Exclusive Q&A with Autograf New York President, Monika Kusinska Paez

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I discovered Autograf New York shoes this spring by happy accident. I’m never not on the hunt for great shoes in my size 12-13, but recent issues with low-quality heels (at not insignificant price points, I might add) have left me wanting an alternative, but certainly not expecting it—better shoes that put comfort and fit first, while being on-point aesthetically. In Autograf, I found fit, fashion, and feel—and can happily say that I’ve never tried an ankle boot that felt so good on my size 12-13 foot, looked so incredibly awesome (you can read more of my review of the VERA, here), and withstood city gravel, pavement, and walking without a blemish. In learning more about how this brand offering stylish, comfortable shoes for women sizes 4-13 came to be, I got acquainted with the exceptional Monika Kusinska Paez, President and Creative Director of Autograf. From the start of our conversation, Monika’s passion, expertise, and creativity resonated in her every word. She has lived as a tall (5’10”) woman with size 12 feet, and quite literally experienced the pain of not fitting in. She has worked in shoe design and manufacturing for almost 2 decades, experiencing the market’s male dominance and focus on profits over all else. And she has spent her life soaking up the world with her eyes, and translating her vision into individualistic and modern designs. Her mission as an entrepreneur is one we can all get behind: she is taking back women’s footwear to provide us busy, professional types with exceptionally-crafted shoes that not only look beautiful, but actually help us live our lives on-the-go. Though Autograf is new to the world (born in 2014), I have no doubt that Monika and her brand will become household names very soon—and give the guys–from Vince Camuto and Christian Louboutin—some nice long runs run for their money.

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Monika Kusinska Paez, President and Creative Director of Autograf New York

 

Monika Kusinska Paez, Founder and Creative Director of Autograf New York, on a recent buying trip to Italy

Monika Kusinska Paez, President and Creative Director of Autograf New York, on a recent buying trip to Italy

Monika, thank you so much for joining us and telling our readers your story. Would you mind kicking off by sharing with us the events that led up to you starting Autograf?

MP: I am a Height of Style size-sister—5’10” and I wear a size 12 shoe. Actually, my life—and my business—was influenced by the injury I caused myself squeezing into shoes one size too small when I was younger. I love shoes. I always wanted high heels, and growing up in Poland in the 1980s, I could only get ahold of size 40s; not 41s. So I mercilessly squeezed my feet into too-small shoes throughout my teens. At 23, I ended up in plaster casts and a wheelchair after having to have surgery on both feet—I guess that’s literally being scarred for life! From then on, gone were the high heels, as I had to complete one year of physical therapy while I attended fashion school in London. When I landed in the US after school, I began actively searching for shoe designer jobs. After starting one in Ann Taylor in 2004, my career as a footwear designer took off—I went to Asia, Brazil, Europe and even El Paso, Texas where I designed cowboy boots for 3 years. That was the best ever!!! I loved working with devoted, predominantly Mexican artisans specializing in the old craft.

On the side, I also designed for a friend in Europe, in exchange for getting my size of well-made and beautiful Italian shoes. I wore APIA for at least 10 years. Last year, the owner of APIA agreed to introduce me to his secret: a small, family owned factory in the hills of Marche. The best quality shoes are made there. And that’s how Autograf was born, a brand shaped by personal experience, years of footwear design, and ambition to help other women find shoes that fit.

What challenges do you find that tall and larger-footed women are facing in the footwear space?

MP: Tall women are born with different body proportions, often leaner, slimmer, longer, which does not necessarily grade up from a size 7 shoe. Size 7 is the sample size all factories in the world use to make the first prototypes, samples, and grades. To grade down to size 5, a technician “shrinks” the shoe 4 sizes. To grade up to size 12 or 13—a technician needs to enlarge the patterns, heels, and lasts 10-11 times. Mainly because most shoe factories are in Asia, where the majority of the biggest sized shoes are 8-9, and shoe technicians are less familiar with the leaner, longer builds of taller women’s feet. Shoes become too wide, too roomy at the heels or toes, and the shafts are buckets.

Italian manufacturers understand this process better having Scandinavian tall neighbors— German customers who want comfort and tall fashionistas in Russia who want shoes that are both trendy and sexy. In addition to the grading challenge, only a handful of factories are willing to invest in the equipment necessary to produce well-made women’s shoes in larger sizes. I decided to specialize in this niche because very few companies have their tall consumers’ interests truly at heart. I do by default—being my own customer. Autograf shoes (and other European brands I want to start importing in the future) last a long time, are soft on the foot, and get more beautiful with wear. I have very little to no issues with the quality of APIA-made shoes, which I have designed and worn over the past 10 years. Though my product is in $280+ range, it is an investment not just in beauty, but in comfort and health—love your feet, ladies!

The Gia Pewter Metallic Oxford ($326) from Autograf New York

I think this is a wonderful approach. Given that, how would you describe where you fit in among footwear brands in your realm/category? What’s the Autograf aesthetic? Who is the Autograf core customer?

MP: In addition to working in the industry over a decade, and knowing the process of making shoes, I researched the US shoe market for months before the launch. I realized that in the “better” shoe brands category, just below designer labels, there are very few companies that care about larger footprinted ladies.

