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A couple of years ago while I was hosting my Transformation in Tuscany Retreat, I gave myself a dreamy day in Florence. I had no agenda whatsoever but to wander wherever I desired, stopping into adorable shops and cafes for delicious bites to eat.

As I was rounding a corner past Ferragamo, I went down a side street and wound up facing this beautiful display of flat shoes.

via-1Now at that moment I did not own one pair of flats. I didn’t think flats were chic and worse, I didn’t even think they were comfortable. Frankly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about, but I was about to be converted.

Little did I know that prior to founding VIAJIYU, Nicole Still didn’t own a pair of flat shoes either. When I walked into her store in Florence, she had been open for only a couple of months. She was there in the store, and we got to talking, and the next thing I knew there was a flat on my foot and it was both totally chic and oddly comfortable!

Since that moment, VIAJIYU’s Milano flat in black was the only flat I owned, and after many airport walks, this fall it was about time for an update. So on my trip to Florence I made a point to come back to the store and stock up on several pairs. Fitted for my foot shape, I replaced my black flat, grabbed a cobalt blue studded number, a little leopard something, and, I figured, if you’re going that far, why not throw in a metallic silver option as well?

Aside from being ecstatic about my shoe haul, I was so thrilled to catch up with Nicole and see her brand really taking off! Originally from Sydney, Nicole’s story of founding a shoe company in Italy is quite the fascinating tale. Divine Living caught up with the inspiring entrepreneur to find out more about how she built a business and brand that celebrates trailblazing women, world travel, and fine Italian craftsmanship.

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Tell us the story of how you decided to start a shoe company.
NICOLE I’m the least likely person on the planet to have a shoe company or a fashion business! I hate to shop and from the age of 25, whenever I found something I loved, I’d buy it in 2-3 colors. I bought the same pair of heels for 15 years! And I never wore flats. In Sydney, it was either flip-flops, heels, or sneakers. Then I started working a lot across Asia in 14 countries, traveling for most of the year, and I realized I needed flats—the airports are huge, and getting taxis at rush hour can be impossible. But I had a really hard time finding great flats. They were on my list for years, and either they just weren’t well constructed or they were covered in logos. One year I went to Japan for my friend’s thirtieth, and I had this nice quiet day of shopping where I found a number of things on my list—but not flats. I figured if you can’t find it in Tokyo, it doesn’t exist. So later when I sat down with my friend for lunch I told her, “I think I want to do the Nike ID of flats.” So that’s the concept I started with—though it has evolved a lot from there.

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What did you know about the industry before you started?
NICOLE I knew nothing! I knew nothing about luxury, I didn’t buy luxury goods, I knew nothing about Italian-made shoes. But I approached it like a journalist. Having experience doing breaking news at places like the Tribune and Time Magazine, you learn to become an expert in something really fast and boil it down.

Do you now consider yourself a designer?
NICOLE I’m a maker and a creator, but I’m not a designer. There are women out there who’ve been to fashion school and apprenticed, and that’s not me, and that’s okay, because we’re creating a business where there can be a division to develop young design talent. In the beginning it was just about getting our factory relationship strong and getting the classic form right, and now that we’re a more stable business, we’re focusing more on design innovation. Currently we have a program where design students are creating custom shoes inspired by women trailblazers. I’m also proud to say that our two first permanent staff members have gone on to work with Aquazurra and Dolce e Gabbana. We’re hardly the big leagues, but if we can send our young staff there I couldn’t be happier.

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What does the name “VIAJIYU” mean to you? How did you come up with it?
NICOLE I came up with the name in the back of a taxi in Korea. I remember I had this David Bowie look-alike cab driver—it was 7am and he was asking me if I’d skip work to go get a whiskey!
Anyway I was doing word association and I came up with it. “Via” is the Italian word for road, and “Jiyu” is the Japanese word for freedom. The concept is not necessarily about the freedom to design your own shoes, it’s about women having more freedom than ever before, the freedom to blaze new trails. Plus, I wanted to create a brand inspired by both east and west, so the name represents that as much as it
represents female empowerment.

How did you begin making shoes?
NICOLE I had some Italian friends who connected me with the chamber of commerce and from there I went on the hunt for a factory, with the idea that I was just going to sell one style online. I cut back on my full-time consulting, and started testing to get an MVP up. The factory I wanted said no the first three times, and then finally said yes. So I worked with them on improving the product, and then we did 5 pop-ups in Shanghai. Originally the idea was that the brand was going to be mainly online and in Asia. We never thought we’d have a physical store and certainly not one in Italy! However it was also clear
that it was untenable to develop the supply chain and the factory relationships in Italy while commuting to Asia.

So how did the Florence store come about?
NICOLE Finding that space was a huge turning point for us. I was on a morning run when I came across it, and it was derelict at the time, but it’s just down the street from Ferragamo on one of the most important streets in Florence. When we opened we had just 20 pairs of shoes, no door and no window display, a curtain to hide the office—the locals thought we were crazy. For the next nine months I proceeded to sleep in the shop and commute back and forth to Asia and Australia. It was during that time in 2013 that Gina came in, one of our first customers, and when she came back exactly 2 years later, we were both in awe of the journey we’d been through in 24 months! Last September there was this moment where we thought we would have to close the Florence shop because it didn’t make sense, and continue online. Miraculously in September/October we had our biggest months ever and since then we’ve grown healthily and steadily! I didn’t conceive of this business as connecting with American customers, but with so many travelers through Tuscany, they’ve been some of our biggest supporters—which is why we’re going on tour through the States next year, to Texas, California, and the Southeast!

Talk to us about the experience of shopping at the Florence store.
NICOLE We look like a typical shoe shop, but we’re not. Everyone thinks flats should be so easy, but just like women often wear the wrong bra—most also don’t have the right flat shape for their feet! So in our store we do fittings which take about 20 minutes, and either you can find a ready-to-wear classic if we have it in stock, or you design your own and we ship free all around the world.

What are three things you’ve learned about building a business through this process, and how do you define success?
NICOLE The biggest lessons I’ve learned are that you have to fail fast and evolve faster, fight through the fear, and just show up. A success to me is building a second-generation business that’s healthy. We live in this culture now where you see companies having rapid, meteoric success—like Facebook becoming a billion dollar company in six years. And I tell my team, you wouldn’t expect your two-year-old to go to Harvard, so you can’t expect our company to compete with Ferragamo and Louis Vuitton at this moment in time. It’s not an excuse to be mediocre, we still push ourselves all the time, but we also recognize the value of a 20 year plan.

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What’s your vision for the future of the brand?
NICOLE For us it’s not just about creating a shoe company, it’s about building a movement of trailblazing women. Lately we’ve been working more on supporting young trailblazers as well, developing a residency program in Florence, and our student design program, etc. We’ve also done shop swaps with other women entrepreneurs in Europe, which is a great way to support each other and grow. Ultimately we’re in the business of storytelling and connection. Having worked on big, iconic brands in my past life, I find that they’re often static, one-dimensional, and representing stereotypical values. I think our movement is much more diverse than that. Shoes just start the conversation.

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Learn more about Viajiyu and shop for
custom styles at: viajiyu.com
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Learn more about Viajiyu and shop for custom styles at: viajiyu.com

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