With her favorite companions, husband David and dog Bijou, at her side, Joan Helprin launches into her favorite topic--her customers. To Helprin, the internationally renowned designer of Joan and David shoes, her customers are wonderful people.
"I design shoes for the achieving woman," she says. "The woman who does many things and does them well. Women who like fashion, but don't make fashion the most important thing in their lives."
Helprin's customers are professional women who juggle many things in their lives--careers, children and philanthropy. They need shoes that are as elegant and versatile as they are.
"These women run through airports. They want comfortable things that can go from outside to air-conditioned rooms; things they can wear from Paris to Costa Mesa and still feel comfortable in. They want beauty, but it's not the end all."
Rich leather ankle boots and low-heeled oxfords in exotic colors and materials (Helprin has used ostrich, crocodile and burnished calf) are Joan and David trademarks. Prices range from $100 to $600. Although the company has marketed myriad styles, the customers consistently flock to the oxfords and the leather lace-up boots.
Over the last 20 years, those loyal customers have catapulted Helprin, who runs the company with her husband, to the pinnacle of shoe retailers. With seven lines for men, women and children that include some 900 styles in hundreds of shoe departments and freestanding stores throughout the world, the former social scientist is now among the nation's top businesswomen (ranked 24th in the country by SAVVY magazine). Together, they run a $100-million-a-year business.
On a whirlwind romp through California this week to open two new stores, one at South Coast Plaza and one in San Francisco, the Helprins paused long enough to discuss the shoe business and what makes their products unique.
"We make up everything to order so that we can be a little more adventuresome without being wild," says Helprin, whose company is based in Italy. "We really are not terribly trendy. What we are is fashion oriented."
As Helprin talks, her eyes twinkle. It's evident she's having a wonderful time. The diminutive designer with the silver hair and kindly face seems to enjoy every aspect of her professional life.
"You know, in a factory it's not so glamorous," she says. "But going around talking about shoes is wonderful. You're made to feel like a queen for a day or two. But even the factories are wonderful. The Italian workers do everything in the world to make us happy."
It was a great leap from academia, where Helprin earned degrees from Hunter College and Columbia University, to avant-garde shoe design. While taking post-graduate courses at Harvard in the 1960s, Helprin met David, who was then chairman of Suburban Shoe Stores in Chicago. As a social scientist in the field of child development, she directed pupil personnel services for the Lexington, Mass., Public Schools. But soon, the shoe business beckoned.
"It was terrible giving all that up," Helprin says of her academic career. "I really believed I was going to change the world."
And then she did, or at least its footwear. While she was studying for a doctorate, she accompanied her husband on a trip to select shoes for his stores. She didn't like any of the shoes available and said they categorized women as sex objects ("sex-driven shoes," she calls them). She believed she could do better and started designing them herself.
Her simple, elegant shoes made of luxurious materials in off-beat colors have become classic accessories for women. The company has branched out over the years, into belts, bags, a line of men's shoes called David and Joan, and ready-to-wear sportswear licensed by GFT (which manufactures for Armani and Valentino, among others).
When the Helprins launched the Joan and David lines, the couple worked with American manufacturers. But they found labor costs too high and factories unable to switch styles frequently and retain a custom quality.
"They are really artisans there," Helprin says of the Italian manufacturers. "They have a history of craftsmanship."
When she first started working with the Italian factory managers, however, the men had trouble dealing with a woman telling them how she wanted her shoes made. They wanted to speak with her husband, who handles the business and finances of the operation while his wife oversees all the designing and manufacturing.
"They loved me, because I'm warm and friendly and at that time about 200 pounds thinner," says the 1978 Coty award winner. "But they wouldn't look me in the eye. Now, of course, that's all changed."
Like her shoes, Helprin is elegant and understated. She describes both herself and her shoes as "subtle, strong and made of fine quality."