Meet the Maker: Zimmerman Shoes

This past Saturday, I had the honor to chat with Audrey Zimmerman, from Zimmerman Shoes, while she was in Georgetown for Little Birdies Boutique’s Meet the Maker Pop Up.

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Shanlee, the owner of Little Birdies Boutique, has picked out and offers the sweetest baby and children’s clothing.  She has every bow color you could want.  I got Riley a couple because I couldn’t decide! If you’re local, stop by and check it out!

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 While Audrey was there meeting customers and giving free shoe sizing,  she took some time to talk to me about herself and the story behind Zimmerman Shoes.

Gianna: Have you been busy today?

Audrey: “Yeah we have been busy.  We’ve had a lot of local friends come by.  Some people were following me and knew I would be here.  It’s been a great turnout. We still have a little bit to go.  I’m really excited.”

 

G: “So, has it been people that follow you on Instagram or follow your shop?”

A: “There’s a lot of local friends of Shanlee.  My followers didn’t know that Shanlee was here and that kinda brought them out too.  It was a great collaboration to get two brands involved and bring everybody out here.”

 

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G: “I love that! Well, can you tell us about yourself?”

A: “My name is Audrey Zimmerman.  I own Zimmerman Shoes.  My sister and I started it in 2014.  We grew up in the shoe industry, so it’s all I’ve ever know.  A lot people are like, “you make shoes, weird.” To me, it’s what my family and I do.  My great grandfather did it, my grandfather did it, my dad and aunt do it now, and I am slowly taking it on.  I am the fourth generation to take it over. When Zimmerman shoes got started, we wanted to take classic styles and revamp them to make them a little more modern and fun.  For example, we took a Milo boot and we added the V, that my great grandfather designed.  When he came on board in the 60s he took Kepner Scott, which is who manufactures for us, on as a retirement project and he purchased a shoe company. “

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A: “Back then, children’s shoes were really stiff and hard, and he wanted to make them a little more flexible and soft.  So, he added leather linings and natural rubber soles to make it a little bit easier for parents and kids.  From there, we created styles with leather lining and softer leathers.  You don’t see that from shoes you get offshore.  You don’t see the traditional widths: narrow, medium, wide…  even half-sizes have gone away which blows my mind because not everyone is a whole size!  Those details are important to us too.  We are a nitche business, being made in America, manufacturing shoes for 130 years… it’s crazy.  I’m really honored to take this on. Honor my family, honor my dad, my aunt, my grandfather, my great grandfather. Sometimes I have to step back and look at it.  We did this.  It’s really cool.”

 

G: “It’s so unique that you have that legacy.  I’m sure it hasn’t been easy competing with these really big manufacturers that get everything from overseas and have lower price points. What do you think sets you apart that has keep the business going for 130 years?”

A: “I think the story is there.  People are really into the story.  I think mothers now want to see who is making their products with everything going on with factories collapsing overseas and people being underpaid.  We are a workforce of about 20 employees.  They know the shoe industry like no one else.  It is amazing to see what we can come up with in a couple of hours.  You can take the front of a shoe and combine it with the back of a shoe of a different style and have a whole new look.  It’s almost like a math equation.  You just have to see what works and what looks good. Then it becomes a guessing game of what is going to sell in colors and designs.  It’s a crazy process.  The family story, being made in the US,  I love meeting customers and I think customers enjoy meeting me.  I’m here you know? You’re not going to find that with a lot of brands, especially offshore brands.”

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G: “That’s so true.  You don’t know who made it and let alone who’s running the whole thing.  You mentioned that you never know what people are going to want.  How often do you have different styles out?”

A: “Styles I would say maybe once or twice a year.  I like to mix in colors.  A lot of my ideas come to me when I’m just falling asleep and I quick get up to write them down cause I’m like  ‘I have to do this tomorrow!’”

G: “So it kind of just comes to you and you do it? Right? Why not!”

