I'm usually quite proud of myself when I make a drawstring skirt or a headband. But while at my friend Nora's house recently, I noticed a deconstructed leather sandal on her work table. It was a shoe she was designing for fun in her free time, while she wasn't busy making banjos or belts. This seemed incredibly ambitious, and I started to wonder if there was anyone else in the area who finds joy in painstakingly designing his or her own shoes. I was surprised to find more than one local designer who does.
Ashley Worley opened Firefly in Raleigh three years ago to sell brands she couldn't find anywhere else (www.fireflync.com). With an interest in fashion and an MFA in printmaking, Worley decided to get her creative kicks, so to speak, in retail.
The store carries not only amazing shoes but also a variety of locally made wares such as Pear handbags and belts by sisters Mary and Tracy Kruger (www.pearthreads.com), Leaf Lobster skirts made from vintage fabrics by Sarah Andrews, and Stir Studios jewelry designs by Leeann Hynes (www.stirstudios.com). Firefly has evolved from a simple shoe store into a design showcase, with Worley's discerning tastes and vast design-community knowledge providing a great resource for local shoppers.
"This was something I didn't expect when I first opened the store, to have so many locally designed goods for sale," Worley says. "I really enjoy talking to people and seeing what they make, and I really don't enjoy when I have to turn someone away whose goods I don't think I can sell."
In a 30-minute discussion, Worley was able to tell me about so many designers, design groups and craft projects going on in the Raleigh area, I had a hard time writing them all down.
Among the local designs available at Firefly are HaHa Shoes (www.hahashoes.net), designed by Carrboro resident Hank Hardigan. He and Worley are working on a multi-media installation for the store that will include illustrations of HaHa designs, a short film he and his friends have made about the creation of the shoes, and, of course, the shoes themselves. He says the project will give local shoe-lovers a better understanding of the entire creative process behind the art of shoemaking.
Next week, Hardigan will open his own shop on Main Street in Carrboro across from the Cat's Cradle. The Electric Blender in Durham (www.theelectricblender.com) also carries HaHa shoes.
Hardigan comes from an industrial design background. His impressive résumé includes work for Reebok, Calvin Klein, Palladium and Nautica; he's also worked as a bicycle, wheelchair, furniture and clothing designer.
So what brought him to shoes, and to North Carolina? "The shoe designers at Reebok looked cool, got to travel, and seemed to have fun," he says. "I decided to quit working at Calvin Klein in New York and find a place where there was good music, good biking and a good community." He and his wife Gabriella Fuga Cunha, a fellow designer and partner in HaHa, chose Carrboro. "There are a lot of wonderful people here that keep HaHa going," he says.
My conversation with Hardigan about shoes expanded into a discussion of fashion's power to change minds and influence politics. I hadn't expected a shoe designer to be inspired by so many facets of design and creativity. This made me eager to find another local shoe designer to talk to.
Samantha Coles arrived in Chapel Hill earlier this month from Philadelphia, where she honed her craft apprenticing for a traditional Italian shoemaker. With a formal background in photography and curatorial work, she plans to develop a small-run line of women's sandals (www.samanthacoles.com coming soon).
"Aesthetically speaking, my emphasis is on contemporary permutations of classic designs--tailored both to the client's needs and my response to materials," Coles explains. "Shoes are one of the few fashion items for which men and women share an immediate and practical necessity, and I'll continue designing unique, wearable and visually striking footwear for both markets."
Coles says she expects this area to provide a slower pace and a fresh audience. "I've gained a lot--personally and artistically--from living in Philadelphia, but it was time to take a break for quieter times and woodsy goodness." Her relocation provides a home, surrounded by nature, where she can set up a studio and create in a more relaxed environment. Orders are already piling up, she says.
Don't forget that you can also get high-end, funky and functional shoes at local shops like Cozy and Vaguely Reminiscent in Durham, Shoes at the Square in Chapel Hill, and SOHO Shoes at The Streets at Southpoint and Crabtree Valley Mall.