Eco Shoes to the Rescue
Stephanie Fryslie, founder of footwear brand Nicora Johns, hopes to breathe new life into the shoe industry.
Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project
For nearly two decades, footwear has held a certain fascination for 32-year-old Stephanie Fryslie. But not in the Carrie Bradshaw sense.
“I’ve been hanging out at shoe repair shops and repairing my own shoes since high school,” says the founder of unisex shoe brand Nicora Johns.
Though Fryslie, who hails from Northern California and is now based in Los Angeles, has long had a love affair with everyone’s favorite accessory, her interest is rooted less in the latest trends than in the art of building something lasting by hand.
“I’m not coming from the fashion side,” she explains. “A lot of people come from the fashion schools. I’m coming from the blue-collar, bottom-up.” Lending credibility to this statement, Fryslie has spent the past year working side-by-side with fellow shoemakers in the factory where Nicora Johns shoes are produced.
“These shoes,” she marvels, “they last. They don’t just fall apart. Consumers have become accustomed to cheap products, throw-aways they thoughtlessly replace. We don’t see our shoes that way. We build them to be better.”
The Nicora Johns aesthetic—minimalist, contemporary and, depending on the pair, appealingly androgynous—aligns with any wearer’s style, be it modest or adventurous. Fryslie’s debut line of six customizable designs are on offer through her current Kickstarter campaign, which concludes August 17. (Get a feel for the footwear on Nicora Johns’ Instagram, which via vivid photographs conveys the brand’s DNA.)
But perhaps it’s the story behind how these made-to-order shoes get from blueprint to buyer that most sets Fryslie and her company apart.
How it Started – A So-Called Incurable Disease, An Unstoppable Spirit
Despite her adolescent obsession with shoes, Fryslie went on to study accounting at SJSU, followed by studies in the music industry at SFSU. Working close to home for a few years, she later took a job in Los Angeles, moving there in 2009. “I came to L.A. for work,” she says of the relocation. “I had a high paying job in the music business.”
Fryslie speaks in the past tense and refrains from specifics because, shortly after returning from medical leave in 2011, she was dismissed from her position.
Fryslie fell ill in 2009 with what was deemed to be an incurable autoimmune disease. “I almost died,” she says without a hint of hyperbole. Thoracic endometriosis caused her lungs to collapse and demanded four separate surgeries over the course of two years.
“It was rough,” she recalls. “No one knew what to do with me, because it’s so rare.”
Long story short, Fryslie cured herself through diet (meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free) and “tons of vitamins, all day long,” rejecting prescription medication altogether. She maintains this regimen today. “They told me I’d be sick forever,” she says. “But I’m not. I’m healthy and haven’t had a relapse in over a year.”
While in recovery, Fryslie’s head and heart wandered back to shoes. “You get kinda bored,” she says of being bedridden, which served to stoke her imagination more. “Next thing I remember, I was online finding an apprenticeship. I thought to myself, I’m going to see how hard it is to get professionally trained in shoemaking.”
Feeling much improved, she enrolled at a trade school in Oregon. The rest, as they say, is history. She’d been bitten (again) by the shoe bug and, in 2011, she made it her mission to break into the industry.
Daring to Dream, Sustainably
“Not using leather was my first big choice,” Fryslie asserts. “It seems so absurd that anyone still uses it. It makes zero sense.”
While her diet is plant-based due to her health, it’s also absent of animal products for ecological reasons. This commitment permeates all areas of her life, including—and perhaps most especially—her entrepreneurial endeavors.
“Not utilizing leather became more than a personal preference,” she starts. “It’s one of the most polluting commodities on the planet. Even traditional leather workers agree it’s not viable. There’s no shoemaker who will tell you leather is ‘eco.’ They know it’s not. But it’s soft and supple and people love it. It sells.”
Lamenting landfill buildup, tannery runoff and other offenses, Fryslie continues, “The ‘cost’ of natural resources to manufacture something from leather is billions times worse than what it’s worth.”