A: “Now, I don’t have kids.  I do what I like and what I would put on my kids.  Sometimes I’m unsure and put it online and it’s the best seller!  A lot of neutrals do really well like our warm brown that launched this fall.  It’s such a great color.  I would do what I would wear.  That’s how I look at it. Our yellow is new.  I think it’s such a great color, kind of like a mustard for fall.  Our warm brown is so classic and can go with anything.  We did an ivory which is really great. A lot of southern families and moms are enjoying that classic ivory.  Pink, or blush pink, navy, black, red…”

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G: Any colors, you can do it.

A: “Yeah! I try to stay in a certain realm. Pretty much colors that I’d want to wear.”

G: “Talking about new designs, I saw that you’re going to be working with Starry Knight Design.” 

A: “We are scheduled to launch October 12.  What we did was take our classic styles like our Greta T-strap, which was new to us this fall, our Flora T-strap, and our Milo boot and added her classic leathers that she uses in her styles.  It’s a limited release and we’ll see where it goes.  A lot of people are excited which makes me excited.  She does all soft-soles so it’s cool to launch a hard-soled shoe in her leathers and see my styles with them. “

 

G: Since it’s a limited release, do you expect it to go fast?

A: “Yes! Based on the reaction so far…”

 

G: “So pretty much be on it. If you want something, set an alarm, put it on your calendar…”

A: “Yeah, I would get on that. The reaction we got was crazy. So, if you want something get on it.  We already have moms reaching out for sizing advice so they can just go on and just know what they’re ordering.”

 

G: “Bookmark the page, have it in your tabs…”

A: “Yeah [laughs] set a reminder!”

 

G: “Are you going to tell us what’s the fastest way to get to the product?”

A: “It will be listed in the Starry Knight’s website.  It won’t be listed on my website, just with Melanie on Starry Knight’s website.  They are coming out of production now and we’ll help ship them out early next week because its October already!  Crazy!”

 

G: “I saw on your Instagram that you asked how many steps it takes to make your shoes.  Did anyone guess correctly?”

A: “Two guessed correctly.  One I gave a tour of the factory [laughs] so she knew.  One of them I wasn’t familiar with, but then I realized it was in my highlights later [laughs].”

 

G: [laughs] “She did her research so that was smart!”

A: “So yeah, it was in my highlights.  I wanted to really show how crazy it is to make shoes.”

 

G: “How many steps is it?”

A: “125! For kids shoes! When I say handmade in Pennsylvania, I mean it.  From the early stages of production, to designing, to cutting, to sewing, to lasting, to packing, to handwritten notes in your order… every detail is thought about when you get a pair of these shoes.  A lot of love and time and effort is put into my brand.  I love to meet people who love them as much as I do.”

 

G: “125 really puts it into perspective.  It shows what it takes to get the shoes from you to one of us.”

A: “It’s a lot of steps.  We’ve been doing it for 130 years. Day in and out.  It’s a lot but it’s worth it.  I am so happy to be where I am.  Our turn around time is 7-10 business days.  When you have 125 steps that go into one pair of shoes, and it’s 7-10 business days for a custom pair of shoes…”

“When I say handmade in Pennsylvania, I mean it.  From the early stages of production, to designing, to cutting, to sewing, to lasting, to packing, to handwritten notes in your order… every detail is thought about when you get a pair of these shoes.” 

 

G: “That’s fast.”

A: “You’re just not going to get that with an exported product.”

 

G: “For my Pennsylvania friends, where in Pennsylvania are you?”

A: “We are about an hour and a half away from Philly in Schuylkill county.  I’m not sure how familiar you are with Pennsylvania.”

 

G: “I lived in Lancaster county.  Well actually, right on the line between Lancaster county and Chester county.”

A: “My sister lives in Lancaster! We are about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Lancaster.  I love Lancaster.  We are in Schuylkill county just ten minutes away from Hamburg where Cabela’s is.  We are so little.”

 

G: “Everyone knows where Cabela’s is [laughs]”

A: “Right! That’s a good pinpoint.  So just ten minutes away from Cabela’s.”

 

G: “Are your employees all local?”

