St. Louis Character: Claire Flowers plants her own style on the shoe rack
Claire Flowers is the definition of an entrepreneur who can spot a practical need, then design a company around it.
Flowers, 32, is owner and founder of Claire Flowers LLC, a Richmond Heights-based women’s footwear and clothing business. Working in software sales early in her career, she found herself doing a great deal of walking to and from city offices and appointments — but her dress shoes couldn’t keep in step with her busy schedule. They’d wear out and fail quickly, and those deficiencies ultimately sparked a novel business idea in Flowers’ mind.
With about $150,000 in funding from private investors and her own bank account, Flowers launched her eponymous shoe company four years ago and it’s now her full-time gig. Shoe prices range from $145 to $290 per pair, and the products are sold online and at events and boutiques.
Flowers has based her firm on the idea that women’s dress footwear can be comfortable, attractive and durable enough to withstand workday rigors. She partners with manufacturers in Brazil and St. Louis, and has shoe features in the process of being patented — heel and sole designs that wear better, last longer and offer greater traction. And her business is climbing. Currently, She is readying her company for an Aug. 19 launch of leather dresses that can cross over from day to evening wear.
“I have seen Claire build her line from the beginning, and face many skeptics and criticism,” said Tracy Meetre, Flowers’ business mentor and former boss, now vice president of sales and marketing for Affton-based Sunset Transportation. “She listened to the critics and took the advice she felt was applicable, but trusted her instincts and kept pushing.
“Claire has an amazing pulse on the fashion industry and a commitment to high quality, enduring styles, and what women want from their shoes — comfort, durability and high fashion — which do not generally go hand in hand,” Meetre said. “She runs a smart business with a product that is destined for great success.”
What’s the back story to your business? I was in New York at corporate training for a job, and from my hotel to the office where the training was held, you had to go through an area with a bunch of scaffolding and cut through a Macy’s store. That particular week, it was raining heavily, and I was getting stuck in sidewalk grates and trampled by New Yorkers. I got into training in a foul mood early in the morning and my shoes were destroyed. I started Googling “shoes that don’t get stuck in grates,” but couldn’t really find anything. I started thinking about other things that are wrong with women’s shoes. Every time I drove my car, the floor mat would wear out the back of my heel. Another issue was going from a wet surface in the rain to a slick floor, where I’d be slipping and sliding. I thought, “I’m going to design the perfect shoe for myself, and find a manufacturer to have 10 pairs made.” But lo and behold, there were no private label custom shoe manufacturers. So that wasn’t feasible.
What happened next? While I was looking for this custom manufacturer, my mom and girlfriends said, “If you end up finding a company that will do this for you, will you order me seven pairs in black ... or five in brown ... ?” I thought, maybe there’s a demand for something like this. My company grew out of that. Initially, I self-funded everything, and still worked full time. I got an intellectual property attorney and worked on patenting the features I thought were patentable. I incorporated in Delaware in August 2012, but didn’t have my first pair of shoes to sell until December 2014.
What challenges have you faced in starting the business? A lot of the pre-planning for this involved attorneys, research and development, and finding a manufacturer who would invent different parts of a shoe with me. What’s difficult about that is, they get calls all the time from people who just graduated from fashion institutes and want to start shoe companies. They invest in this startup and make a small run of shoes, then the startup folds the next year. So they’re all pretty jaded. So it was difficult for me to find a manufacturer.
How’d you get around that? I hired a guy out of Chicago who had several shoe companies and paid him a couple thousand dollars. He connected me with his contacts and vouched for me, gave me an endorsement. It was the only way I could get a manufacturer to talk to me.
What product elements are you known for? The non-slip treads are injection-molded into leather, which is not typical of luxury shoes. We use an old-school, chemical-free, artisan leather tanning process that’s better for the environment, so the shoes are better in that respect. Also, I use EPDM (synthetic rubber) for the insoles, which is super comfortable. The heel plates are coated in 18K gold, so they won’t tarnish or change color. The heel cap is the same material used in roller skate wheels, so you won’t wear that down. The heel shape is such that you won’t get stuck in grates. The idea is that they perform and last like Nikes, but you still get the aesthetic of Jimmy Choo.
Did you look at other makers when you were designing your shoes? No. I tried really hard not to look at Nordstrom’s website or Christian Louboutin’s. I wanted the designs to be my own. My fear was that I would subconsciously pull up something I’d already seen, and do that. So I tried to stay focused on the creations in my own head.
What’s happening with your patent applications? We’ve filed three. One has been accepted, and one is still in the works; the third has come back from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with changes to be made. We’re responding to that. There’s a design patent pending on the logo plate on the back of the heel. And I have a design patent accepted on the heel shape; the utility of that is the patent they’re still looking at.
Is there another business leader or company you emulate? I liken myself to Sarah Blakely, who started Spanx (women’s undergarments). There are a lot of parallels between the two of us. I didn’t invent shoes; I took an existing product and made it 1,000 times better, which is what she did. She wrote her own patents, and put her own money into it.
What kind of product feedback do you hear from customers? They say, “I can’t believe that I can walk down a city street with confidence, and not have to walk on the ball of my foot, or go around sidewalk grates.” Or, “I can’t believe that with a heel that high, the shoes are still comfortable.” Or, “I can’t believe I can wear these from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.” People hand me their business cards and say, “Can you email my friend? She wants six pairs of shoes.”
What’s been your best sales tool? A lawyer in Salt Lake City bought my shoes, and emailed me asking if I’d consider going there and doing a happy hour with 50 women from her lawyers’ group. I went up there, sold shoes, made friends, and it was so rewarding. I could have bought a billboard in Salt Lake, and not sold as many pairs. That face-to-face event is far more valuable. I love my retailers, but on the retail route, I’m still the “wizard behind the curtain” — the customers don’t know me personally. I constantly do trips like that now. It’s part of my business model, my No. 1 distribution channel.
What’s next? Handbags seem like a natural progression for me; I’m heading in that direction. And I just came out with a leather shift dress line that you can wear all seasons in the Midwest. The linings are removable and washable. The dresses are $675, made here in St. Louis, and they’re work-appropriate and party-appropriate. The evening of Aug. 19, I’m having a dress launch party at The BHive event space in the Central West End.
Where and what did you study? I went to Ursuline Academy, then Auburn University, then University of Missouri-Columbia. I had planned on medical school, but I ended up studying business with an emphasis in marketing and graduated from Mizzou.
What do you enjoy doing in your off hours? I’m in a poker group downtown, and I love board games and chess. I have friends that I go on pub crawls with on Friday nights, and sometimes we have Monopoly tournaments.
Thanks to a hectic sales career of constant travel to large cities…
…and a lifestyle that absolutely destroyed my high heels, I realized women’s shoes were not made for urban work and life.
On a typical day I would run through the airport…
…drive a rental car, walk across a slippery marble hotel lobby floor, cross city grates, etc.
Your new shoes are made to withstand the elements of a busy urban environment while maintaining high fashion.
Here is how:
- There’s a protective plate over the heel where my floor mats typically wore the leather.
- Then I added a 2mm-thick non-slip pad to the outsole that can take on the slickest of lobby floors.
- The heel shape and heel cap are specifically designed to aid stability, and they won’t get stuck in most city grates, cracks or decks.
- The heel cap is made of TPU, the same material used to make roller skate wheels.
- Finally, I added extra cushion to the insole for all day (and night) comfort.