built by women: meghan cleary, founder of MeghanSAYS® shoes

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Did you know that there are less than 10 footwear companies in the United States run by women? Women purchase twice as many shoes as men yet only eleven women designers/manufacturers were represented in the Power 100? So many companies create products believing they have their customer’s best interests and sartorial desires at heart, but my dear friend, Meghan Cleary, involves her customers at every stage of the product development process and she’s one of the kindest, smartest, passionate, and funniest women I know. Meg and I met in 2006 and back then we were in the business of bringing women together (specifically in book publishing + writing) to collaborate and support one another. Every month I hosted a gathering of 50-100 women in hopes that there would be strength in numbers, and Meg’s tireless and unwavering support (from finding us spaces to bringing the coolest people into the room) marks the kind of woman she is: mentor, friend, collaborator.

It’s been formidable to witness her bloom from passionate shoe aficionado to a company owner, and when I sampled her products first-hand, not only did I love the price point ($98-$168) for the quality, her shoes were stylish and comfortable. She’s someone who I always want to celebrate and even though I took a break from posting on this space, I wanted to share with you not only her line but her verve and wisdom. Meg’s worth breaking my break (I’m still on hiatus). I hope our chat will inspire you just as much as she’s always, always inspired me. –FS

 

Felicia C. Sullivan: When I first met you, nearly a decade ago in New York, you were this ebullient force who had just published a book about shoes and was a fierce connector—you had a way of bringing smart, passionate woman in your network together that was infectious. We’re both from the east coast and I remember how we talked about our respective journeys west. What motivated you to leave New York, and what have you gained (and lost) as a result of calling Los Angeles your home.

Meghan Cleary: Well, first of all, that is so nice to hear. I remember being a part of really trying to bring women writers together with you and it was so fun. There are so many groups now like Binders doing that online it’s cool to think we were there in the beginning.

In terms of making my shift to the left coast, I had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles for about a year before I finally came out. I had a lot of friends here, and after ten years in NYC — and watching my once quaint West Village neighborhood turn into a high-end shopping mall (!) — I was craving some physical things — mainly space and light. The idea of having more space and more access to nature was a big thought — as a creative person literal, physical space can be really freeing. I was also looking for an easier lifestyle, not so much the daily schlep. Originally I was going to come out for six months and see how I liked it, but here we are eight years later! What’s interesting is how many people from NYC have made the leap. There are more of us here now than ever although I’m like don’t tell any more people how great it is — we want it all to ourselves!

In October 2008, I came out here for a TV appearance on TVGUIDE network. I was on a show called “Fashion Team”, which was a really great show about actual fashion — really well produced. One of the co-hosts who interviewed me was Lawrence Zarian. He was incredibly encouraging and took me aside after the show and told me I was one of the very few experts that came on the show who actually know what I was talking about and knew my subject matter. His words kind of planted a seed in my mind and by the end of the weekend, I was like ok, I’m coming out. It was perfect timing. My contract for consulting I had with a big bank had just ended, and I was free to go. A month later I got on a plane with my dog – it was Nov 5, 2008, the day after the election and everyone was in a really jubilant mood.

10428-1 TOGETHER(1)FS: I admire you because you navigate disparate worlds with ease. You have a background in financial writing and marketing, you are the expert in footwear –how do you balance the reality of having to be a freelancer (doing the things that pay the bills) while pursuing what gets you out of the bed in the morning (your new shoe line, MeghanSAYS®)? How do you make time for both and do you feel a sense of balance?

MC: Well, thank you so much. There are so many people like us that have to juggle and hustle. Choosing a creative life means you have to really get inventive about your income streams, learn how to manage your cash flow like a fierce businessperson and be flexible. I got really fortunate early on in that I worked in finance doing marketing and it is something I can always return to. I actually enjoy it because it is so different than my creative life – it’s very calming, in fact because it works another part of my mind and there is often a beginning, middle and end to a project. I’ve found that my natural penchant for narrative and story is extremely helpful as well in my financial consulting realm.

