American shoe designer Sarah Flint entered the industry with a clear mission: to make women’s shoes that don’t sacrifice style for comfort. Launching her business at 25, the New Yorker’s perspective helped redefine luxury; now, just five short years later, business is thriving. The Creative Director and Founder at Sarah Flint Inc. finely tailors shoes for women who want to walk with confidence from home to the office and everywhere in between. Her clientele proves her concept, with celebrities like barrister Amal Clooney rocking Sarah’s shoes both while strolling leisurely in the city with her husband George and also while at work at the UN. Women everywhere are rejoicing at how Flint’s designs elevate the flat shoe; actress Kristen Stewart even rebelliously wore Sarah Flint flats on the Cannes red carpet. Sarah works directly with industry leaders and manufacturers to ensure her vision comes to life as the shoes are handcrafted in Northern Italy in a process where heritage meets skill. Because quality often comes with a hefty price tag, she recently changed to a direct-to-consumer model to help alleviate the cost for her customers and once again push the envelope on what luxury means. Sarah knows growth doesn’t come without risk, but if you’re scrappy enough and have the strength to reach out to your network and beyond, the universe will respond. Her success is now challenging her to personally step into the limelight as she learns how to be the face of her company. With her small but mighty team behind her, Sarah is standing tall – likely in a pair of shoes she designed herself – and owning her position and her voice in the luxury shoe space.
If I ever feel frustrated or discouraged, I turn to my original inspiration in starting my company
Knowing my strength
It always comes back to the fact that I have a true passion for my work
Knock on every door
I am so lucky to have worked with an incredible team since the beginning
Mentors from the beginning
Can you tell me about your company?
Sarah Flint is a luxury women’s footwear brand designed and headquartered in New York City’s Flatiron District. All of our shoes are handmade in premier Italian factories, but unlike other top luxury shoe brands we sell directly to the consumer at wholesale pricing. That way, instead of paying the 4 or 6 times markup you’d pay shopping at department stores or third-party retailers our customers get the best possible price-to-value ratio.
Why is it important for you to sell direct-to-consumer?
It’s about being in a conversation with my customer, as well as really offering people the best value they can get for their money. I started my company because I wanted to create women’s luxury shoes that were as focused on fit, wearability and comfort as they were on design. There are so many amazing, beautiful luxury shoe brands out there but with so many of them you spend a day or even half a day in them and your feet hurt so badly. I felt like there was a huge opportunity for a brand that didn’t force people to decide between looking good and feeling good.
As a flat or small heel shoe kind of girl I truly appreciate that concept! I’ve been gratefully noticing more varied and tasteful designs in those styles; is the industry shifting away from those eye-catching luxury shoes that are often heel-breakers?
Yes, definitely. There were shoes designed to be really comfortable footwear, but they looked orthopedic in a way; I wanted to make shoes that had the same level of attention to detail and design as they did comfort.
What does luxury mean to you?
I think what luxury means is changing, and that’s really interesting. In the past what made something luxurious was incredible quality, original design, and some kind of prestige – whether that’s press or celebrity endorsement or being sold at high prices in fancy department stores. But today it’s more and more about the original design and that top quality; where something is sold and how it’s sold has become less important.
Why did you decide to go with your name as the brand?
I debated a lot of different names – I certainly had a long list – but I think as I met with more and more people, they were like, ‘Why wouldn’t you just use your name? Sarah Flint is such a great American designer name: it’s short and memorable,’ so I was convinced.
Though your company is named after you, you aren’t really branded on your website - was that an intentional move?
I think it’s taking some getting used to for me to have my face on things. When I started the brand it was less of the designer-as-celebrity moment that I feel we’re in now, so that’s certainly been an adjustment period. If anything, I’m learning the value of putting my face on things and really speaking more to the process; it’s been really cool to see how much my customers enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes design work that goes into making shoes. So I’ve been incorporating a little more of that while still trying to let the shoes speak for themselves – that’s the main focus.
What about school? You broadly studied design before specializing in shoes, correct?
