Barbara Bennett set up her own shoe customisation service in 2020 and she hasn’t looked back since. Specialising in hand-painted original designs on leather shoes, her work has garnered her lots of attention – even landing her a coveted spot in the Brown Thomas Create programme. Here she talks fashion, footwear and her granny’s fabulous flower garden.
Tell us about you and your shop/brand
I’m an Artist & Designer originally from Galway, however, I moved to Dublin in 2014. I studied Visual Communication in the National College of Art & Design and Graduated in 2017. I worked as a Graphic Designer for a few years with various companies and retail stores, creating brands, packaging and products across Ireland and abroad.
In 2019 I moved to Vancouver in search of further design experience but sadly my time there was cut short due to the pandemic. Having lost my job abroad I was forced to move home in March 2020. Given all the free time I had during lockdown, I was finally able to fuel my creativity. I made a pact with myself that I would come out of lockdown a different person. It gave me the space to become more creative and productive. So I began to read and watch videos on how to properly paint and treat leather footwear. I used the little savings I had to buy 10 pairs of white Nike runners and set myself the goal of hand-painting a unique print on each pair. I launched my first collection in June 2020 on Instagram and the rest is history!
What is your mission?
My mission as a designer is to create fun, wearable art pieces to inspire people to be more confident in wearing colour; to stand out from the crowd and feel empowered. I want my brand to brighten up your wardrobe. I want to inspire others to own their uniqueness. Being unique is better than being perfect.
Did you always know you wanted to be a Designer?
I was always quite arty growing up. I went to art classes every week from as early as I can remember. I loved painting, creating sculptures and even designing clothes for my dolls. My favourite time of year was always Halloween because I loved getting creative and designing a cool costume. I was constantly creating growing up. But did I see a career in it? Absolutely not. It never even crossed my mind. I actually wanted to be a dentist! Teeth amazed me growing up. I even repeated a year of school to try and get the points for dentistry. It wasn’t until halfway through my final year that I changed my mind. I took a year out, went travelling and then did an art portfolio course. I always loved art growing up, I just never saw myself having a career with it and now here I am 10 years out of school, designing and hand-painting footwear. All those early Saturday morning art classes paid off. Thanks Mom!
What kind of items do you stock?
I stock a selection of hand-painted footwear. I recently launched a collection of hand painted chunky sole loafers at the start of summer with Brown Thomas. In the beginning, I only painted on Nike Air Force 1’s but now I customise all sorts of leather shoes and sneakers. I also provide a personalisation service where the customer can choose their own design. I do anything from babies to adults. I even paint old footwear that needs a new lease of life!
What was the inspiration behind your brand?
My grandmother’s garden. She lives a few doors down from my family home in Galway so I would visit her a lot over lockdown. She has a massive garden filled with a ton of colourful flowers all year round. So it was a no-brainer when it came to looking for inspiration. My first collection was inspired by childhood photos of me in her garden. She used to toss me into the bushes for photoshoots! My granny has no idea how to work her phone but still manages to send me updates about her garden and the flowers she sees out and about. I got a random email last week about some lovely red flowers she spotted in Barcelona – “Winter Shoe Inspo Love Granny from BCN” which I thought was hilarious.
What new brands or items are on your radar?
Right now I’m enjoying brands like Stine Goya, Hosbjerg and Stieglitz. I recently came across their stores on Instagram, they’re three really cool, colourful brands with funky prints. I want everything they stock! A new item on my radar would have to be Puff Khris Graffiti Bear Jacket… it’s a winter need. The Simone Rocha Ballet Tracker Platforms have been out ages now but I’m still on the hunt for a navy pair. I’m obsessed, they’re stunning! They’re a million times better than the new Miu-Miu ballet shoes. I did ballet for years – trust me, your back will be broken going around in those flats.
Was money/funding a concern when starting out?
Definitely. When I moved home from Canada I wasn’t entitled to the Emergency Covid Payment as I had been working outside of Ireland. I had barely any savings but every penny I had, I put into buying paints, brushes, shoes etc. My mother thankfully was able to let me stay with her for a few months rent-free so I was able to save up. As a young designer, it can be very hard to get funding in Ireland. It can be very selective. Your income is erratic. I wish there were more funding opportunities for young creatives in Ireland and I know a lot of my fellow designers agree.
Best business advice you’ve gotten
“Without failure, there is no success.” Failure gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and helps us appreciate success. For me, there was a lot of trial and error at the beginning – lots of figuring out what had to be done. What paints to use, how to make the paint last on the shoes, how to seal the paint, how to prevent the paint from cracking… the list goes on! I’m not afraid to admit that I did mess up a few shoes at the very beginning but my mistakes helped strengthen my brand. I was able to acknowledge where I went wrong and learned how to improve my craft and I’m still learning every single day! Failure is a part of growth. No one is perfect.
Favourite fashion/design accounts you follow
Marianne Theodorsen is a favourite. She’s a Norwegian blogger and has this playful, quirky aesthetic which I find so inspiring. Her feed is full of colour and mix-match prints. I really love people who aren’t afraid to stand out by wearing bright, vibrant colours.
Best fashion purchase
The best thing I’ve ever bought myself were these 90s-inspired platform sandals from Gucci. I remember scrolling through their website and my jaw dropped. I went on to the website nearly every day for weeks just to drool over them. I had never wanted something so badly in my entire life but I was a broke student at the time which made them completely unattainable. Months passed by and then my graduation rolled around in November of that year. I had just completed my first big design job after college designing the branding for Carlton Casino Club on O’Connell Street. It was a huge milestone for me, so I thought why not treat myself – I deserve it! I spent my first ‘design’ paycheck on the Gucci sandals for my graduation day. I think I wore them every night out for a year or two. Rain, hail, or snow; they looked great with everything. I still have them and they’re in good enough condition. I plan to frame them in the future as a memento of ‘My First Paycheck’.
Other Irish brands you love
I’m obsessed with August Night right now. She designs the most exquisite satin bow bags. I have my eye on a red one and it’s 100% going on my Christmas list this year. Foxes Bow Whiskey is another Irish brand I’m loving at the moment. I admire how they’re taking a completely different approach to whiskey branding making theirs stand out with neon pinks, purples and yellows. It tastes delicious too!
Most useful learning since setting up a business
Consistency is key.
Proudest moment so far
In April 2021, when I received an email from Brown Thomas confirming I was selected for their CREATE – Push for Progress programme. I remember getting the email at work and jumping with joy. I couldn’t believe that within a year of having started my business I would have the opportunity to have my designs sold in their Grafton Street Store. I’ve since had two A/W collections sold in Brown Thomas and they’ve opened a world of opportunities for me. The exposure has been incredible and has really helped me to develop my brand. Collaborating with LoveShackFancy in the states was also a huge milestone for me!
I want my brand to be remembered for… I would love my brand to be remembered for its fun, vibrant prints. I want my shoes to be instantly recognisable. I want to lighten people’s moods. I want people to thrive, feel confident and shine in my footwear. Some colours have been proven to elevate your mood, so why not put on some brightly-coloured shoes to help you feel great?!
If I could have anyone wear my designs it would be… oh it would have to be Bella Hadid. I think she is definitely the most influential celebrity at the moment. I’d love to see her in a pair of my loafers or some custom-painted knee-high boots. Maybe someday!
Photography by Barbara Bennett