Interview with MATRIARCH: Sustainable *Menswear Shoes For All

I'm pleased to introduce MATRIARCH, a brand that is redefining *menswear shoes for all.

Many in our community have struggled to find footwear that fits their gender identity AND their feet. With men's shoes mostly starting at a size 7 (the equivalent of a women's 9), people with smaller feet are often out of luck. They'll resort to women's brands, which sometimes have poorly constructed knock-offs, or boy's brands, which come with awkwardly large toes. 

I got a sneak peak of MATRIARCH's shoe designs, and let me just say, you won't be disappointed. They are absolutely gorgeous, and have their own unique details we often crave. Additionally, they are made with sustainable materials and locally sourced.

I had an in-depth interview with Sarah and Rachel Waxman, MATRIARCH's founders, who shared their values and the process of starting the brand.

Stay tuned for an exclusive first look at the shoes on Qwear coming soon. Their kickstarter will launch in a few months. 

MATRIARCHs at work in Berlin

MATRIARCHs at work in Berlin

Who and what is MATRIARCH?

We are a sister duo originally from San Francisco. I (Sarah) am a freelance industrial designer living in Berlin and my sister lives and works in NYC. I am the creative head, with a background as footwear designer at Reebok and Cole Haan, and Rachel is more focused on the business side of things, utilizing her business school degree and experience in the advertising business.

We were inspired to action by the lack of quality and diversity in women’s footwear. My sister and I fall on different points of the ‘femininity’ spectrum, but we both love menswear style shoes, and for at least the past 20 years have been very frustrated at never being able to find what we want in our sizes. It seems like the shopping experience is dominated by outdated expectations in regards to gender: men wear this and women wear that and if you’re a woman or petite sized person who likes menswear then you’re stuck with inferior imitations of the "real thing." We are here to change this.

We are both obsessed with design and love a well-made product of any kind. Unfortunately, we’ve found that typically the best quality products are very often made for men only. It seems like so many things are created around a masculine standard, from which a female version is only later extrapolated. In the footwear industry in particular this is known as “shrink it and pink it.” We think this is obviously ridiculous and so what we’re doing is creating quality product not just for one group of people, but for everyone, and particularly catering to those who have been historically neglected. In other words: quality — for everyone — is equality.

"Quality — for everyone — is equality"

Why was it important for you to work together?

It just made sense because we are always sharing ideas and swapping images and links of things we think are cool. We’re very different people but we overlap in a lot of ways, one of which being shoes.

MATRIARCH began as my (Sarah’s) dream, but as we kept bouncing ideas off each other we realized it just made sense to work together. It’s great to have this combination of diversity plus similarity on a team because it gives us a lot of material to work with and also keeps us honest.

Footwear design in action!

Can you tell us anything about your shoe designs?

Our shoe designs are very much inspired by classic menswear. We tried to keep them really wearable by using familiar, classic silhouettes, and then enhanced the other features in modern ways.

We had a few ideas in mind when we first started:

  1. To make the shoes as sustainable as possible. So we opted for vegetable tan leather. Veggie tan leather is literally processed using tree bark tannins, a 100% organic material. It’s one of the most expensive types of leathers because it takes a lot longer to produce than chrome-tanned (chemically processed) leather, which is what most mass-produced shoes are made of. The benefit to using this expensive leather is that you have something that won’t leach toxic chemicals into your skin. Our leather is made from Portuguese, Spanish, and/or German cows meaning that our sourcing is very local. Sustainability is also about being durable and lasting a long time, and our shoes are built for this too. If something lasts you a long time, you have less need to go out and buy more new stuff. On a large scale this is important because it combats the insidiousness of the fast fashion industry.

  2. Never to cut corners. It’s easy to make compromises here and there to save a bit on costs, but we wanted to make something as quality as possible. We wanted our shoes to be durable. So for instance, we opted for Vibram outsoles instead of much cheaper imitations, or double-layer leather soles instead of single-layer.

  3. To make the shoes as universally sized as possible. It seems ridiculous to us that certain shoe styles are produced at very specific sizes. We plan to make our shoes in basically any size. That means a size 35 or a size 44 (size 4.5 or 13 US)… no problem.

The green objects are called lasts and they're what shoes are made on. There's a saying in the footwear industry: "the last always comes first."

The green objects are called lasts and they're what shoes are made on. There's a saying in the footwear industry: "the last always comes first."

"We want to challenge this strange notion that everything must derive from a masculine standard. Why is everything still framed in the context of men? Why is this still the case in 2016?"

Why these shoes, why now?

Because no one else has done them yet and because we want them, and because we know a ton of women, genderqueer, and trans folks who would like to wear something that doesn’t scream ‘super girly’ or ‘obvious imitation of a menswear style.’ Women’s footwear in menswear styles is often stylized to the point of ridiculousness; they’re either made too narrow or too slim because of some outdated notion of what women want.

In reality we think and see that women want the same quality as men’s product, not some half-baked imitation. There’s a lot of product out there that’s ‘boyfriend fit’ or whatever, but we want to challenge this strange notion that everything must derive from a masculine standard. Why is everything still framed in the context of men? Why is this still the case in 2016?

We want to give people another option: sustainable, high quality shoes that are also very reasonably priced.

Sarah with Factory Owner

Sarah with Factory Owner

Who do you see wearing your shoes?

