Best friends, Shola Asante and Agnès Cushnie struggled to find fashionable yet comfortable shoes for their larger than average feet, so they created SANTE + WADE, their all-inclusive footwear brand.
Sharing the frustration of struggling to find stylish, comfortable footwear for their size 41/42 feet, and with the added requirement of needing a wider fit, both Shola and Agnès despaired whenever they went footwear shopping on the high street. It was clear to them that while there has been a marked improvement in the availability of chic plus-sized fashion brands, the same cannot be said for shoes.
Since the 1970s, the average shoe size for women in the UK has increased by two sizes, from a four to a six. Sadly, for ladies who require footwear larger than a UK size 7 on the high street, that looks vaguely cute and stylish, the pickings are usually slim.
Not prepared to put up with settling for boring, frumpy shoes any longer, best friends, Shola Asante and Agnès Cushnie realised there was a real business opportunity for them. After years of planning and training behind the scenes, in 2019 they finally set up SANTE + WADE, which offers a wide variety of quality footwear ranging in sizes from 38/5 – 46/11.5 in either standard or wide fit.
Keen to learn more about their entrepreneurial journey, we interviewed the ladies earlier this month to learn more about running a footwear brand and the challenges and triumphs they have experienced so far.
Can you give us more insight into why you decided to start SANTE + WADE?
Agnès: We started working together on SANTE + WADE in 2018 after Shola completed her footwear design course. I instantly thought there was a market opportunity and used my expertise as a former fashion creative director and owner to create a strategic roadmap to market. Being both our own customers (Shola being a size 41 wide and me a 42 standard) meant that we had a very organic relationship with our brand from day one. We launched the brand in 2019 to serve fashion-savvy women in need of more inclusive sizing and have been going strong since.
Shola: I came up with the idea back in 2015, when my frustration at not being able to find the kind of shoes I wanted boiled over. I signed up for a footwear design and development course the following year and began laying the foundations for the business in 2017.
How important is catering to a comfortable width as well as length in your footwear?
Agnès: It’s our point of difference really. It means that we provide equal focus on those two segments which have been underserved by the marketplace at large.
Shola: Hugely important. The customer who requires a wider fit is more often than not different to the customer who requires a bigger size. Both segments have not been well represented in the market and we felt that it was necessary to bring these two areas together if we were to be a truly inclusive brand.
What has been the biggest challenges so far?
Agnès: The first challenge was to get the products right for our customer before launch. We pride ourselves on using custom lasts [replicas of the human foot used by shoemakers] and initial assumptions at the beginning of the design development cycle had to be revisited until we were fully satisfied. The entrepreneurial journey is one with many challenges, but challenges are ultimately what takes you to the next step of the journey, so I see these as positive moments.
What are you most proud of?
Agnès: I am mostly proud of the testimonials we receive from customers. Ultimately this and repeat orders is what keeps us going.
Shola: Being finalists in the Drapers footwear awards two years in a row. The first time felt amazing but almost too good to be true. The second time around feels like a real recognition of all the hard work we put into the business.
What experience did you bring to the table with regard to starting the footwear brand?
Agnès: My whole career has been in Marketing and Fashion Design, both working in the corporate sector and as an entrepreneur. Being in charge of Marketing at SANTE + WADE felt like the most natural fit, since Shola had successfully learnt her craft as a footwear designer and was the driving force from a design point of view. The best part of being a tight team however is that we bounce off each other on all aspects constantly and many elements of the strategy are developed jointly.
Shola: I studied for a diploma in footwear design and development at TAFTC in Singapore. I then spent a year working with a footwear design consultancy in Milan. Previous to that I was a broadcast journalist. There are so many skills required when running a business, I don’t believe any previous experience is ever wasted.
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Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Shola: Being a footwear designer has made me so much more attuned to visual arts and mediums than I ever was before. It means inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places – the cut and drape of a dress, an old photograph, the lines of a building. I also love playing with colour and texture and simply leafing through fabric and leather swatches can generate ideas for designs.
What celebs would you like to see wearing SANTE + WADE?
Agnès: Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie would be very high on my list!
Shola: I would love to design a pair of shoes for Tracee Ellis Ross. She is my absolute fashion girl crush. I wouldn’t mind seeing Jennifer Lopez or Michelle Obama wearing our designs either. All these women understand their body shapes and have a distinct sense of style.
Which shoes are your bestsellers?
Agnès: Interestingly our customers are spending evenly across all categories, but I can give one winner which is our Queenie sneaker. It is slowly becoming our little cult trainers.
Shola: We’ve also seen a lot of interest in our Lara sandal, which is a comfortable and feminine block heel summer sandal.
Where do you hope to see the business in 10 years?
Shola: I would love for us to be a household name that is synonymous nationwide with quality footwear. In future I would love for us to have a few brick-and-mortar stores, and potentially expanding into other leather goods. Till then we’ve set plenty of short-term goals for our business and we’re excited to eventually show our customers what we’ve got in the pipeline.
Prices start from £150, and all footwear is handcrafted in Portugal.
Visit the SANTE + WADE website.