“If I can have a positive impact on this dirty industry, then that’s worthwhile. And if it takes me 10 years, fine. Somebody has to do it.”
The Synthetics Solution
Leather, luckily, isn’t one’s only option.
“Synthetics can be as porous as leather, as soft as leather, as strong as leather and you can get them wet,” Fryslie enthuses. “It’s just an attitude that needs to change. Changing minds takes time.”
To go faux, so-to-speak, is a no-brainer, she reasons. “These products are superior to leather and they take so much less energy to produce—a microscopic proportion of what leather demands. That’s the future.”
But manmade materials require resources and, admittedly, can promote pollution, too. So, how does Fryslie account for that challenge? It’s an improvement, but not perfect.
That’s where the local leg comes in.
“I know where my materials come from,” Fryslie beams. “We have relationships with our suppliers. We know how everything’s made. And the chemicals, for example, which go into the polyurethane coating, are all from the U.S.” Translation: stringent environmental standards.
Fryslie rests easy knowing Nicora Johns is American made, putting people to work with fair wages and ensuring the planet doesn’t pay for our collective fetish for footwear. But, she’s up against some significant setbacks.
“The infrastructure for shoemaking is completely wiped out here,” she observes. “That I can actually make this work, and revive a dying—neigh, essentially dead—industry is phenomenal.”
A Gap in the Market, Job Creation & Salvaging a Craft
“Green manufacturing is saving a lot of jobs,” Fryslie points out. “It’s real in the United States. It’s working in other industries. So, why not the shoe industry?”
“What if we do greener production than anyone? Prove it down to the eyelets? That would make us stand out in the world. That’s my plan,” she promises.
Ensuring everything she uses for her shoes is environmentally sound and made by U.S. citizens—ideally also those previously employed in the field—Fryslie is determined to revitalize a once booming business.
“An American craft just disappeared completely,” she says of the industry’s mass exodus, to places like China. “These people are highly skilled. They’re artists! And then the jobs went away. It’s sad.”
Intimately familiar with what it takes to assemble shoes, she explains: “Shoemaking is a largely handmade process: the seams, the sewing, the pattern-making, the lasting. It’s intricate. It’s involved.” Because of this, Fryslie sees the vocation as both rewarding as well as potentially profitable. “It brings pleasure,” she says. “It’s satisfying work.”
It’s her optimistic position that those without jobs and those seeking fulfillment in what they do are two groups that could directly benefit from her vision. “This isn’t reinventing the wheel,” she adds, aptly. “This is something people are already spending $20 billion a year on. And that’s just Americans. If Americans bought all-American shoes, there would be hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Staying True to Her Ethos & What’s to Come
“You know when you’re doing the right thing? The answers start showing up. Investors are showing up, consultants are showing up. We’re on the right track. It’s going to happen.”
Fryslie is confident—thanks in large part to those “showing up”—that these shoes sell themselves. A successful Kickstarter is a good look and builds buzz, but it won’t make or break Nicora Johns.
“I can help the U.S. shoe industry do something different,” she states. “The old way is not the future.”
Climate change, she stresses, confirms the fact that we’re dropping the proverbial ball. “Global warming is real. Ice caps are really melting. Humans are really causing it. Everything makes me think now is the time. This is a good idea now. It’s urgent.”
So, what’s the greater goal? Footwear factories that leave a lighter footprint.
“If we raise the bar, creating 100 percent eco shoe factories across the country—and everything that goes into the shoes is accounted for—then we can say these shoes are genuinely eco.”
“And,” she avows, “We don’t care if it ends up being like a co-op, where there’s no crazy profit margin. As long as everybody’s taken care of and our materials are the highest quality and we’re doing all-green production, that’s good enough.”
Nell Alk’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Essential Homme Magazine and Z!NK Magazine, and on RollingStone.com, InterviewMagazine.com and BlackBookMag.com, among other print and online publications. She lives in New York City.