I have great respect for these brands:

  • AGL shoes – Operated by three sisters from Milan. I love their creative flair and unique approach to what is fashionable in footwear today.
  • Anyi Lu – I admire Anyi Lu for breaking through the glass ceiling and penetrating the shoe industry otherwise run by the “big guys”. Developing comfortable shoes challenged Anyi Lu to show a new perspective on women’s shoes. She is my pioneer.
  • Stuart Weitzman – I can’t ignore a true legend committed to providing comfort. Stuart has created a solid platform for European made shoes. He relentlessly produced quality  for decades and dressed generations. However, the company is changing today—in some way, leaving the image of comfort for Giselle-approved, super high stilettos. I hope to capture some of his customers lost during the transitional change of brand direction.

I am very pleased to say that many customers have compared Autograf New York to these brands already. In some ways, I planted my seeds well. But I know I have my work cut out for me, and I am experienced and educated well to embrace the challenge.

Aesthetically, I am interested to capture the attention of women with personal and signature style—women not afraid to wear color, or menswear-inspired styles like oxfords, Chelsea boots, chukka boots in addition to (or instead of) their high heels. I also look at music industry and the new fashion elite led by The Row, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Alexander Wang, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Nicholas Kirkwood. I respect how they project what’s modern and what evolving style looks like today. My ambition is to have a place in the market and be respected for Autograf’s (individual) style.

Monika Kusinska Paez, Founder and Creative Director of Autograf New York, on a recent buying trip to Italy

Monika Kusinska Paez, President and Creative Director of Autograf New York, on a recent buying trip to Italy

I love the individualistic tack you’re taking. Where do you get your inspiration from when releasing new seasonal collections?

MP: Inspiration is a feeling I get after feeding my brain with relevant clues. I let my eyes filter information of all kinds. After a recent visit to Linea Pelle in Milan, I was able to see new colors, textures, and directions for leather. Depending on my likes and leads, I research further. For example, I was inspired by iridescent, brush-off leathers. I could use these leathers in an “Underwater World” collection, vibrant and three-dimensional, or in a rainforest theme using the colors of butterflies’ wings. I have not decided yet and may use both, or I may move on.

For a few weeks, I will collect my information and look at constructions and patterns. I will doodle some, then probably move onto a computer and finish final specs using Adobe Illustrator. I find a combination of hand sketching and computer illustrating to be the perfect blend for technical specs that are easy to follow for the factories.

What staple items from the Autograf line do you recommend for larger-footed women? How would you recommend wearing them/pairing them with clothing?

MP: Recently, I fell in love with sacchetto construction—the most difficult kind of construction to imitate in Asia. It’s a process that is only used in a handful of Italian factories. Literally, “sacchetto” means “socks”, and wearing shoes built on that foundation is exactly like wearing leather socks. I never had a pair to understand the hype about it, but magic happened when I was in Milan in February. My feet were killed after my trip and a day at Linea Pelle’s leather show. It’s a lot of walking if you are not used to it. I tried my Nike running shoes (neon orange…) and then I grabbed the black LISABETTA.

I put it on, and I was like OMG—“invisible shoe”. I knew I had it on, but it felt like not wearing shoes. It’s the magic pocket/sock/envelope of air that creates an unparalleled fit. There are no hard components—just an inside leather sock, leather insole, and leather uppers. When you wear sacchetto construction, the lining adjusts to your foot and the leather outside independently follows. No toe box, counters, no plastic and no fillers (regularly used to maintain the shape of the shoe to hold your foot).

There are 3 styles—LISABETTA, FILOMENA, and GIULIA—which are built using sacchetto construction and paired with EVA wedge soles. This is absolutely phenomenal, and I intend to promote this “magic” fitter. I want to share this amazing comfort with other women! By now you must have read leather, leather, leather—which comes with a price tag. And sacchetto is a time-consuming, old-world way of shoemaking–cost prohibitive for mainstream shoe labels.

The awesomely hip Lisabetta High Top Sneaker ($336), built on sacchetto construction

The awesomely hip Lisabetta High Top Sneaker ($336), built on sacchetto construction

Most footwear companies today operate just to make money, and they save on every component if there is a way (I know this after 15 years of working for a few of the majors in the US). Companies like Nine West, Vince Camuto, and Steve Madden replace leather socks with synthetics, leather linings with synthetics, and the shoe is filled with tons of synthetic components to help the construction stay in place. We (designers) never stood a chance to change it because the customer (women)—“does not care”, we were told.

When your feet sweat, your outsoles slip on marble floors, your heels break, your soles wear out in two weeks, your uppers lose shape, or you have blisters—those are instances when “getting what you pay for” becomes really frustrating. If you spend long hours in your shoes, which many of us busy women do—invest in comfort and quality. Because the hours add up, and you should not have to fall back on the “rescue” shoes under your desk. Save on the watches, rings, earrings, and handbags—don’t hold back on your shoes. And find the brand that fits, wears comfortably, and has quality that lasts a long time. And once you do—please rely on and support that brand— because someone like me is trying to make a difference.