A: “All within ten to fifteen minutes.  A lot of them have been with us for twenty plus years.  We have a gentleman, who works in our packing room, that’s been with us since he was seventeen or eighteen and he’s in his seventies now.”

 

G: “Wow.”

A: “He’s great.  I just remember going and handwriting notes to him when I was learning how to write and he still has them hanging up today.”

 

G: “That’s the sweetest story.”

A: “I love them.  A lot of our employees are experienced in the shoe industry.  In 1912 there were 13 shoe factories just in our town.”

 

G: “Oh wow! How many are left?”

A: “One!”

 

G: “You!”

A: “One left in the country.  Like a true factory setting, we are it.  There are other shoe makers, but a lot of them are turn shoes.  The sole is the process that differs from a lot those manufacturers.  That we can put a hard sole.”

 

G: “You’ve done it for so many years.  They are built to last right?”

A: “We see a lot of generations go through our shoes.  I see a lot of brothers and sisters wearing what their older siblings wore.  That’s the goal.  To see younger siblings wear what their older sisters and brothers wore.”

 

G: “It’s an investment now for something all of your kids can wear.  How long is someone in a size?”

A: “That just depends.  I’ve had kids in a size for a year.  That’s not necessarily true for every child.  The rule of thumb is a half size every three months, and again it’s not accurate for every child.  That’s after they had a growth spurt.  It doesn’t mean it won’t last longer.  I like to size up a little bit to get a little bit of more room out of it.  It’s a hard call.  Some kids shoot up and are 6 foot 4 some stay smaller longer.”

 

G: “Do you have a favorite shoe?  Do you have one?”

A: “No I don’t because I love them all because I created them.  The Milo is so classic and great for a gender neutral gift or if you don’t know the sex of the baby yet.  The scalloped Mary Janes when these little girls come in melts me.  They are so cute.  Those are my two original styles. The Milo boot hits home because my great grandfather designed it and it’s named after him as well as my nephew, Milo.  But, the scalloped Mary Janes are too cute to say no.  We need a tie-breaker.”

 

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G: “Changing gears, if you weren’t in the shoe business, what would you do?”

A: “I don’t even know.  That’s all I’ve known.  I really like where we are now.  I love the boutique side of things.  I love design and marketing, which is great because it plays into what I do now.  Photography…website I designed and developed. A lot of the photography I did.  This past fall and winter I hired a photographer and she did a lot for me.  It was a huge help. At some point I need to let go a little and ask for help.  So, I would probably do marketing or photography.  I love working with children.  It is so great to see my product start to finish and then on a child.  It’s bummer I don’t have a storefront to see it everyday.  So when people tag me in photos it’s so great! I love coming to these types of events and seeing the end result.  Moms happy, dads are happy, kids are happy, I’m happy…”

 

G: “I can tell that you really care about what you do and the little ones that wear your product.”

A: “I have to start taking a step back and breathing and realizing that this is amazing.  I get caught up in a whirlwind sometimes of I have to do this and I need to do that and I don’t take the time to remember “I make shoes that’s pretty cool.”  I need to start doing that a lot more because I do love it.  I breath it.  It’s amazing.  I love what I do. I always knew what I would do.  I remember going to shoe shows with my dad and selling shoes.  I can remember what I wore because I didn’t want to wear it.  It was a leather jacket that my mom was dressing me up in.  I just remember not wanting to wear it but wanting to go with my dad.  My mom said I had to wear it and I ended up getting so many compliments on it all day.  I remember running through the factory all day.  Now my nieces and nephews are doing the same thing.  It’s really awesome seeing that.”

 

I had a great time meeting Shanlee and interviewing Audrey. Talking to Audrey reminded me why we support small shops.  When you get a pair of Zimmerman shoes it’s more than just a pair of shoes.  Each person in the 125 steps it takes to make the shoes cares about what they are making for your child. 

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For those in the DC area, Little Birdies Boutique will be carrying Zimmerman Shoes!

 

Zimmerman Shoes:     www.zimmermanshoes.com/

Little Birdies Boutique: www.shoplittlebirdies.com

Starry Knight Design: www.starryknightdesign.com/