Having size 11 feet at age 12 was not easy. Ball shoes were a nightmare, my sneakers were always men's style and in my 20’s the frustration of never being able to find shoes that fit became a repeated and demoralising pattern. I avoided shoe shopping….even when I visited Italy while travelling. Right from the beginning of Willow Shoes, we’ve heard so many women repeat this same sort of story. For years I bought size 10 shoes and accepted the pain in my feet - thinking that was normal because there were lots of jokes about shoes being uncomfortable. I thought you needed to wear new shoes for about a month to 'wear them in'. The light-bulb moment came in Wellington when searching for wedding shoes in 2000. That day, shoe shopping frustrations hit a peak and the inspiration for Willow Shoes began. For the first time I realised there must be others with a similar struggle and decided something needed to change.
By far the biggest challenge was getting shoe makers to believe that women with long feet wanted colour, heels, and the latest styles. They assumed we all liked black shoes and preferred to hide away so fashion wasn't necessary and men's shoes would do. How wrong could they be! Every woman, no matter what their size, wants variety, colour and style. 20 years on Willow Shoes has led and achieved significant change in this niche market. We have influenced and dramatically changed the styles of shoes available for women with long feet all over the world and we now lead the world with the best selection of shoes in long sizes.
Setting up a business of any kind is a leap of faith. Back in 2001 postage and faxing was more of a thing than email. The internet was new. We sent out a few hundred catalogues to a small number of names we had gathered and got just as excited about finding a new customer as making a sale. It was very much about proving this was not a crazy idea.
Breaking down negative images that woman with long feet had of themselves was a really important part of growing Willow Shoes. An early break came when an article was written for NEXT magazine...over a thousand people discovered and joined Willow Shoes overnight and influenced the success of our first ever 'shoe tour'.
The photo above is after a day in Dunedin on that first shoe tour. We sold just one pair of shoes. That's it! We had driven in the night with a trailer of shoes, unloaded, set up shop, opened up our “pop up” for the day, then packed up and onto the next town. Staying positive and pushing on is vital when you are a start up and believing in your idea and the need in the market - this same approach still applies now. At that time, Willow Shoes had a lot of industry negativity from people who considered me a mad woman to try and help “those difficult customers with their big feet” (their words, not mine).
The next day we arrived in Christchurch and things took a dramatic turn for good. The room was full of women at 10am sharp and it went crazy. We sold a lot of shoes that day, learned a lot and didn't look back. The relief! That was one of the most exciting moments because it provided conviction that we were onto something and needed to keep going. Seeing and hearing all these women tell their stories about struggles to buy shoes was wonderful. Willow Shoes was a dream for every woman in that room and they all continued to support Willow and help us grow by loyally shopping with us each season.
Willow shoes was breaking new ground in shoes at an exciting time when online stores were emerging and almost nobody had one. We were one of the first shoe stores in all of NZ to sell shoes online in 2005.
At the heart of everything at Willow Shoes is a passion to create a more positive image for taller bigger women who have long feet. Long held negative perceptions needed to be changed and instead move the focus onto style and looking and feeling your best.
We deliberately use pretty colours in our logo, the word Willow implies a sense of elegance and we select confident colours and styles in our range. I personally love a great high heel and to surprise our shoe suppliers by arriving at over 6ft and showing them a taller women loves fashion just like everyone else.
THE BEST SHOE STORE IN THE WORLD
In 2001 postal addresses were more important than emails and marketing meant putting flyers on windscreens at netball courts to grow our customer database. We’ve convinced more shoe-makers to make longer sizes than any other shoe store we know and can now boast the best selection of quality and latest style shoes and boots anywhere in the world for long feet. Our regular customers who travel to London, the States and Europe all tell us this. We're still small and personal, we get to know our customers and will do anything to help.
Over the years the number of jaw dropping shoe moments have grown along with a pure addiction to shoes. We appreciate and genuinely thank our supportive shoe suppliers as much as our very loyal and beautiful customers. It’s challenging building a new market and we have needed to adapt a lot in 20 years. We've navigated the demise of post and printed catalogues and embraced the rise of emails and online shopping. We've made it through untimely shoe factory closures and earthquakes.
Everyone working at Willow shoes has long feet…every single one. These wonderful woman bring passion and excitement to work every day and genuinely understand what women with longer feet need, how they feel and how our shoes fit and look...because they’re wearing them too. Each season we bring together collections of shoes that appeal to a very wide range of ages, styles and needs….all in one store. An amusing measure of our success is we’ve gone from being the envious to the envied!
Our biggest thrill comes from seeing a great pair of shoes or boots transform our customers not only on the outside, but on the inside. The variety of emotion in those moments in our stores is incredible. Tears, dancing, leaping around, shock, disbelief, love, confidence. We're often described as a candy store.
In 2020 I am now officially addicted to shoes and so are hundreds and hundreds of other women with long feet in New Zealand and Australia. I most often dress from the shoes up and love a good high heel. A favourite brand is Papucei because its unique and individual. I still work in the business and among other things, I am still the shoe buyer and its a role that I completely hopelessly totally love.