In terms of balance – well, I think balance is kind of bullshit. There is no balance — there’s maybe balance over the long-term but for me, it is more about figuring out how and when to expend energy. There are certain times of day I get more done in an hour than I would in three hours at another time of day. As a woman there are certain times of the month I am more creative and outgoing, some days I’m more introverted and marinating. What types of people do I spend what levels of energy with, how do I sustain energy over a long day? My biggest challenge has been allowing my body to rest when I am sick. I still find this a challenge. Especially as a creative person, if you are consulting too, you don’t get paid for missing a day. The hustle is always there in the back of your mind, and as a creative person, we are not given stability and pensions and etc. You have to make that all for yourself. Fortunately, as the workforce changes, there are a ton of resources to do so, and as I said, especially as a woman you have to get financially savvy – and it still can be challenging even then. Barbara Stanny is a great person to read about this. Also my friend Laura Shin writes a ton of helpful articles on freelancing and personal finance.

LA TimesFS: Your journey to shoe designer is amazing! Tell us how MeghanSAYS® came to be, and your vision for the debut collection and the brand.

MC: Thank you! It has been so exciting honestly. I became obsessed with shoes when I was five years old and I also wanted to be a psychologist when I was little, I started writing poetry when I was 10 and I have always loved dressing up. What I do has been kind of a weird blend of all of these things. I’m deeply interested in shoes in relation to questions about culture and identity, what they say about people. I love really spirited, fun design. Through my work as a shoe expert and listening directly to actual women, I learned there was a huge gap in the market for what women wanted in a shoe. I thought it would be fun to begin to try to meet that need in a really fun, spirited way. The collection itself came out of an offhand conversation with a friend at a holiday party – one thing led to another, and soon I had a manufacturer who was willing to underwrite the first line of samples. This is huge for a woman entrepreneur – we do not have the same type of access to capital and infrastructure that men do so it was a huge beautiful thing they were will willing to do it. My first meeting at Soho House, I brought shoes to the table literally and put them on the table – I had a very clear vision of styles I wanted, what I was thinking of. While I was talking, the woman at the next table leaned over and asked about the prototypes I had on the table — she wanted to know where to get them! I think that helped and boom! We had a line. I wanted to create shoes for women that were easy to wear and at the same time extremely fun. I don’t take the word fun lightly by the way – there’s so much in our society set up for not fun, to actually try to infuse it into things you do, and in this case, an actual product I feel is essential.

FS: I love that your line is affordable and stylish without sacrificing on quality—a rare breed in the shoe business. Is this balance a challenge (if so, how), and did you have a price range in mind for your woman going into the design and manufacturing process?

MC: I love that you called that out – it was something I thought about a lot. What I learned is that how you are able to price your product is largely based on how many shoes you can get a retailer to order and your relationship and negotiating power with a factory. It sounds totally backward I know, and you need to go into the design and sample process with an idea of where you’d like to be pricing-wise obviously, but it all comes down to how many shoes you are making. The more you make, the lower the price the factory can give you. So the more a retailer buys, the better pricing you can give them and, in turn, the customer. You also have to figure in margins for your manufacturer and yourself. I got incredibly lucky that the manufacturer I partnered with has amazing relationships with factories and was able to get the pricing we wanted. Although in order to keep the flat under $100 I took a huge margin hit. I have practically no margin on the flat but I was adamant I did not want them to be over $100.

FS: What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

MC: I was surprised and honestly I am always surprised when I set out to make a product – making actual physical things gives you a whole new appreciation for how things get created from a sketch to on someone’s feet. All this year I literally go into a shop and am like wow – can you believe this glass was made wherever it was made, and now it is here on this shelf and I can buy it! How amazing! Seriously, the amount of things that have to come together to make a thing, and then get that thing into the store, seems like a Sisyphean task. But it happens! It all happens and comes together. You wouldn’t think you would get so excited about supply chain or shipping logistics, but you do! Again my manufacturer has a huge infrastructure already set up so for me to plug in was amazing – and still it was full of surprises even though it’s a well-oiled machine. That’s just the nature of making THINGS.

FS: I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner or hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

MC: I think honestly the only thing I regret is spending ANY time on worrying or what my brilliant friend Vanessa McGrady calls future tripping. It is a natural part and parcel of being an artist to have fear, anxiety, dread and resistance come up. It’s only now I feel like NO! I do not want to spend time dragging myself into that pit like I have spent too much time doing that. Saying that, I also have a very fearless side of myself as well. I don’t really listen when I hear naysayers and I have a special penchant for just doing things. Like ok, that sounds fun, I’m gonna do that. I do. That’s how I wrote a pilot last year and how I started a shoe line. Literally because well, why not?

