An Interview with Erika E. Carrero, Founder of Elizee Shoes
By Trend Hunter's @InnovationStrategy.com
An accomplished Silicon Valley executive in operational finance with a love of fashion, Erika Carrero is the Founder, Creative Director, and CEO of Elizée. She identified a gap in the luxury shoe market when she couldn’t find shoes that were both stylish and comfortable. Leveraging her background in business operations, Erika launched her own footwear brand, Elizée, a collection of exquisitely designed Italian shoes crafted to provide all-day comfort.
I have always loved fashion. I was influenced by my mother and grandmother who were always very fashionable; my mother even ran errands in pencil skirts and stilettos! I have always admired them not just for fashion, but as strong, independent women who would do anything for their families.
When I was at school, and early in my career, I would design my own clothes for special events and work. I loved choosing the fabrics and style. I remember taking one of my grandmother’s velvet gowns to alter into a mini dress.
As much as I enjoyed fashion, I didn’t always know it was something I would do as a career. My motivation came from my personal experiences as a finance executive, where I traveled for work and needed to dress professionally – including wearing heels. These trips were mostly international, and they were intense. I would be in London meeting with clients, or in Stockholm with auditors or going to Mexico for the holiday party. I was constantly in pain from wearing heels all day, and sometimes had to change into flats by the evening. I just couldn’t find shoes that were both stylish and comfortable, and that was when I realized there was a gap in the luxury shoe market. That was where the idea of having my own brand started.
Reconciling the fashion aspect of wearing heels with my business side was sort of seamless because heels have been important for me in the work environment. I love how heels make me feel, at work as much as in the rest of my life. The fields of software and finance are often male dominated by, so heels allowed me to be taller and have a presence in a room full of men. In those situations, going into a board meeting, heels made me feel more confident and empowered.
Given my full-time career, having my own shoe brand started as a hobby. I learned about the luxury shoe industry in my free time for more than six years, attending classes and traveling to Italy. Finally, Milan is where I connected with my current team. I was lucky that everything aligned. At the time, I was CFO and partner at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley. Once the company was successfully sold, I finally had the time and resources to launch my passion project, Elizée.
2. How do you / your team generate new ideas?
I love traveling, and that typically brings floods of ideas as I come across art, sculptures, new materials or striking colors. Nature is a great inspiration for me, and when I go for hikes or even walks around the neighborhood, I pay attention to everything from flowers, to trees, to the sky. I take a lot of pictures, and focus on textures like the grain on a beautiful piece of wood, thinking about how that texture would look in leather. The way colors transition in a petal, for example, also inspires me. I love blush, so every time I see a rose in a pink or blush tone, I take many pictures to try to capture the shades.
Right before starting the mood board for my first collection, I was in Aspen, and we hiked in these amazing caves that had rocks covered with ice. I was fascinated by them, and those rocks translated into the metallics and snakeskin you can see in my first collection. That’s how I managed to go from those rocks at Aspen to the metallics that are so in trend right now. For my first collection I also drew inspiration from the soft cream tones from the sculptures I observed on a recent trip to Italy.
Besides offering creative inspiration, travel is also a great way to notice trends. As I visit different countries, I get to see what people are wearing in various parts of the world. I try to capture these moments by taking lots of pictures and translate the images I love most into mood boards that inspire my team. From there, we select materials and consider designs.
For my second collection, I drew inspiration from the Mediterranean. I was on the Italian Riviera when the ocean, with its water almost transparent and sparkling, made me think of transparencies and delicacy, which is something I am bringing to shoes this summer.
At trade shows, such as Lineapelle in New York and Milan, I am exposed to the best and latest in leather, which immediately gets me excited with design possibilities. Inspiration doesn’t only come when I’m on the road, though. At home, for example, going to museums is a great way to generate new ideas, and I have memberships to a few local museums.
3. Do you have any specific rituals for resetting creativity?
I love taking breaks to the ocean. As I’ve mentioned, nature is a major source of creativity for me, and the colors and shimmer of the water are always refreshing and inspiring. Our family occasionally rents a beach house right by the ocean. Waking up to the sound of the sea, having breakfast, contemplating the waves and taking a walk at the beach with the family is just perfection. It’s therapeutic and for sure resets creativity and my mindset.
4. How do you identify trends? What resources do you use to spot trends and consumer insights within your industry?
Trends can be identified anywhere. My inspiration does not only follow trends –– instead, I try to anticipate them by understanding the small details in the world. A new style of architecture, new shops opening around the world, fashion shows and art fairs are all part of where my team and I find inspiration. We also like to work closely with the market by participating in tradeshows, trunk shows, and listen to the real needs of our consumers. We meet them regularly and understand what they long for in the footwear market –– what they’ve been searching for but haven’t yet found. That’s our starting point. In terms of resources, there are a few associations that give a measure of direction, for example the Lineapelle and Informa Markets Fashion’s diverse trade shows.
