October 2019

If the Shoe Fits … Build an Empire: Modern Cinderella not waiting on a prince to deliver her matching shoe

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

A petite blond takes the stage at the Marriott Hilton Head Resort and Spa in Palmetto Dunes wearing a blue striped shoe on one foot and a coral red shoe on the other. She didn’t get dressed in the dark, nor is she crazy, colorblind, or embarrassed; she’s well-aware that she’s wearing two different shoes. In fact, she makes it a point to do so as a way of bringing attention to the merchandise she sells—which works, because people really do notice if your shoes don’t match.

Half an hour earlier, Neely Powell, founder of Charleston Shoe Co. was on her knees, helping a group of over 400 ladies gathered for the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island’s September luncheon shuffle through a selection of sandals, wedges and fall booties. From the level of excitement, you might have thought Santa arrived early or Elvis came back to life. But it was just Powell and her team turning women on to comfortable, stylish shoes—a combination of words not usually synonymous in the context of women’s footwear.

“There was a time when ‘comfort’ was a bad word in terms of style,” Powell said. But she has seen a shift in recent years as women of all ages embrace the mentality that they can have both. “Even the younger demographic was notoriously wearing the designer brands and everything that was fashion-forward and super uncomfortable. I think their demands forced a lot of brands to look at the way they make shoes and think about the comfort value as well.”

Walk a mile in her shoes
Powell once dreamed of becoming an architect and had already been accepted into the program at the University of Miami when she took a slight detour back to San Miguel, Mexico, where she first discovered the handmade shoes she still sells today. She started visiting San Miguel with her mother in the mid-’80s. “One day, my mother and I stumbled into this little store with a dirt floor. Santiago, who is my current cobbler, was in there making shoes, and we each bought a pair. I was 16 at the time, and every time we’d go back, friends would ask me to bring them a pair. I just started bringing back shoes and more shoes,” she said.

Although she didn’t set out to sell shoes for a living, Powell cut her entrepreneurial teeth on them. She also had the advantage of her parents’ example. Her dad, who developed over 30 restaurants and bars in the Memphis, Tennessee area later moved his family to the Florida Keys, bought an island (Little Palm) and built a resort that catered to wealthy patrons, diplomats, and celebrities looking for a peaceful getaway. Meanwhile, her mother was running several retail women’s stores and later began importing furniture. “I was raised by two very ambitious people, but I just thought that was the way everyone was,” Powell said.

An impactful lesson in supply and demand came while Powell was hawking her wares from underneath the table at a furniture trade show where her mother was working. Noticing women who were walking 30,000 steps a day in their “big girl” shoes, she soon had customers flocking to her for relief. She saw the need for her product and service and had the gumption to continue trying to meet it, not yet thinking about making a profit.

Powell attributes her “can-do” attitude to her father’s bright outlook and her mother’s encouragement over the years. She earned her street creds through early experiences when she would play piano for guests at her dad’s resort and then return to school in a trailer. “The juxtaposition of going from Little Palm at night and then back to my normal childhood life—barefoot, running around, taking a boat to school—taught me how to interact and connect with people from all walks of life,” she said.

Powell went on to earn an art degree at The College of Charleston, focusing on painting and selling her artwork, while working two other jobs and continuing to help her mother in the furniture business throughout her 20s. “[Selling shoes] was just a side gig that I never thought had any teeth to it,” she said. “It was so difficult. This was way before any kind of technology. I was calling Mexico, speaking my broken Spanish, trying to get shoe samples. I would place an order over the phone and a week later get a box of yellow shoes,” (not even close to what she ordered).

At age 29, while pregnant with her daughter Gigi, Powell quit. But after being home with her newborn for a few months, she decided to start her own shoe business, returning to school at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Savannah and taking courses in shoe design. “So, I’m in these design classes with all these 18-year-olds, and I’m 30 with a one-year-old. And it dawned on me that the person to my left was making a blue suede studded seven-inch heel. Who are you going to sell that to? So, I thought back to the practicality of the shoes that I had been selling all those years. I called Santiago. My thought was if I opened my own store and he sent me 200 pairs of yellow shoes, I could sell them to people walking in off the street. So, I designed these shoes with him. We started with five styles and five colors each.”

Powell opened her first retail establishment in April of 2010 under the name Savannah Shoe Company, standing on Broughton Street wearing mismatched shoes to draw the attention of passersby. “There was this sense of atmosphere I was trying to create—having fun, playing in my best friend’s closet. The sideline was I was selling this product that was absolutely magical. If I could talk people into coming into the store and putting the shoe on their foot, they were mesmerized,” she said.

By fall, she had opened another store on King Street in Charleston, S.C. (her current home base), later opening a second location in City Market and rebranding as Charleston Shoe Co.—all in the same year.

Fast forward to today, and she now has a total of 30 retail stores from coast to coast. In addition, she is selling to over 1,000 other retailers around the country, on her own ecommerce site as well as Amazon, while burning up the trunk show circuit with 150-200 mobile shows per year and making regular appearances on QVC. (In her first QVC appearance, Powell sold 1,000 pairs of shoes in seven minutes!) Can somebody say hotcakes?

A low point for Powell came in 2015 when she discovered that her bookkeeper had stolen $420,000, cleaning out her bank account. “Luckily, it was the perfect timing. My first trunk show of the season started that week.”

Instead of panicking over the situation, she focused on the opportunity and made enough money on that trip to make payroll and pay the rent, she said. American Express refunded all of the money lost from the fraudulent activity, and Powell did not let the experience dampen her spirits or plant a seed of distrust. “I have too much to do and too much faith in humanity to really imagine that someone could be unfaithful. That is one of my shortcomings,” she said. “It goes back to my upbringing.”

Since starting her business 20 years ago when she was producing five pairs of shoes a week, Powell has built manufacturing plants for her cobblers in Mexico, which helps streamline production and creates better working conditions for the men and women who are currently producing 10,000 pairs of shoes per week (all still handmade) for Charleston Shoe Co.

Although Powell’s road to success may look like a flower-strewn pathway, she’s had many challenges along the way, which she insists are opportunities disguised as weeds. She has relentlessly pursued each one, refusing to even consider the possibility of failure. “My father passed away when I was 21, and I’ve always believed he was kind of steering the ship up there for me,” she said. “So much of it has been tangible. It feels like he is always watching and being proud.”

Powell also expresses “a huge sense of gratitude” for her family and friends. “We got so crazy for a while, I feel like all those people were trying to take care of Gigi and help sell shoes. Obviously, I would not be here if I hadn’t had that support.”

Her advice to business owners and wanna-be entrepreneurs? “You can’t take anything too seriously. The stress that you inflict on yourself during events that come up daily can be so counterproductive to what you can accomplish. Look for the opportunity. What do you have to lose other than this one short, precious lifetime?” 

Discover Charleston Shoe Co. at www.charlestonshoeco.com or see and try on shoes at area stores who carry them: on Hilton Head Island at Fresh Produce (Coligny Plaza and Harbour Town) and Lettrs (Main Street Village); In Bluffton at Cocoon (Promenade Street); and in Savannah at Charleston Shoe Co. (West Saint Julian Street).

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