My godson Daniel is the cutest; he calls me a “possibilitarian”. I try to stay in that zone so my only regret is when I’m out of that zone and I spend any time out of it.

FS: Have you endured any challenges building a business as a woman? How did you manage them?

85653-24A BLACK-2MC: I think the challenges I face as a woman are extremely subtle and some not so subtle. I am a white, college-educated woman, so I have a certain amount of privilege in the world and ease with which I can navigate the world. Saying that, I know that because of income inequality, I have not earned as much as my male counterparts, and I am a pretty fierce negotiator, so I certainly probably have come close but over time I could have probably earned more as a man. Also, women are just not given the same financial tools and information from a young age as many men are. I remember I had a great boss at one of the banks I worked at and I asked him how should I invest my money and he was like just park it in a money market – because it was assumed I would get married. He didn’t say get fierce with your 401K, and use it to try and buy real estate or learn about stocks — it was kind of like ok, honey just put it there — and he was an amazing guy who I looked up to in so many ways. I think had I more financial savvy I would be further along. When I first read Barbara Stanny’s Prince Charming’s Not Coming — it opened my eyes about how I think about the ambiguous “future” when it comes to finance. We all sometimes have magical thinking when it comes to money. I’ve gotten very savvy over the years, but still could be so much savvier.

Then there are real, logistical and institutional issues — women do not have the same access as men to capital and financing. And if you are entering a male-dominated business, oftentimes it’s difficult to make the relationships necessary to take the business forward. Factories, sourcing, etc are usually male-dominated so you have to partner up with people or find other ways to convince people to work with you. Capital is the lifeblood of businesses especially when making a product so to not have that access can cripple you early on.

In terms of how I managed these issues, honestly, I just plow ahead. I don’t think about it too much. I find that in a lot of cases, passion, enthusiasm and having a clear vision resonates with people and they will take a chance with you. You only need like one person to get on board.

FS: Who/What has inspired you along the way and why?

MC: So many people. My mom taught me how to work things out and hustle. We got hit by a recession in Michigan when I was little and she was always super resourceful and taught me the same skills. Very handy for creatives! My auntie Mary who did my logo for MeghanSAYS® and all my illustrations for my Shoe Are You?® book and web series. My aunt Kit who had the awesomest shoe collection ever and was a major businesswoman and marketer. My dad who always finds some kind of humor in every situation. He loves to throw in “slingback pump” into any conversation because now he knows what that is! My brother who always is super hilarious. Funny is a big thing in my life and I can giggle my face off with all these people. My boyfriend Tim is one of my major sounding boards. He works in entertainment so he totally gets the creative side of things and is always a huge proponent of just going for the creativity full on.  My BFF in New York, Sarah, who I call the The Rabbi, always tells it like it is. And my BFF in LA, Vanessa, who is always down for blowing up the fear. Jason Campbell who always pushes me to look at design and style in new ways. I also belong to an extraordinary writing group who I call The Pod run by David Hochman — they are my secret superpower group.

FS: What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding shoe/manufacturing-related ventures?

MC:
1. Don’t quit your day job/Quit your day job. What I mean by this is keep your sources of revenue flowing, but try not to get too caught up in the daily grind of a j-o-b. Like the office politics, etc. Keep it light, keep it observational, positive. You need to keep your psychic space to create so don’t spend it on office blah blah blah.
2. Learn how to manage cash flow and what that is!
3. Be flexible.
4. Lose the shame in working a day job! People get so wrapped up in appearances. I’ve found most of my day job people are my biggest supporters! I’m always very appropriate when revealing what I do in addition to my regular work, you have to feel it out at your particular workplace, but once you tell people you’d be surprised how many people want to be your cheerleader. Because you are doing the risky thing, the thing many are afraid to do. It doesn’t feel courageous sometimes but it is.

Regarding footwear – wow – that’s a whole other interview! I’ve learned a lot but I’d say in the end it all comes down to product and your factory. You want a great factory that wants to make the best product for you – especially because in my case my actual name is on it!

FS: What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

MC:
• Burt’s Bees lip balm
• I TRY to meditate – don’t always get there but I try
• Petting and walking my dog – best oxytocin booster ever!