What are the designs from Autograf that you most frequently wear? What are some customer favorites?

MP: Fall of 2014 was our first “test” season. We brought European bestselling constructions. We knew the fit and quality was immaculate, and we wanted to test the waters with safer, more timeless styles.

The SIMONA Tall Riding Boot in Cognac has sold the best, has been liked, styled, and followed on all social media platforms. The PETRA Chelsea Boot in smooth leather is a second favorite, and we intend to carry it indefinitely—because it is a classic “Victorian” style that appeals to every age group and has been known in fashion as the Beatle boot, Jodhpur boot, and is very “genderless”. In fact, we have sold the PETRA to a couple of men! The MASSIMA Biker Boot was a third choice, and had a secret built in: a PORON sole, which is the latest “oooo-ahh” component used by small, high-end shoemakers like Anyi Lu, Thierry Rabotin, and Pas De Rouge. Originally used by NASA, it is an ultra-light type of rubber with shock absorbent qualities and memory to spring back into shape—soft, durable, and light. Wears like feathers compared with traditional rubber soles and plastic wedge components.

The "Woman Up!" Siena Gold Chukka Boots ($366) from Autograf New York

The “Woman Up!” Siena Gold Chukka Boots ($366) from Autograf New York

For spring 2015, I decided to shock my otherwise conservative assortment. The GIA and SIENA are mirror metallic oxfords and chukkas catching the most attention, having sold out in many sizes already. My call to action for both styles is “WOMAN UP!”—because these 2 styles are traditional men’s silhouettes so beloved by women looking for alternatives to high heels. High heels make us walk on our toes, and our muscles and ligaments have to adjust to the pressure of lifting our body mass on stilts. Wow! Are we doing it for our own pleasure? Comfort?

I want women to be able to choose what makes them happy and healthy (wearing comfortable shoes), and project the confidence they feel in this new women-powered, entrepreneurial society. Why fall back on old fashion concepts like “power heels”? Can’t we own the boardroom in shiny, flat chukka boots, oxfords, and our own terms?

So what’s coming for Autograf in 2015 and beyond?

MP: The first few years of business are supposed to be a tough learning curve, and I live this lesson daily. Thanks to my strong background, education and well-earned footwear experience, I am able to sail fast through rocky waters. Autograf New York will definitely continue to concentrate on hard to find sizes.

Fit and comfort are becoming the core of our marketing. I do test all my shoes to catch any issues early on, and if my post-surgery feet can take the shoes daily, so can yours. It makes a difference to speak to customers who cry in happiness because most of their lives, they had no fashion boots ever. It feels great to make them happy, women like me who struggled to find their sizes.

Fashion and trend-forwardness will be well blended with classic and timeless silhouettes. I want to make sure that at $250+ price tag, women will enjoy each style for many seasons. I don’t want Autograf New York to be one of the 5-10 pairs of shoes women buy per season. I want Autograf New York to be THE PAIR every season, and gradually—the 2-3 pairs my consumer will need, period. I offer exciting new designs, reliable quality, and unparalleled comfort in exchange for loyalty. It will take that one pair to trust me, and I am patiently designing future collections to welcome my returning, happy customers.

Having a fashion design degree also motivates me to plan other accessories and apparel in the future. Yet again, I will take my time to make sure I have a loyal following, and my lines of clothing are intelligent, well made and designed for busy women, often mothers who also are not “stay at home moms” but stay at home mom entrepreneurs.

The Aletta Lavender Mary Janes ($276) from Autograf New York)

The Aletta Lavender Mary Janes ($276) from Autograf New York)

Hear hear! Thank you so much for telling your story, Monika! We look forward to seeing what Autograf New York has in store for the future.

'Exclusive Q&A with Autograf New York President, Monika Kusinska Paez' have 4 comments

  1. May 7, 2015 @ 7:54 am Elise

    What a fascinating interview – I can’t believe the amount of pain caused by ill fitting shoes! I love this brand, those shiny brogues are awesome :)

    Reply

  2. May 8, 2015 @ 8:51 am Beth @LongLeggy.com

    I agree with Elise! This was fascinating. Thanks so much for publishing this. I certainly learned some things about the shoe industry that I never knew. In the past 2 years, I tend to spend more money on only a few pairs of shoes each year and then wear them for years and years, so I appreciate Monika’s vision for Autograf. With all of the traveling (and walking) I’ve been doing lately, I have been on the lookout for really well-constructed comfortable shoes. Autograf is now on my wish list!

    Reply

  3. May 9, 2015 @ 4:22 pm Sue Nosworthy

    A fascinating story from a talented and experienced designer who has a lot of integrity. Will keep spreading the word about this marvellous new brand!

    Reply

  4. May 10, 2015 @ 1:38 am beachgirl732001@yahoo.com

    This designer is amazing. I own three pair of Autograf shoes, and they are beautiful, classic, and oh-so-comfortable! I recommend them for anyone who appreciates the finer things in life. They do not disappoint! And I love that my purchase helps Italian families who have put quality first into their work designing these works of art.

    Reply


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