This Innovative Startup Lets You Build Your Own Shoes

This Innovative Startup

Lets You Build Your Own Shoes

Your shoes are your most powerful ally when it comes to boosting your confidence. Whether it’s a pair of bold pumps or sexy sandals, you’re instantly ready to take over the world once you slip them on. But whether you have a slightly too small closet or you travel regularly with a suitcase that’s already busting at the seams—your collection shouldn’t be limited by space. It’s a problem that Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar noticed and took creative, life changing action to fix.

Enter their company, Alterre Shoes, a collection of modular shoe kits that are designed specifically to save room in travel bags and closets—while saving money in your wallet too. Choose a sole (sandal, heel and platform) and instantly create a different shoe to match every outfit with different straps.  Pilobello and Iyengar met while studying fashion design at the Parsons School of Design. They came back to launch Alterre Shoes just two years with a successful Kickstarter campaign—and today the brand is available in shoe kits and as a subscription box.  So, how are they growing such an innovative idea into a full-fledged, in-demand brand? And, what advice do they want other women entrepreneurs to know, live by and follow? Read on for their inspiring story that will dare you to follow your own business dreams!


When did the inspiration for Alterre shoes strike?

Harmony and Shilpa: We both travel a bit and were tired of packing multiple pairs of shoes for different outfits. Or in some instances feeling restricted to match all our traveling items with only a couple pairs of shoes. Around three years ago, we realized there was a space in the industry for such a product. We started compiling a list of all the ways we could create a travel friendly shoe and ultimately decided interchangeable straps were the best way to ensure quality, comfort, and travel friendly footwear. It also allows our customer to have both quality and fast fashion in one product, which is currently lacking in the market.


What were your biggest hurdles?

Harmony and Shilpa: We received a few lengthy emails from people who wished we would make our shoes more affordable and vegan. Our original prototypes were made to be vegan, but the end product did not meet our requirements of ethics and quality. What would be the value in making vegan shoes that don’t last as long, and would create more waste for the environment?

It’s also important to us to work with fairly paid workers on all levels of our production. In addition to supporting the work being done by Restore NYC with 5% of annual proceeds. Ultimately, providing a thoughtfully made product at a price people are willing to buy is one of our biggest hurdles.


Who do you look up to as mentors? And do you have any advice they shared that you can pass along?

Harmony: My thesis professor, Timo Rissanen, has been a constant source of inspiration for me. He told me once that some people say there’s no such thing as an original idea, but really that’s just lazy thinking. That stuck with me and always will. He taught me to be comfortable outside of the box and to never stop exploring. While working at Patagonia, they also reinforced all my desires to stay active in communities.  The company taught me to be passionate for what I care about.


What is the dynamic of your working relationship? How has it evolved and what have you learned from each other?

Shilpa: I agree with Harmony. On top of that I think for me I’ve learned to not be overly trusting when dealing with new business contacts which I feel Harmony is better at than me. Also, I’m very inspired by her passion for her beliefs be it in the business or elsewhere. It’s good to have a partner who I can trust and bounce off ideas that will give me honest insights.


What do you want other women in business to know?

Harmony and Shilpa: To follow your instincts and go for it. We’ve faced people who didn’t take us seriously when we first started the brand, especially on the production side, or thought they could take advantage of us because we were young women. We kept persisting and found the right people to work with us so it’s possible to do exactly what you want to do. We’ve even had factories that refused to make our shoes interchangeable because it was a new concept, harder to manufacture, and they felt that there was no market for it. If whatever compromise someone is telling you to make doesn’t feel right, don’t do it and go with your gut.


What’s your best advice for anyone who has an idea and is fearful of taking the plunge?

Harmony and Shilpa: Persistence is key and it takes a long time to get an idea off the ground. So, don’t expect it to happen overnight. Plan for the long haul. If you can imagine making your idea your whole life, then you’ll have what it takes to make it work eventually. It may not be the first idea that works but every step you take opens another door and will guide you where to go. We had 2 other brands before this one. Take the plunge!


What were you most nervous about when you started Alterre shoes and how did you overcome it?

Harmony and Shilpa: Our starting inventory was the first thing we spent so much money on at once before knowing if we could sell them. So, it was a bit nerve racking to see how people would respond to the shoes. We overcame it because we had no other choice. We knew if we just waited to see what people thought off a few samples or waited for a store to make a large enough order we could never get off the ground.


What were you most nervous about when you started Alterre shoes and how did you overcome it?

Harmony and Shilpa: We want to grow the company to a place where we can continue to create and fund innovative projects in and out of the fashion industry. On top of that we would love to be able to fund manufacturing coming back to the US. We know that there are innovators all over the US who just don’t have resources and we want to help them be on the forefront of a new solution.


How has fashion impacted both of you on a personal note?

Shilpa: When I was growing up I spent most of my time in athletics and science and gave little thought to fashion. So, it was a surprise that I came to love working in it so much. I realized what I always thought to be a frivolous industry was actually very thoughtful and intelligent in terms of the design. That it was works of art that had a place in everyday life. It helped me see that fashion can be a positive force in the world that let people reach their full potential. What you wear says a lot about you from the first impression and can make the wearer feel powerful. Kind of like wearing a superhero costume in a way. I like being a part of an industry that can help empower people.

Harmony: It’s become a platform for problem solving and connecting communities. Fashion takes its inspiration from the world around it so by being a designer I feel like that I have become more aware of the problems in the world and could connect more on a personal level with other people. For example, when you learn to make a dress shirt you learn that it isn’t just machine made. You gain empathy for the people who make clothing every day and see what the real worth of the product is. I’ve also become more environmentally conscious because of the knowledge of how wasteful the fashion industry can be and hope to innovate more in sustainable fashion.


Since starting Alterre, what do you consider the best and even life changing experiences to come from it?

Harmony: It’s all very exciting and who doesn’t love getting into magazines? But really, the best experiences are when customers take the time to reach out and tell us how much they love the shoes. It’s a great feeling when people recognize our shoes and get excited about them.

Shilpa: I think the best experiences for me are seeing people enjoy the shoes and being able to interact with women who were looking for this solution. It’s one thing to design something I like, but another thing entirely to be able to see that people love it.

Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is a NYC-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour,, and so many others in her career spanning almost 20 years. She's the author of five books, has interviewed A-list celebrities, written about women and career topics, health, money and more.

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