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Kirsten Schueler gets on a plane to meet The Root Collective founder Bethany Tran for the first time in Guatemala for their shoemaking adventure together. (Photo by Kirsten Schueler)
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The women of the weaving co-op Trama Textiles hand weaves the fabric for The Root Collective's shoes. Here they are with Bethany Tran. (Photo by Kirsten Schueler)
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Here, master shoemaker Otto works on a pair of Root Collective shoes while Bethany wears a pair of her own! (Photo by Kirsten Schueler)
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Kirsten loved seeing how Otto and the local shoemakers worked so intuitively rather than technically, the way she was taught at FIT. (Photo by Kirsten Schueler)
When Kirsten Schueler graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2003 with an associates degree in Accessory Design, it was the only degree of its kind in the country. “It felt strange going back to get my Associates when I’d already received my Bachelor’s (from Georgia College and State University earlier that year),” Schueler said. Looking back, she’s so happy she went for it, as accessory design has become a major life passion.
After graduating from FIT, Schueler moved back to her hometown of Augusta, Georgia to “get married and have babies” with her (now) husband Mike. While completely happy with her decision, it wasn’t long before Schueler was craving a creative outlet again and opened an Etsy shop of up-cycled vintage handbags, accessories and furniture pieces right after her family moved to Richmond in 2006.
She enjoyed some awesome success right away; one of her home decor designs was even featured in the 2011 book “Design Sponge at Home” by Grace Bonney (if you’re into design at all, you know the Design Sponge blog!). She also loved participating in the Craft Mafia shows and over the years adopted the handmade, fair trade method of making and buying goods as a lifestyle.
Cut to two more kids in a 1,000-square-foot house a couple years later and Schueler realized her girls needed a place to sleep more than she needed a home studio (a valid point) so she packed up her Etsy shop and once again took time to focus on her family. And yet that drive to create was still “always in the background of [her] mind”.
She kept up with the local and regional handmade community over the years, even if she wasn’t participating directly and in 2014 was introduced to The Root Collective, a fair trade shoe wear company based out of Raleigh, North Carolina. Schueler was immediately taken with the sustainable, handmade philosophy of the brand and wanted to learn more.
Bethany Tran founded The Root Collective in 2012 after taking a week-long trip to Guatemala to visit a friend who was staying there. It was a transformative experience that completely changed Tran’s entire worldview, especially after visiting La Limonada, a small community stricken by incredible poverty and a pervasive gang culture. She was also taken with the incredibly skilled shoemakers and talented weavers who lived and worked there and the idea to launch a shoe company that empowered these people to make their lives better came to her (you can learn more about The Root Collective and all the amazing things Tran has accomplished here).
Shueler finally “met” Tran online in January 2015 and one day in June of that same year impulsively sent Tran an e-mail asking if she needed any design help. Tran wrote back with an immediate “yes!” and since then Schueler has been Tran’s right-hand design woman, helping conceptualize Tran’s shoe design ideas and turn them from ideas into reality.
Tran will often come to Schueler with a few different shoe designs in mind; Schueler will do a quick sketch of each idea, send them back to Tran who will narrow it down to two options. Schueler will then make more detailed sketches of those two for Tran to ultimately decide which get put into production.
“It was the coolest moment of my life,” Schueler says in reference to the first time she saw a shoe that she designed as a real life sample. The first designs that Schueler had a (literal!) hand in making are set to hit the company’s website and stockists around the country this spring. “They came from my brain and now people are going to buy them and wear them!”. Cool, indeed.
When I asked her what program she uses to design, she laughed: “markers from Plaza Art on Grace Street and paper?” I can appreciate a woman who likes to keep it old school. “They’re the fancy markers though…” she added with a smile.
Tran and Schueler recently took a two-week trip to Guatemala together (the first time Schueler met Tran in real life was at the Guatemala airport!) to visit their master shoemaker, Otto, and the co-op of women weavers who make all of The Root Collective’s shoes by hand. While the language barrier was more than a small challenge (“we had translators for our translators!”), Schueler said meeting the men and women who make these shoes and hearing their proud stories of sending their kids to school because of their work with The Root Collective was seriously rewarding.
In terms of inspiration a little closer to home, Schueler says she loves taking walks with her family in the Fan and scope the college kid style. She’s forever adapting the innovative looks they put together for the shoes she’s helping design with Tran. “Richmond is small in such a big way,” she explains, where you can feel completely comfortable and creatively challenged at the same time.
One of the reasons I love Richmond so much is because of people like Schueler. There are so many creatively talented people in this city but a real life shoe designer? The Carrie Bradshaw in me can’t get enough!