In a word, everyone. All genders, and people of all aesthetic/stylistic tendencies.

We were inspired by the lack of menswear style options for women, so women are a big part of our target demographic. Our shoes will be a great option for trans folks as well, who may have smaller feet than the range that men’s footwear sizing typically covers. And of course, we would love to see cis men wearing our shoes too.

We want to reach people who like to know where their shoes are coming from, and who want quality but don’t want to or can’t pay for a big brand name where so much of the price is empty marketing dollars. We want to make shoes that are genuinely quality and sustainable, and produced in fair working conditions. We think this desire is pretty universal.

Walking in Porto. (An outtake from their Kickstarter video)

Walking in Porto. (An outtake from their Kickstarter video)

How did you get introduced to shoe design?

I (Sarah) have always been really interested in products in general, but specifically shoes. I think I was ‘designing’ shoes at around 7th grade while obsessing over all the colorful pages of the Eastbay catalogs. I love sports (soccer, basketball and ice hockey in particular) so I think I love shoes because I love the idea of designing tools to help athletes. One day in 11th grade I spontaneously googled ‘shoe design’ and found the now-defunct website www.kicksguide.com. Here there was a monthly shoe design contest with a specific theme (everything from “Apple” to “March Madness”) and anyone could enter a shoe design based on the theme. Usually the prize for winning the month was mostly just props, but in the early days of KG (before I discovered it, sadly) there were huge prizes like winning a visit to the Adidas design studio to present your work in front of design directors.

The best part of Kicksguide was that there were established professional footwear designers from all sorts of brands (Jordan, Nike, Adidas, etc) who would post feedback. It was a very small online community and if you were clearly very serious and enthusiastic you could count on getting great feedback and advice from people who had already gotten where you wanted to be.

From these Kicksguide/professional designers, I learned that the most likely path towards a career in footwear design was studying Industrial Design, and I actually ended up going to the same college (Pratt Institute in Brooklyn) as a fellow Kicksguide designer. We met during our one overlapping year (2006.) He had just gotten hired at Reebok at the end of his senior year. I kept in touch with him, bombarding him with questions now and then, and eventually we became coworkers and good friends.

 A typical street in Porto, their new adopted home.

 A typical street in Porto, their new adopted home.

"The biggest hurdle in the beginning was learning how to create very precise technical drawings that would provide the factory with very detailed and exact visual instructions."

How did your work with Cole Haan and Reebok prepare you for making your own shoes?

Working at CH and Reebok gave me (Sarah) all the knowledge I needed to know about how to realistically design a shoe that is a combination of good looks, functions well, and is production-ready. In the beginning I kind of just drew what I wanted a shoe to look like with a very vague knowledge of how this could be accomplished, but quickly learned that shoe design comes down to millimeters. I love to sketch, so the biggest hurdle in the beginning was learning how to create very precise technical drawings that would provide the factory with very detailed and exact visual instructions.

Working for both companies gave me a really good sense for how to work with different materials (leathers versus performance meshes, for example.) At Reebok we would travel to Asia roughly twice a year so I learned how to work directly with factories who don’t necessarily understand design intent. Sometimes you have to push for an new idea or new construction when the factory wants to default to the most clear, easy and traditional way to do something. So mostly I learned how to navigate the technical, craft side of things while saving the integrity of a design. Which is no different when you’re trying to create your own collection.
 

"We’ve tried to strike the balance between being accessible and being sustainable as a business, and we will always be trying to make ourselves more accessible to the people who need us most."

How are you working to keep your designs affordable?

Affordability was also a number one priority for us. In the beginning our goal was to make, literally, a $100 shoe that was high quality and sustainable, but we quickly learned that this would be impossible. Both because we are a small company and don’t have the volume that brings costs down, but also because we weren’t willing to compromise on the quality of the materials we use; and quality, sustainable materials cost a lot more. So the key thing that will make our shoes affordable is that they will last a very long time. If you calculate by cost per wear, then we think we’ll be offering an exceptional value.

We’ve tried to strike the balance between being accessible and being sustainable as a business, and we will always be trying to make ourselves more accessible to the people who need us most.

 Rachel (right) and Sarah (left) in Berlin

 Rachel (right) and Sarah (left) in Berlin

How did you choose your factory?

We did a lot of research and found a bunch of factories that looked promising. We took a trip to Portugal to visit them and it was immediately clear which was the best fit. It’s hard as a small start-up to find a factory willing to work with you because you’re not really making them any money in the beginning, but I think we got really lucky. Our factory makes shoes for high-end luxury brands, and the quality of the shoes was obvious from the instant we walked onto the workshop floor.

Another great thing about our factory is that it’s family owned and run. The owner and his son are involved in all the day-to-day work, so we know that every single pair of shoes that leaves the factory is in the best hands. They have been making quality shoes for 60+ years, so we know exactly what we’re working with.

Stay tuned for the exclusive first look at the shoes on Qwear coming soon. For updates sign up at www.wethematriarch.com. Also, check out their cool tote bag here.

As Qwear's Founding Editor, Sonny’s work centers around envisioning a future in which the clothing people wear does not dictate their chances of survival. Sonny was awarded 2015 dapperQ of the Year and was the first trans blogger to be sponsored by Topman. In March 2016, Sonny spoke at South by South West's first official queer fashion panel.