Katie Frost, Zlata Rodionova
Thu, 25 May 2023 at 2:52 pm BST
Finding footwear that ticks both the aesthetic and comfort boxes can be tricky, but it’s this style conundrum that first inspired Claire Burrows to start the London-based shoe brand, Air & Grace.
With over 20 years of experience working in the shoe industry, Burrows knows a thing of two about the importance of wearability. After graduating from the London College of Fashion, Burrows thought she might focus her career on clothing, but after applying for a junior buyer job at Office Shoes, she made the first step in her successful footwear career.
Burrows worked her way up in roles at Oasis and Kurt Geiger, but it was her time at Fitflop that really got her thinking about shoes that “had another purpose to them”.
After two “really exciting” years at the brand, Burrows joined Aldo UK as managing director of product and design and went on to found Air & Grace in 2014.
Here, Burrows shares her career highs and lows, from the realities of building a brand to how finding shoes that look and feel good has inspired all of her designs.
What inspired you to launch Air & Grace?
“I felt that comfort and style should be able to coexist in footwear. And what was happening at the time was, there were brands that were traditional comfort brands and there were brands that were high street or fast fashion or designer, and there didn’t seem to be anything in the middle.
“I think most women nowadays are busy with juggling families, their social life and careers and are always on the go. And if you’re running around town, you’re not going to be tottering in heels but you still want to look good.
“And that’s what set me on the path to explore that notion of comfort and style, see what was possible to do by combining it with all my knowledge and experience, and put it together into a brand.”
Is there anything in particular you love about creating shoes?
“I love that it is quite a complex development. Clothing is very much about fabric, you cut the fabric and then it gets sewn together into a garment. The process of creating shoes is much more complex.
“The attention to detail can make such a difference. I like sourcing and choosing all the materials and picking the outsoles, there’s so much more you can do to it – and that really excites me.”
How has the brand grown since its launch?
“We launched in 2014, so it will be our tenth anniversary next year. I started as team of one and we’re now and all-female team of ten.
“So it’s grown massively from me working on my kitchen table and sending every single order myself and taking it to the post office, to having a team of amazing people I work with and a third party warehouse.
“We’ve also grown nicely in terms of revenue and weathered some of the storms that have happened, from global pandemics to Brexit. And we’re proud to have managed to create happy customers who want to wear the shoes because they love the mix of style, quality, and comfort but made in a responsible way as well.”
What makes Air & Grace’s shoes standout?
“I patented a footbed, which is called Tender Loving Air . I knew that I wanted something that was going to be hidden inside the shoes that gave the comfort, but it had to be slimline so that it was not going to affect the look of the shoes outwardly.
“We created this slimline footbed that is made of three different layers, and it’s made from the highest-sports grade performance foams that you can get on the market. Normally they’re only ever used in proper sports performance shoes.
“That’s what gives all of our shoes the same feel that people love, because the foam bounces back, it doesn’t loose its shape – and it’s what people tell us they really love about Air & Grace.”
What’s been your career highlights so far?
“Right at the very beginning, I won a competition that enabled me to start the business. I won first prize and that was £150,000 in funding. Michael Acton Smith, the co-founder of meditation app Calm, was a judge and afterwards asked to become an investor because he loved the idea.
“Starting a footwear business is a very expensive process. You have to buy all of the stock, create a website, and do all of the marketing, and the branding. The investment really enabled me to do that.”
And your biggest challenge?
“There are challenges all the time. I would say our biggest challenge was trying to find the right manufacturing partner to work with at the very beginning. For me, it was important that we produce in Europe, because it’s a much more responsible approach.
“At Air & Grace, we don’t over produce, we make sure that we are producing small runs, which you can only do in Europe. We wanted ti make sure that the people that we are working with and the people who are making the shoes are well looked after and well paid. There’s also a lower carbon footprint attached with the shoes coming from Europe.
“But finding the factory that ticked all those boxes, and that was willing to take a chance on us was tough. Even though I had nearly 20 years of experience working in footwear, there wasn’t really a factory that I knew at the time that was an absolute go-to, so I was starting from scratch again. And it took quite a while of trying to find the right people who had faith in our vision and what we wanted to do, and also met all our criteria.
“But we’re happy now that we’ve been working with the same manufacturers for quite a few years, and they are pleased the faith they had in us in the early days has now paid off.”
Could you tell me more about Air & Grace’s “responsible approach”?
“For me, it made no sense that fashion reinvents the wheel so often. My belief is a good shoe is a good shoe and it doesn’t date. It’s designed with longevity in mind, and it doesn’t have an expiration date when the season ends.
“The approach that we take is very much seasonless, and we don’t change for changing’s sake. This enables us to be much more responsible in our approach to production.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could give yourself at the start of your entrepreneurial journey?
“Understanding that the answer can lie with you. There’s a temptation when you start a business to think that everybody else knows better than you do. I think it’s always good to take advice and to have really good mentors, but nobody’s ever going to make the decisions for you.
“You need to have confidence in yourself, that you can make those decisions. And if you make a wrong decision, it’s okay. But learn from it, and make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. But it’s very much about trusting yourself first.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
“It’s very varied. I’m the creative director, and the MD (managing director) as well. So I get involved in pretty much everything. My day is probably 50% business 50% creative, which suits me, because that’s kind of who I am as a person in my career.
“Today, we’re running through production planning and then tomorrow, I’m going through lots of new samples that have arrived that we need to trial.
“We’re doing a photoshoot this week, that’s going to be all about our new sandals. I travel a fair amount too. I’ll travel to our factories when I need to, although we try to be mindful of how much we’re flying.
“But I also have days when I’m knee deep in spreadsheets. I do deal with all the financial side of things, so that could be looking at our cash flow, or signing off accounts.”
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
“I love hearing from happy customers. We’re really, really lucky that we get great reviews from our customers. And it’s heartwarming, and sometimes hilarious.”
What’s next for Air & Grace?
“We’ve launched a shoe called Disco Diva, which is a platform sandal that is designed to be comfortable enough to dance all night. We’re really known for our trainers but we’re also launching a new bag, which I am really excited about because it’s woven and made from dead-stock leather.”