I studied overall design in high school, and I was always interested in fashion, but then in college I switched to just accessories – shoes, handbags and things like that. I went to Parsons and then FIT in New York before going to study footwear at Ars Sutoria in Milan, Italy. I really wanted to understand the reasons why shoes could be so uncomfortable and figure out how to fix that. Although I love a lot of different fashion categories, I think that with shoes you really have the opportunity to elevate any look with a good pair. You can wear a basic black dress or jeans and a white button down and put on an amazing pair of shoes, and they really affect your posture, how you stand, and how confident you feel. It can really change how you move through the day and live your life, which is an amazing thing for me. It’s sort of always been about shoes for me.
Even as a child?
Absolutely, I had a passion for fashion very early on. There was a lot of playing dress-up; my mother has stories about me trying to wear my tap shoes to school, and I used to only wear dresses. When we’d go on family ski trips, my mom would have to sort of stuff my dress into my onesie snowsuit, so I’d have this lumpy tube-looking thing around my middle.
That’s funny; then you started your business when you were only 25 years old - what were the first steps?
I launched my business in 2012/13, so it’ll be five years this fall. While studying manufacturing in Italy I had an amazing mentor who helped me connect with some of the manufacturers we still work with today. Then I moved back to New York to figure out what I wanted to do and how to pull the business together. We started in our first season by selling to a couple of small boutiques – places like Yves Manor in NYC. Eventually we got into Barneys, which was an exciting moment and a big change for us.
So at first you were still using the traditional model?
Yes, we really sort of grew the brand in that way to establish ourselves; we made the switch to direct-to-consumer just last November. Our prices changed when we switched to direct – we used to sell at the premium luxury pricing alongside all the brands you find on the designer floor at Barneys or Bergdorf, but the switch let us cut our prices anywhere from 40-50% – and it’s really nice to be able to offer that price-value ratio. There aren’t so many people in the world that can afford $800 shoes or multiple pairs of them, so opening up to a broader market – even though the shoes are still expensive – has been really exciting.
How did you raise your initial capital?
I did the whole ‘friends and family’ thing in the very beginning until we managed to sort of prove ourselves in the business, and then after that we raised money from outside investors.
Do you have advice for anyone who may be at a place where they need to go after additional financial help?
You have to be really persistent and not be afraid to knock on every door. Having a really clear message is super important, and making sure your passion shows through. Investors want to believe in your company and see that all the numbers work and that you have a good system behind you, but they also want to believe in you as someone who’s passionate about what you’re doing.
Your shoes really are gorgeous; what inspires your designs?
You know that sort of depends – different styles are inspired by different things. A lot of the time I get inspired when I travel; I have a collection that’s about to launch that’s inspired by some of my trips to Scotland. I love vintage and retro type styles, so there’s a lot of covered buttons and things like that in my designs, too. I also like to hear from my customers – I think that’s one of the biggest things. Really speaking to my customers and understanding their needs and what they’re looking for helps me figure out how I can make something that’s been missing in their wardrobe.
How do you get that information from your customers?
We do selling events – both in-person events or through social media – and then also through our customer service. I actually answer the customer service phone line; I try to do it for an hour or a couple of hours a week. It’s really helpful for me to speak with people, to hear about how they found out about the brand, about what they like and what they think is missing. Social media today is a really good way of doing it too, but I still personally love meeting people or chatting on the phone.
Do you follow design trends?
I’m not a big trend follower. These shoes are built to last; they’re incredibly well made so I never want to follow trends in the sense that you could buy something and pull it out of your closet two years from now and say ‘what was I thinking, this doesn’t feel relevant to me today.’ I really want to create enduring styles.
Why did you choose to have your shoes crafted in Italy?
Well first Italy is obviously very well known for their luxury footwear manufacturing, which is partly why I studied there. I think what’s really interesting about manufacturing there is things are absolutely still 100% handcrafted; it’s a place where techniques and pride in what you’re doing is handed down from generation to generation. The factories that we work with are all family-owned, and everyone from the guy who owns the factory to the person cleaning the shoe or cutting outsole has family history in their trade – his father did that before him and his father’s father did that too. I think you can see that level of care and pride actually reflected in the shoes and all their incredible details. I think it’s one of the few places left in the world where those types of things remain unchanged, which is a really beautiful to see.
