If the shoe fits: Jennifer Chamandi

Jennifer Chamandi on how she transitioned from a career in banking to launching her eponymous footwear brand

People 26 Apr 2019

Jennifer Chamandi

Jennifer Chamandi

I’ve had a passion for shoes ever since I was a child. I always loved mathematics as well, and to me shoes were so complex and technical that I saw them as the mathematics of fashion. And I know that more than ever now, since starting my own shoe business and being involved in the whole technical process of manufacturing shoes.

I was very academic, and coming from a Lebanese family, my parents subtly pushed me towards science and academia, so I went to study mathematics. Later on, I moved to London to attend the London School of Economics and decided to go into banking. There are a lot of preconceptions around banking, but I absolutely loved the seven years I spent in the industry. I spent six years at Merrill Lynch, then one year at Julius Baer, who acquired Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. At Julius Baer I set up my own desk from scratch, which was the perfect mini-project to precede setting up my own business. Finance really was a bridge for me to gather the business acumen prior to running my own company, which had long been my goal.

I’ve always been one to take calculated risks. My banking background didn’t help me directly in how to start or run this business, but it moulded my brain to work in a methodical way and know how to speak to the lawyers and accountants I would need to get involved. I’ve always used both the left and right sides of my brain – the business and the creative sides – and when I was working in finance, I never lost my personality. I was always the one in towering heels on the trading floor, with my shoe calendar and pink everything surrounding my desk. And because I didn’t want to lose my creativity during my trading years, I enrolled on a short course at Central Saint Martins, 10-4 every Saturday, to do shoe illustration. It was a fantastic course and I would recommend to anyone looking to move from the City into a more creative pathway to find courses in London in the area they’re interested in to gain an insight into the possibilities and realities of that industry.

When I decided to leave my finance job, I did the footwear summer school at London College of Fashion, which is run in collaboration with Cordwainers. The course takes place over six weeks and it was incredible, because we actually produced four shoes from scratch. They are a very difficult thing to design – only very few of us in the class actually ended up working with shoes. There are proportions to respect, you have to be stable and grounded, and for me comfort is a big factor, so even now I try on every new style myself and make sure it doesn’t pinch or rub anywhere.

The journey of my business started in January 2015; I had already decided that Made in Italy was important to me and was going to be one of the founding principles of my brand, so I started off Googling companies in Milan. I found one manufacturer who felt like the right fit, but it took a while to convince him. He kept telling me he was too busy; I think he just saw another banker having a mid-life crisis who suddenly decided to start a shoe company! So I decided to take four months of intensive lessons in Italian, translated my business plan and I told him, ‘Give me half an hour, I’ll present to you in Italian’. That half an hour turned into a full day, and he loved the concept and the unique selling point.

When I was at Central Saint Martins in 2009, I had created some sketches of a shoe with the strap going around the heel. But when it came to creating my first real shoe, I wanted to do something more technical, because that’s always been my passion. And then I had that light bulb moment. In French, ‘stiletto’ is called ‘talon aiguille,’ which is needle heel. And I was like, ‘that’s it!’ The eye of the needle.

I like classic, clean lines, but I also like to work with colours and textures, so this was perfect, as you could wear them with or without the strap and it was a timeless design. This is where the manufacturer was so important. After the pitch, he said to me, ‘I don’t know how you got this idea, but I want to prototype it. Send me your company details and I’ll invoice you’. At that time, I didn’t even have a company yet, so I asked him to give me one day, and I came back to the UK and set up the company.

Many of my shoes are now named after my manufacturer and his family, as it’s a family business – Lorenzo, Rolando, Vittorio, Fausto, Maurizio, Eric, Andrea and Tommaso. And last time I was there, my heel maker’s cousin Alessandro, who is also involved in making my signature heel, asked me where his shoe is! It’s been an amazing experience, working so closely with the pattern cutters and manufacturers and learning about this side of the process.

We now do a spring/summer and autumn/winter collection, but selling on Net-a-Porter, we release new styles monthly to continue to have something new on the market. We’ve also recently done pop-ups and are so lucky to be carried by Net-a-Porter, Browns, Harrods and more, and we are launching By Appointment here at my showroom. Although it’s very tempting to say yes to being stocked and sold in other countries around the world, it’s important to me that we grow at a manageable scale and continue to provide quality product. With so many possibilities on the horizon, I have to remind myself to step back and enjoy the process of growing organically over time.