FS Most importantly, which of your shoes do we absolutely NEED in our closet and what is your favorite of the collection?

MC: The ballet flat!!! Seriously you can have one in every color – it is so comfortable, perfect travel shoe and just the chic-est shoe around IMHO. Makes every foot look amazing from size 5 to size 11. The denim is beyond, the floral is super punchy, the b/w gingham I wear literally every day though now I am alternating it with the blush sparkle microsuede because I just fell in love with that one too!

 

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All images courtesy of Meghan Cleary. 

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the evolution of an address

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You can’t possibly know how much I struggled with posting this photograph on this space. I abhor having my photo taken because it feels like a physical distraction. We all make unconscious judgments and assumptions based on what we see; we assess the superficial: Is she pretty? Is she the “right” weight? And we speculate and place value judgments on the deeply superficial: Who makes that dress? How can she afford it? Suddenly, what we see becomes an extension of our mirrored selves, and we forget about the person behind the photograph. I’ve been guilty of this having stared at photographs of myself over the years and thinking, What was I thinking? I was too thin. How did I look like I was happy when I was far from fine? Is it possible for a lens to freeze-frame a lie? And so on.

For the great deal of my life my style was a mimicry of those who surrounded me. When I was a teeanger, I wore clothing several sizes too large and striped shirts from The Gap. In college, I wore tight shirts under flannels, Doc Martens and baseball hats. In my twenties, I was obsessed with Anthropologie, and anything that carried the stench of luxury. In my early thirties I still erroneously believed that expensive clothing gave you what you lacked. It wasn’t until I gained the most weight I’ve ever sustained on my frame did I have to sit back and think about fit, comfort, and more importantly, what I liked.

Believe me when I say that I’m the very definition of low maintenance. I don’t wear makeup, save for a swipe of lipstick or I’d otherwise be mistaken for the dead. I walk fast and find heels to be a cruel form of sartorial torture. No, I’m not interested in blisters, scabs, and bloodletting simply for the sake of appearing fashionable. For whom? For what? And more importantly, WHY??!!! If something looks complicated in assembly or wear, I run screaming in the other direction. I’m too old for drama; I don’t need my clothes to exhaust me.

Although I slowly lost the weight I’d gained, I learned to dress for my body. I’m a freelancer who’s no longer tethered to office attire. I’m petite. I will always have a sizeable chest (grr) and curves, and some cuts/looks, while beautiful in theory, are hazardous in practice.

I’m also moving to an anti sweater-weather state, so there’s that.

This year I donated and gifted bags of clothing, shoes, and accessories. I’ve pared down to only what I love and need. I’ve no multiples. I’ve discarded all of the clothes from my 20s when my size was a negative integer (I assure you those were not halcyon days) and I’d forsaken comfort for trendiness. Now, my uniform consists mostly of v-neck drapey tees with cardigans and fitted pants, or dresses that nip/dart at the waist. You’ll almost always find me in flats or sporty sneakers, and I care less about the label and more about the quality of the garment. I LOATHE shopping (reason: people) and clutter (reason: anxiety; I’ll have to pay to move all this crap) so the idea that I won’t have to enter a store or deal with an online return gives me an insurmountable amount of joy.

I want to feel comfortable and somewhat stylish but I don’t want to overthink it.

For the first time in forever I’m wearing white and color. I picked up this dress over the weekend and I’ve already worn it twice. Although I have to wear this with a slip (I got a Commando full-body slip on a recommendation, but I hate it because it rides up), this is probably the most comfortable and AIRY item of clothing I own.

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s California-ready!

Photo snapped by my sweet friend, Alyssa, before we had…ALL OF THIS!

cheeseburger at Upland, NYC
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love.life.eat. of the week: a woman refuels

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This week really wiped me out. So much so that I left a workout class early last night because all I wanted to do was crawl home, shower, and hide under the covers–resting in complete and utter silence. It occurs to me that I can never work full-time because the idea of being in an office five days a week until the end of days is, quite frankly, the end of days. Not that I don’t love being around inspiring, smart people — it’s just that I need a break from them, OFTEN, and the weekend is simply not enough. Thursdays are my quiet time, when I clean my apartment {believe it or not, cleaning gives me great joy}, catch up on my favorite podcasts and blogs, and indulge in really simple beauty regimens.

