Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar met at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Harmony studied menswear, sustainability and later worked at Coach researching trends and studying their vast collection of leather. Shilpa studied women’s evening wear, printmaking (at a short stint at Central St. Martins), and shoes.
The female forces later partnered to create “a 21-in-1 shoe as versatile as you”, a line of shoes you can customise by swapping out the straps or base. All of their shoes are named after women they admire: Tilda, Jackie, Marilyn, Billie, etc, and 5 per cent of profits go to Restore NYC – a non-profit that provides long-term rehabilitation to victims of sex-trafficking in New York.
We asked the ladies about their burgeoning startup, the joys of working alongside a close friend, and a serious lack of closet space.
We very much love stories of friends going into business. Can you give us an insight into your meeting at Parsons. Was it a fast friendship?
It definitely was. We were in the same digital fashion class and had an assignment where we had to create a print. I had used the local Greenwood Cemetery as inspiration and [Harmony] saw my work and immediately said, “I love that place! I live right across from there.” There aren’t a lot of people who find beauty in the macabre, so I think I knew we had the same ideas about life from that day on. Apart from our peculiar similar interests, though, the more I got to know Harmony’s work, the more I respected her aesthetic vision and her thoughtfulness in design. We both definitely bonded because we were part of a smaller group of conceptual designers within our class.
One increasingly huge thing for me is also knowing that we can both separate our friendship from business.
What did you see in each other that gave you the confidence to work together?
SI: I loved her work ethic, which bordered on obsession at times. I knew that she would stick to her beliefs and work tirelessly to make it happen, which I believe is the most important characteristic to have as an entrepreneur. She also is a dreamer and overall optimist who wants to create solutions to problems she sees in the world, so it’s inspiring to have someone like that be your partner. On top of that, we both had strong academic backgrounds before going into the arts, so it was perfect to have someone I could trust with discussing both the business and design aspects of any project and know that she could be an equal partner.
There aren’t a lot of people who find beauty in the macabre, so I think I knew we had the same ideas about life from that day on.
HP: I feel really lucky to have met someone who entirely complements my way of working and thinking. She has all the qualities I don’t and it’s awesome! She is great at remembering various deadlines and keeping us on track for the big picture. She also doesn’t buckle easily under pressure and knows how to stand strong when people try to take advantage of us. One increasingly huge thing for me is also knowing that we can both separate our friendship from business. I love that we can talk as friends when work hours are over and any stress from the office is left behind. It gives both of us a sense of freedom and fearlessness, because we know that our friendship is not at stake. In other words, we work efficiently together without taking criticism to heart.
The startup scene in Sydney is certainly on the rise. Tell us what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in NYC. Is there a lot of support for new ventures?
There are definitely a lot of support groups and networking events for entrepreneurs, however I’ve found that making more personal connections with like minded people, someone in your “tribe”, but not necessarily your industry pays off more. There are so many ambitious people living in New York trying to “make it” that I find that it’s pretty easy to network and people always want to help each other get ahead. Even if they have already “made it”, I find that more experienced people want to stay current by helping startups.
I knew that [Harmony] would stick to her beliefs and work tirelessly to make it happen, which I believe is the most important characteristic to have as an entrepreneur.
Which businesses or startups do you both look up to?
We both really look up to Patagonia as a type of business we would want to be like. They started with a core idea of sustainable, quality made products that shows us that if you stick to your core values, that eventually the product will speak for itself. That having a solid foundation takes many years to build but can stand the test of time. Patagonia is also great at engaging and taking care of both their customers and employees. We would want our business to have the same sort of loyalty and dedication to the brand found there.
Has it been challenging to ask consumers to think about their shoe collection in a new way?
It is definitely a challenge to get people to think about modular shoes. Many people are skeptical of the construction and how it will feel when they walk. If it will be like a “real shoe”. Some people don’t see the need to change their shoes. They just buy the combination we display because they like the way it looks and it is comfortable. But I think once people try on a few straps and see the potential of what these shoes could be for travelling and minimising their closet, it really hits home and they keep coming back for more. The goal right now for us is to help people see the potential and quality, which we do a lot of in person at shows and private appointments. I think once people give the shoes a try, they see that they aren’t just novelty items, but a well crafted shoe that happens to interchange. We also recommend our monthly subscription for this reason. The more straps someone has, the more they really see how just a few of our shoes can totally replace their closet (apart from athletic shoes of course).
“More shoes, less waste” seems an important tenet of Alterre. Was the idea born from your own mammoth shoe collections and needing a eco-friendly, space-saving solution?
Exactly. We both travel quite a bit and were so tired of cramming our suitcases shut or agonising over which shoes to bring. We also both know as fashion designers, how much waste there is in always creating something new. And finally, we both live in New York, which means no closet space and needing shoes that will be appropriate for the office and an impromptu night out. We kind of combined all of the complaints we had about our shoe collections and created a solution that we felt resonated with many women.
We read that three years were spent developing the technology for the shoes, to keep them sturdy and straps in place. What kept you motivated in those development years?
We had an idea that these shoes would take a while, but I don’t think either of us anticipated three years. I remember speaking with our shoe professor when we first started who loved the idea but warned us to be patient, because all good things come with time. I think knowing that he believed in us after being in the industry for so long gave us the strength to be patient. Our seed investor also told us the same thing and kept us going when we had doubts about continuing. Other than that we had started a small bridal accessories line in the meantime to test out how we would manage a project design to production, and tried various shows and types of advertising. We were busy building a solid foundation and started fostering connections that we could call on when the shoes were ready. I think even though the development years were frustrating, it really helped us get an idea of what we really needed to put into the brand to get it off the ground.
What’s been your favourite feedback so far about your product?
I think our favourite feedback is how comfortable the shoes really are. It really speaks to the years we put in developing a shoe that was comfortable from the heel height to the type of leather. We wouldn’t buy shoes that weren’t comfortable or well made and we wouldn’t feel right about selling something that we couldn’t personally vouch for. We also love when the 5% we donate to Restore NY (a local long term sex-trafficking shelter) really resonates with our customers, because we feel very deeply about re-habilitating women and giving them their voice back. We have wanted to help them from before we even started the line and we’re happy to bring awareness to Restore.