What's your favourite Sarah Flint shoe?
That’s a very difficult question, that’s like asking who your favorite child is…but I love my Andrea flats. We do them in a bunch of different variations of the model, so we have them in the slide, we have them in a loafer, we have them in a sneaker, and we have them in an espadrille. That shoe just has such whimsy to it; it has like this little wire detail on the front where you can play with it and put it sort of up or down a little bit. It’s one of my all-time favorites for sure. Flats for us are really popular in general, and those and low heels are what we built the business on, so I’m glad to see everyone wearing a lot of them.
Speaking of everyone, you have quite the following - including a number of celebrities who wear your shoes. How did you attract that celebrity clientele?
You know, it’s a mix. There have been some personal connections, and some of them were because of help from amazing people like Marina and Emma (from Full Picture Public Relations). Cindy Crawford is one of my investors and sort of mentor, and she’s been really lovely and helpful in introducing a lot of her friends to the product. People are generally really passionate about the shoe once they try it, which is great for us. One thing I especially love to see about the way celebrities are wearing the shoes is it’s not just for red carpet appearances; Amal Clooney was wearing them walking down the street with George Clooney and then at the UN the next day – she’s really doing her thing, and that’s the whole reason I wanted to make these shoes in the first place – to have them be shoes that women really live their lives in.
What celebrities other than Cindy and Amal are Sarah Flint customers?
Well, we have Meghan Markle, Blake Lively, Jessica Alba, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Jane Fonda, Lady Gaga and Kristen Stewart, who wore a pair of my loafers at Cannes on the red carpet! You’re only supposed to wear heels there, so I was really excited to see her not only break that rule but break it with Sarah Flint loafers. I think it’s also cool to see that there’s a huge age range, which says my customer range is very broad.
That's incredible! Was there a pivotal moment that helped you make those connections and get the attention and support from tastemakers?
No, I wouldn’t say there was. Actually, I think it’s the persistence and the scrappiness that helped more; just seeing who you know and spending a lot of time on LinkedIn and really just being incredibly relentless – doing a ton of research, cold emailing and cold calling and trying to find people who know the other person you’re trying to reach.
How did you end up connecting with Cindy Crawford?
I actually met her through my dad, who had met her through someone else; he’d told her about me and then she started buying the shoes, so I reached out and said, ‘I’d love to take you to coffee and tell you about the exciting things that we have going on,’ and that was right around the time that we were switching to direct-to-consumer.
And with all her experience in that area I bet that gave you lots to chat about! What about growing pains? How’d you deal with those during that transitional time?
There are always growing pains. We took a business that was primarily a wholesale business and switched it to a very commerce-focused business, so it was certainly a challenge to transition the team, and to get up and running, make changes to our website and get everything together. But we have an incredible team here – everybody again was, I know I keep using this word, but everyone was scrappy about figuring out how to get things done efficiently.
Were you having any doubts at that point about such a bold move?
It was really scary. I mean, we cancelled orders from department stores so we literally cancelled revenue and had two months where we had to be penny-pinching and scrappy to do everything we needed to in order to successfully relaunch. For me, when I looked at the industry overall and the future of luxury, and what my customers wanted – and what I wanted and the way that I was shopping – it made the most sense to be selling this way. I’m a huge fan of Casper and Everlane and Warby Parker and all these brands that really do direct-to-consumer right, and so I just thought ‘why can’t we do that with luxury shoes?’ Then there was so much to do that there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell; I think had there been more time to overthink things it might’ve been a disaster. Thank goodness we moved so quickly, because it’s been an incredibly exciting and successful year for us so far.
Do you have a large team now?
We are eight people full time, and we’re about to make a few more hires, which is very exciting, but we’re still a small but mighty team.
Could you speak more about the process, from design to production?
