drop her wholesale price to $160 a pair, helping Mink's 18 styles get picked up by 12 more boutiques. She also sells shoes from her Web site for $400 a pair. Brough's tenacity is starting to pay off: Last year she sold 740 pairs of shoes, for a $75,000 gross profit on sales of $168,000. "When I first started, people didn't even know what vegan was. They would ask, 'Can I eat the shoe?'" says Brough. "But now they get it."