Usually for consumer insights, I use McKinsey’s Business of Fashion (BOF) consumer report as well as BOF sales reports. Further, I stay abreast of trend-forecaster WGSN’s reports, and art and fashion happenings through Première Vision in France. Vogue is where I like to stay on top of fashion shows, and in the art world I follow Artribune in Italy and art marketplace Artsy. Footwearnews.com is a great resource, while highsnobiety.com gives daily updates on streetwear, lifestyle and the arts.
5. What is the biggest challenge you face when innovating within your field?
To find the balance between aesthetics and comfort. In general, the definition of luxury in shoes sets challenging parameters. In particular, from an aesthetic perspective luxury shoes typically have been designed to be slim in order to look sexy, so we are redefining these boundaries and measurements to bring comfort to the forefront and still have a beautiful, sexy shoe.
At Elizée, our innovation started from a problem: the need to have comfortable beautiful shoes. What qualifies as comfort may also vary from person to person: as we know, everyone has different feet, and our feet are perfectly imperfect. We have different widths of feet, some with bunions, and there are different shapes and sizes of ankles. In design, we need to take these variations into consideration, with a deep understanding of the most common issues for women. I have a position of not compromising the comfort aspect as I design the shoes, and my team understands that. The customer’s need always come first, and there’s a challenge in the balance between a push for creativity and the need for comfort. We’re always looking for ways of solving the aesthetic part while putting comfort first.
Another challenge is to avoid compromising quality for cost. We choose the softest leathers and the best high-tech materials, and I am constantly working with the research team to find a better material (if there is one) than what we are already using.
As a team, we brainstorm and look for ways to make the shoe comfortable, even if it’s adjusting by a couple of millimeters to make sure no seams are touching sensitive areas of the foot.
6. Has there ever been an instance where another industry has influenced your work?
Most of my career I worked in finance at start-ups in the heart of Silicon Valley. During that time, I not only worked crunching numbers, but I was also heavily involved in high-level operations: starting subsidiaries, banking, working internationally with remote teams and acquiring new businesses. Through it all, I built up experience around setting up business plans, hiring staff, setting up and sticking to budgets, and in learning to be adaptable, because you won’t always be able to stick to the plan! All of this gave me a solid base to launch a company, because I’ve had the experience in different industries and I had to be very resourceful with limited resources in the start-up environment.
Coming from a business background, the design industry, of course, has influenced my work. Through the design class I took at Stanford D.School (https://dschool.stanford.edu) I was able to enhance my problem-solving skills and the ability to not only think outside the box, but also embrace high-tech materials in the fashion industry. For example, the high-density open cell foam we use in our shoes was actually invented by NASA for its shock-absorbing properties, and to be used in space telescopes. This material was not initially intended for shoes, but has made its way into the shoe industry. We didn’t stop there and have added a material to our insole using yet another innovative material to provide extra comfort. This is just one example of how bringing together expertise from different fields –– business, design, materials science and engineering –– allows us to be innovative in how we conceptualize and produce our shoes.
7. What makes an innovative work culture? How do you create a culture of innovation?
When everyone in the workplace, at every level, offers their ideas, you get diverse points of view. This leads to innovation. Other than that, the drive to experiment and try new things, even if they don’t work, is a certain recipe for remaining at the cutting edge. I believe empowering all members of the team –– and acknowledging that diversity brings valuable different points of view –– is the best way to ensure original though. Of course, being willing to take risks is also important. Finally, celebrating good ideas (even if they didn’t make it to production, because perhaps they didn’t work from a business perspective) is great for keeping innovation going, and for ensuring that you continue to surprise and delight your market.
8. Looking to the future, how will your brand continue to be a leader in innovation?
Constant innovation is one of our core business principles, with material selection key in our process. We are always reevaluating the leathers we use, the insole components, and the heel shape. In fact, during the planning of our next collection, the insole materials were a main point of discussion. We are currently in the process of researching the next generation of insole technology. I continue to work with podiatrists to test our new prototypes while incorporating the latest materials and designs from a fashion perspective. Another point of innovation is that we design our own heels. It’s easier and cheaper to select a heel that already has its own mold, but our approach is to listen to the customer and design heels based on their needs. For our new collection, we have developed a new mold for a heel that provides enhanced stability at 60mm. This height is not common among heel producers, but we got strong feedback from customers that, for comfort, 60mm is what they need. By breaking new ground in this way –– by taking risks other brands might avoid –– we continue to live up to our value of innovation in service of our customer.