I start by doing a bunch of sketches, and then I’ll sometimes do little pattern-making trials if there’s some kind of detail; then I’ll put my sketches into the computer and send them to our production manager and we’ll talk about which factories to send which shoes to. Next I go to Italy to work with the factories and sketch on something called the ‘last,’ which is the structure that the shoe is built on top of – I actually sketch right on that structure and show them exactly what I’m looking for, proportion the lines and all those kinds of details. A couple of weeks later the factory will have made a first prototype of the shoe for us to see. With that first prototype it depends how close it is to my design – a lot of the time it takes a second prototype to get it closer after we’ve made corrections, and then we move on to a sample from there. Once we see the sample and everything is improved, we place the orders, which we don’t receive until another 8-10 weeks later, so it’s a long process.
A long process that you’re completely involved in! You mentioned multiple factories?
Yes, we work with seven factories total, mostly in the northern region of Italy, but we also work with an espadrille factory and sneaker factory in Spain. The reason we work with so many is because we work with factories that specialize in each particular kind of shoe; so we have a factory that does an exceptional job with pumps, we have one that’s incredible with boots – they need more of a heavy-handed approach – and we have a factory that does an amazing job with casual flat sandals. We’re really all about finding the best of the best for each category. That’s why we make the espadrilles in Spain, which is where espadrilles originated from.
Wow! How did you find each expert factory?
It took time for sure – we didn’t work with as many factories right out of the gate. We have a great production manager who is very well connected, and then like most industries, it’s somewhat well-known which ones are really great at what.
And how do you source the materials for your shoes?
There are leather fairs in Italy a couple of times a year, so we go to those so I can pick out new and interesting materials, and then we work with the suppliers to place those orders.
Can you tell me more about the materials, like that buttery-looking leather you use?
We use a lot of the same leather that other luxury brands use, but one of the amazing things about being direct-to-consumer now is we can use the full top-tier leather and be able to offer it at a much better price. We also use all Italian triple-dyed suede from Napa, and really incredible shearlings and silks that are usually from France. We use a lot of really nice materials, because the quality of the shoe is partly the materials that go into it – that’s really important.
What else makes your shoes different?
I think what makes Sarah Flint shoes different is really that idea of style without sacrifice: you can have a shoe that is beautiful and originally designed that actually fits and makes your feet feel good, and that gives you that extra bit of confidence to get you through your day.
Switching gears now - I just watched a beautiful docu-style video on your website about your work with gravati. Can you talk about that partnership?
We’ve worked with gravati for a couple of years now – they’re an incredible heritage factory. They actually don’t produce shoes for other brands – gravati is its own brand – so it was really exciting to have them willing to work with me. It’s a brand that I always admired; my mother bought a pair of gravati boots literally when she was in high school and she wore and resoled them season after season, so I was obsessed with the factory. I knew it was in the region where my shoes were produced, so I was able to find someone who knew them and get them to introduce me. I’m so glad I could convince them to work with me; it’s been an amazing partnership. Ettore and Cesare Gravati are incredibly talented and dedicated and they really put their heart and soul into their work.
How did you convince them to work with an American designer for the first time?
They’d previously worked with an Italian designer who is older and doesn’t make shoes anymore, and I think they sort of saw some similarities in the work I was doing; they loved that I was making more wearable shoes. They do mostly man-tailored styles like loafers, oxfords and boots so I think that helped them like my designs and thankfully they liked me and were excited for something new.
What's next for Sarah Flint?
Well, we’re doing more and more pop-up shops, and we’ll be continuing to expand the range of the line down the road; there’s lots to offer – other product categories – but right now we’re really focusing on footwear and introducing as many people as possible to the brand.
Ok, lastly - do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are ready to take their business to the next level?
Believe in what you’re doing and always be mission-focused. Remember why you’re doing something and why you started your company and always bring it back to that. I guess it depends on the type of company, but for me always bringing it back to the customer is the most grounding and rewarding thing. And I think I’ve said this, but don’t be afraid to knock on every door; a hundred percent of the people you don’t approach are of course going to be ‘Nos,’ so you may as well put yourself out there and see what you can do.