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How this entrepreneur became the shoe designer for Beyoncé and Lady Gaga

The legendary British fashion designer Alexander McQueen said, “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.”

That’s precisely how shoe designer Ruthie Davis has been able to create such a successful brand, which turns 10 years old this year. Her high-heeled statement pieces are favorites of celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato and Christina Milian.

Most designers come from a traditional fashion track, working as a designer for a label after graduating from an art school like Parsons or London College of Fashion. But Davis did not start her career in high fashion or editorial. Instead, she got her MBA in entrepreneurship from Babson College. She took her first job in California, managing a design and marketing team at Reebok (ADS.DE). But she quickly outgrew the role.

“I realized I had better ideas that were making more money than what the designers were creating, so I made the conscious decision to steer myself more in the design route,” Davis says.

Her next role was at Ugg Australia (DECK) — where she found herself in a hybrid designer/marketer role. Davis was at the forefront of transforming Ugg from an outdoor retail product targeted at surfers to a “more East Coast friendly, luxury, fashion-forward product.” While at Ugg, she knew she wanted to create her own brand and was ready to quit her day job to pursue her passion. Until Tommy Hilfiger (PVH) gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

One day, Davis was returning from a business trip to Brazil. Exhausted, she hopped on a phone call with her husband, who asked her a single question that was a pivotal turning point in her life: Is your goal to be the CEO of Tommy Hilfiger or to be Tommy Hilfiger?

“Tommy Hilfiger, of course,” she told him. It was at that moment she knew it was time to make plans to launch her brand.

Davis describes her shoe as the lovechild of a classic, high-fashion Manolo Blahnik and a Nike sneaker. “My whole idea was to take the modernism, the comfort, pop colors, and sizzle of a brand-new pair of athletic shoes and marinate that with the elegance, fierceness, and edginess of an incredible dress shoe,” she says.

Ruthie Davis sketch & shoe
Ruthie Davis sketch & shoe

Davis sells her shoes directly to consumers online and in select boutiques. A pair of Ruthies cost a pretty penny — ranging from $595 to $1,248.

She says her shoes aren’t for everyone, and that’s intentional. “Ruthies have a very specific look. I’m a small independent label,” she says. “I can’t be everything to everybody because then I would be nothing to anybody. I’ve never been a mass appeal look; I didn’t get into the business to do that.”

Ruthie Davis still controls her brand; she has one silent investor who owns 10% of the company. “A brand like this needs a lot of nurturing — you need to have control in the beginning. I’ve been very careful about how I’ve kept the brand very lean. But to take it to the next level, am I ever going to have to expand and add more investors? Absolutely,” she says.

Because of her background in business, Davis has been confident in her decision to keep the company so independent. Though she has been approached by various companies interested in acquiring the brand, she says she has yet to find the perfect fit.

“I’ve had offers, but they would have expected too much, and I don’t think I was ready,” she says. “I didn’t want to put that pressure on the brand.”

She says she is profitable enough to support her handful of employees, many of whom are independent contractors, based both domestically and overseas.

“It’s very difficult to be uber-profitable in a luxury label because the costs are so high and collections are so expensive to create. Neiman Marcus won’t come visit a home office. We can’t afford an ad in Vogue Magazine,” she says.

So, how has Ruthie Davis been able to thrive in a luxury shoe market dominated by legacy brands like Christian Louboutin, Chanel, and Gucci?

Social media. “We’re on Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr — we do it all. They’re a huge vehicle for us. I basically don’t say no to anything,” she says.

She says she hasn’t had to pay bloggers and influencers to market her shoes because celebrity influencers have shown interest in her brand from day one. According to Davis, celebrities find out about her brand through social media and their stylists who are always looking for a unique, eye-catching accessory for red carpet events or performances.

“When it comes to girls on the red carpet or performers on stage or on television, they want to stand out,” she says. “There aren’t that many brands that you can go to to look really really special. They don’t want to be like everybody else. This brand is a great one to come to for that.”

Apart from social media, Davis says as a design brand, she’s challenged to keep her look fresh and inspired every day. The best way to do that has been to partner with other companies.

She’s collaborating with Universal Studios Illumination this fall and Home Shopping Network (HSN) next year.

“We’ve built tremendous brand equity equity and I feel we’re at the tipping point now,” she says. “Companies see the value of Ruthie Davis. They want Ruthie to design something for them.”

In October, she’s launching her own apparel line through Designow, a startup that’s helping take designers’ ideas from design sketch to reality. Though she’s taken on an ambassador role to mentor younger designers fresh out of art school, she’s working with Designow for her new line because it’s her first foray into apparel — a tough industry with high barriers to entry.

Despite the challenges in staying a competitive market, Davis says she’s optimistic about her company’s future.

“I see Ruthie Davis evolving into a fashion-entertainment brand. I’m not sure what exactly it will look like, but whether it’s collaborating with Universal Studios or me being a judge on a TV show or getting involved with reality TV, I’m embracing pop culture,” she says.

One thing is clear — Ruthie Davis and her shoes are one in the same: bright, passionate and fearless.

Melody Hahm is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Read more of her work:
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