I don’t shop all that often because I fervently believe that clutter and excess induce anxiety, and I never want to feel defined by the things that I own. What I buy either tends to be functional {a need}, food for the brain {books, art, trips}, or minor indulgences that allow me to rejuvenate and refuel, blissfully {candles, a single cozy linen shirt}. Since I haven’t purchased an article of clothing in about a year–safe my workout gear and a few pairs of pants for office wear–I realized I had to add some foundations to my wardrobe. Hence, my mini massacre at Madewell.

And by massacre, I mean I bought five things. I have this linen sweater in two colors. It’s lightweight, with clean linens and drapes beautifully over pants and skirts. Plus, it’s NOT see-through, which appears to be ubiquitous this season. I also stocked up in this tee in two colors, since it layers perfectly under jackets and cardigans and feels seasonless for me–and it serves as a wonderful complement to this enamel link bracelet, which I wear on the regular. Finally, I normally run around the city in my workout clothes, and these comfy linen pants are SO SOFT and SO BLUE.

I have to thank Grace Atwood for being a Tata Harper pusher. Yes, their products are A MILLION DOLLARS. I got insane sticker shock at the register, and GULPED, however, I really, really, really love their products. I started out with the moisturizer and secretly swore that I’d impale Grace if it didn’t work. Luckily, I feel in love with the moisturizer after a few weeks of use and have since invested in the Regenerating Cleanser, the gift that keeps on giving. I love the fact that Harper’s products are made mindfully, formulated and packaged in the U.S., and make my skin glow. At this point, I’m hesitant to use anything else.

So essentially, I have to keep working to pay off my Tata Harper habit. SIGH.

Finally, as I’m refueling from the past three days, which were filled with meetings, plans, outlines, etc, etc, etc, I’m burning this Scents of Land Jasmine Candle while listening to this podcast, RIGHT NOW.

And by the way, I’m going to SPAIN this fall. Very excited.

the dress I’ll be wearing all. summer. long.

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Truth be told, I’m not very fashionable. The idea of shopping {the crowds, the quality, the ever-changing sizes} gives me vertigo, and I very much prefer to live in a uniform. Over the past year, I’ve pared down my wardrobe considerably, and I’ve about 10 items I wear on rotation, pretty regularly, and nothing, nothing, has made me happier. Not only do I not have to deal with the waste of money and fabric, but I wear items I truly love and pieces which have considerable versatility and quality. And it’s not a shock, as exhibited by the color palette here, that I tend to wear neutrals and blue. In fact, nearly all of my wardrobe is blue — this outfit may very well be the exception.

I can’t tell you how much I LOVE THIS DRESS. I adore the soft fabric, the swing of the dress, and the fact that I can eat a huge bowl of pasta and no one would notice. I plan to wear this dress at least once a week, and it’s perfect paired with heels and a jacket for work, or for errands around the city in my Supergas. Believe me when I say that I want to SLEEP in this dress, it’s that comfortable.

Outfit Details: Dress: Puella @ Anthropologie | Jacket: Paul Smith {old} | Necklaces: J. Crew {old} | Glitter Flats: J. Crew {old, but I’d recommend Grace Atwood’s lovely collaboration with Matt Bernson} | Leather Tote: Robert Leather Factory, Firenze {$100}

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luxe firenze find: roberta leather factory

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It’s rare that you’ll find my talking about fashion or clothing on this space, as it’s not a huge part of my life anymore, however, I do believe in making smart investments on beautiful, quality items that will go the distance. Truth be told, I actually loathe shopping. From the crowds to the nauseating dressing room lights to brands who change their sizing annually, I experience nothing short of vertigo whilst trying to purchase a shirt. To that end, I’ve spent this year editing my wardrobe to have only the things I love, only the things I need, only the things that fit.

Then I went to Florence. Initially, I was set against buying anything beyond truffle oil and some antique cups, but then I met a very chic, elderly French woman who had the most sumptuous leather bag. She whispered that it was from Roberta and it was only $110 EU.

How fast plans change.

If you’re in Florence, you must stop at Roberta. A small shop just over the Ponte Vecchio, you’ll find excellent leather at extraordinary prices. I picked up a black leather tote, lined in suede, for $100 EU. Scored lambskin gloves for $25 EU. Not once have I used my Celine, opting for this simple, label-less tote that holds EVERYTHING.

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