Julia Elliott Brown and her sister Katy launched Upper Street in March 2010, an online business for custom-designed shoes. Only 3 years down the line, the business is flourishing, attracting fashion designers and celebrities amongst their customers. With thousands of design options to choose from, Upper Street allows women to express their true personality and design their perfect shoes – at an affordable price!
Julia Elliott Brown, an entrepreneur with her feet on the ground, talks to Myriam O’Carroll about her journey to success.
What services are offered by Upper Street?
It’s an online business where you can design your own shoes. You can create about 4 million different possibilities of shoes, using our 3D shoe designer, and we hand-make them to your specifications, within 4 to 6 weeks. We offer a truly personal service where customers can book complimentary appointments at our Studio. Customers can also email or call for design advice and we also launched our Shared Collections last year, so they can share their designs with their friends.
How did you get the idea for the business?
The idea came from my sister and business partner Katy. She lives in Hong Kong and when she got married, back in 2005, her dress designer suggested she had shoes made. She completely fell in love with the whole process – picking out the shape, materials, colours, etc. – and she started to get all her shoes made. She came to visit me and I loved the pair she was wearing, assuming they were from a designer.
When she told me how she had them made, it was my light bulb moment and I knew this was the business we’d always wanted to start together.
Did you have the skills to do this?
My career was running online businesses so we knew how to sell online; we knew how to build strong websites and about marketing. We just needed to bring in the shoe production and the fashion retail parts to make the business really work.
Where do you have the shoes produced?
Shoes are hand-made in China in our personal workshop. Katy manages our production process and we have our own team of dedicated craftsmen.
Who is designing the shoes?
We have an amazing shoe designer who works for us, Rosa. She trained at Cordwainers, which is the most famous shoe design school in London. She’s worked for lots of brands like Paul Smith, Emma Hope and Radley. She designs all the new styles and helps us review all the materials, plus anything new that’s coming out. She’s also very involved in the production.
Trying custom-made shoes online is not so easy, so how do you deal with customer service?
Customers can come to our studios in north London if they want to try shoes on and get design advice. We also alter shoes for free if any alterations are needed. For instance we can stretch shoes by about half a size, we can put extra padding in to make them fit more snugly or adjust the straps, etc. And if you get the shoes and you don’t like them, you can return them. But very few people actually do that.
Who are your celebrity clients?
I can say that we’ve made shoes for Jodie Kidd, the model. Cherie Blair has also bought several pairs from us.
What has been the most challenging part of the business?
I think it has been the shoe production and for a number of reasons. Firstly we did not have a background or working knowledge of this area. I think had we known back then how difficult it would be, we would have never done this, so our naivety was actually a bonus! Secondly, it’s also quite challenging to work with manufacturers in China, where the culture and language are very different. We’ve turned shoe production on its head, from making shoes hundreds of thousands of times over to making 100s of pairs with every single one being different.
We had to make our suppliers understand that there is a market for this bespoke design, which they found quite hard to believe at the beginning.
What has been your proudest moment as the Upper Street CEO?
When we worked with Jasper Garvida, the designer, for London Fashion Week. I was sitting on the front row of his show – watching all the models wearing beautiful clothes and a beautiful pair of shoes that Jasper had designed was a really nice feeling.
As it was also only a year into our development, I felt really proud to see us on the catwalk.
Do you have a secret London address – apart from Upper Street – to recommend?
I would say the Soho House, the membership club. From a business perspective it’s a great place to work away from the office, hold meetings and have time to think. But I also like the club socially.
Do you have ‘shoe’ advice to give business women?
As a business woman you are your brand, so I would encourage you to go and design your own shoes because if someone says to you on your way to a business meeting ‘I really like your shoes, where did you get them from?’ and you can actually say that you’ve designed them yourself, it’s a really amazing feeling.