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Lucire 2011 Tempting The highly acclaimed Sarah Riley is back

Sarah Riley bites back

Fans of Auckland-based shoe designer Sarah Riley will be glad to hear that she is returning to the business after a two-year hiatus. Lucire finds out what she has been up to


IN 2008, shoe designer Sarah Riley was hailed as up-and-coming. She had three successful seasons under her belt, eight stockists in New Zealand and was acclaimed by the likes of ex-supermodel Gail Elliot and multiple media channels to be ‘extraordinary’, but after a series of bad debtors and spells of serious ill health, she stopped producing shoes.

   A fine arts graduate, Riley launched her label with the intention of creating fashion-forward designs that were different, edgy, and were an extension of her personality. ‘I did not know anyone in the industry when I started out, but I researched and over time have made contacts; yet I went into business somewhat naïve,’ says Riley. ‘I truly believed that other businesses would behave and conduct themselves with integrity and deal in an honest manner,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately I learned that instead, a couple companies I was working with were corrupt and had no qualms about behaving in a duplicitous way.’

   It was one such company that Riley believes killed her business with one foul stroke. ‘I was literally forced to stop designing,’ she says. ‘After making an order worth several thousands of dollars I was left high and dry by a stockist and my business could not go forward,’ she says. ‘I had no capital and was under immense pressure trying to recover the money owed to me.’ Riley felt alone in a David v. Goliath situation. ‘It was one person against a whole company that suddenly turned incredibly nasty,’ she says. ‘The stress caused me to get very worn out and was the pretext to getting so run down that I lost my health, my business and a mentor all at once.’

   Summoning her courage, Riley made the decision to restart her business in early 2010—albeit in a different way from before, conscious of the lessons of the past 24 months. ‘Despite everything, there were some people who supported me through these experiences, and I felt a strong enough in their ongoing belief in me to take another run at it,’ she says.

   The first thing to change is that Riley will initially sell exclusively online, unless potential stockists approach her. ‘I adored being with stockists,’ she says. ‘But starting by only selling online means I get to prove something to myself, and to potential wholesale accounts, too—that if you come up against a dead end, you turn around and try another road.’

   There will only be a limited amount of each design available for customers to purchase, and once stock and sizes of a certain style is gone, it is gone. ‘My decision to make her designs limited edition was an easy one,’ says Riley. ‘My reasoning is, women want to feel special, they want to feel their purchase is unique and so they want to buy a pair of shoes and know that they are one of the only people wearing that style,’ she says.

   As an added bonus, each time a customer purchases a pair of Sarah Riley shoes, they are entitled to a discount on a second pair; if a second pair is purchased a third pair can be bought at an even further discounted price. ‘I want to reward all of my customers and show them I appreciate them!’ says Riley.

   In addition, Riley will be a champion of open business dealings. ‘It is important to me as a person and as a business woman to conduct myself and my business honestly and with integrity,’ she says. ‘So I will only be working with people who also believe that so that both of our enterprises will prosper,’ she says. ‘I believe that what you give out you get back.’

   The collection will comprise of everything that Riley became so known for. ‘All that has happened since I first started my business comes from who I am as a person and what experiences have shaped me,’ she says. ‘My designs are my own; I do not simply copy something directly and put my name on it,’ she says. ‘Everything is carefully thought through, from the leathers to the shape and componentry, the heel heights, the way the shoe is designed so it flatters … I simply think about women and how they want to feel wearing my shoes.’

   The autumn–winter 2011 collection sees a return to a neutral colour palette of creams, black and taupe highlighted with accents of gold, while shapes are classical with a twist. Stand-out pieces from the cohesive collection are the Nouveau Déco heel, based on the elegant lines of the 1920s and 1930s’ art-déco movement: it comes in choice of either gold and black snakeskin or natural snakeskin. The Koru heel will be a welcome editon to any shoe fiend’s collection: beautifully designed koru in snakeskin is matched with a ruffle detailing at the back of the heel symbolizing the unfurled fernleaf. The classic ballet flat is reinvented this winter in luxurious snakeskin; dream of genies and magic carpet rides while wearing the Jasmine slipper.

   Has the playing field changed since Riley was last in the game? ‘For sure,’ she says. Since her departure from the market, more New Zealand designers have launched their own footwear brands, while other existing labels have picked up their game. ‘I was always happy to observe that from the sidelines, as I do feel I had some influence,’ she says. ‘When I initially came into the market there was no high fashion footwear being designed, and it felt good to know I had started something.’ •



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