Nisolo Shoes: Challenging Labor Practices and Traditional Design

If you’re one kind of customer, you’ll look at a pair of Nisolo shoes and see minimal lines over a stacked leather heel, a silhouette that’s simple enough to take you from work to an outdoor music festival on a crisp night in Nashville.

If you’re another kind of customer, you’ll focus on the stitching details around the tongue, wondering about the artisan shoemaker in Peru who, not long ago, held a piece of waxed suede in their hands and turned it into something beautiful. You may wince a little and wonder if that artist was paid what they’re worth.

Nisolo—the Spanish translation of “never alone”—is a radically ethical slow-fashion company that moves just a beat quicker than its peers. And to a growing number of American consumers who are tired of compromising their conscience every time they buy a great pair of shoes, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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The unique shoe company is the brainchild of co-founders Patrick Woodyard and Zoe Cleary, whose vision for Nisolo is as thoughtful and singular as their designs. But that doesn’t mean that their path to building their brand was clear every step of the way.

The story starts in Trujillo, Peru, where Woodyard lived after spending a few years neck-deep in undergraduate global economics and business classes at Ole Miss. As a student, he’d discovered two passions that aren’t always known for being compatible: entrepreneurship and ending intergenerational poverty. Summers in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and East Africa had shown him how easily families could be trapped in cycles of labor exploitation; meanwhile, his business textbooks were teaching him economic principles that he knew could just as easily be used to exploit workers.

“After I graduated, the plan was always to go to business school,” Woodyard says. “But I knew I wanted to first take some time off and work in a Spanish-speaking country, in a similar field to where I’d worked before. So I moved to Peru, and I got a job with a microfinance organization.”

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That microfinance job brought him to the home of a woman named Doris, who was working to support a family largely on the income from a convenience store she ran out of her living room. “One day I was working with her, helping to balance her books, and all of a sudden, there was all this noise going on in the back of her house,” Woodyard remembers. “She let me know that her husband was a shoemaker, and he was working back there. So I went back and met her husband, Willan, and I was just blown away by the shoes he was making. They looked like handmade leather dress shoes from Italy, and this was in a very humble home on the outskirts of the city.”

The only thing more astonishing to Woodyard than Willan’s talent was the scale of the family’s troubles. “They really were operating in pretty unsafe working conditions and only making pennies,” Woodyard says. “They struggled to provide for their four sons.” The microfinance firm could assist the family in the short term, but he began to wonder whether there might be a more lasting way to help Doris and Willan—and create a business that had the potential to show the rest of the fashion industry that perpetuating poverty in places like Peru wasn’t simply the price we pay for style.

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Meanwhile on another continent, Cleary was having a reckoning of her own. Fresh off a master’s degree in fashion merchandising at LIM College, she’d dove headfirst into New York City’s design world, working for fashion companies valued in the billions. But she also found herself in the midst of conversations that troubled her. “I struggled sitting in on meetings and hearing the discussions about needing to negotiate shaving pennies off of already very low landed costs from our factories in Vietnam and China,” Cleary says. “I started questioning some of the practices that were very normal in fashion companies.”

Cleary hadn’t entered the fashion world to participate in the mistreatment of strangers an ocean away. She’d fallen in love with design, in part, because she’d seen firsthand at a young age how fashion could transform lives for the better, even at the lowest reaches of the supply chain. “After college, my best friend and I started a swimsuit company working with small-scale seamstresses in Mexico,” she says. “It gave me my first glimpse at empowerment through job creation; I watched our head seamstress build her family a new kitchen in their home from the money she earned making our swimsuits.”

After some soul-searching, Cleary decided to take the leap out of the high-dollar design world and into the universe of ethical fashion. And that was right around the time a close friend introduced her to a college classmate who was working in microfinance in Peru. He had a crazy idea: to start his own shoe company.

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That college friend, of course, was Woodyard—and after selling off her furniture in New York, Cleary got on a plane to Trujillo, Peru, in June of 2011. Fast forward to today, and she and Woodyard lead a Nashville-headquartered business that’s doubled almost every year since its inception and currently employs roughly 400 people from Peru to Kenya to Mexico, all while building a brand that’s quickly becoming synonymous with classic shoes and accessories that work with virtually any item in your closet.

Many of their customers don’t realize the depth of the Nisolo story. That’s because after its first few years, the Nisolo team had an uncomfortable realization: that they were putting the story of their process over their product, and it was hurting their sales. “If you went to our homepage, you’d see pictures of the shoemakers below every product, a bit of a story of how each shoe was made,” Woodyard remembers.

“Obviously, I think that’s great, but ultimately, we began to recognize that when you market yourself that way, there’s a customer that starts to question the integrity of the product itself; your shoes start to feel more like a giveback product than a product that’s great intrinsically.”

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It was a painful revelation for a CEO who came to fashion through microfinance. But Woodyard recognized that Nisolo could keep ethical production central to their mission only if they succeeded in a competitive marketplace—and if they wanted to achieve their larger vision of influencing other fashion brands, they needed to make not just the best slow-fashion shoes out there, but your favorite pair of oxfords or chukka boots, period.

“You can have high-quality products and also compete from a price-point perspective, but at the same time really treat people and the planet in the same way that you treat your end consumer,” Woodyard says. “And it’s not that expensive for us to do that.”

“I’m excited about the day when a company doesn’t have to be one or the other—where fashion brands are innately ethically minded—where this can be an assumption because it is the norm,” Cleary adds. “Those people who go deeper into our brand can, and they become our best brand champions.”

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So what would you see if you went deeper into Nisolo’s process? You’d see that the shoemaker Woodyard met in that back room in Trujillo, Willan, is now a factory supervisor. You’d see workers who have seen an average 120 percent pay increase since coming to work for Nisolo, according to Woodyard—143 percent for women—launching not just workers but whole families into better lives. He’s particularly proud of the fact that 100 percent of the children of workers in Nisolo-owned factories are currently enrolled in school, in countries where many children are forced to abandon their education to enter the workforce. He’s even seen Nisolo’s earliest employees, like Willan, send their children on to university. And he reports that 100 percent of those college students are the first in their families ever to attend.

“What we’re focused on is, ‘How do we break this cycle of poverty?’” Woodyard says. “We know that most workers in the fashion industry don’t earn a living wage, that 1 out of every 6 people works in the fashion industry in the entire world. We know that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries. I look at that, and I don’t just see brokenness—I see the potential for change.”

But Cleary and Woodyard realized that change wouldn’t be achieved simply by raising wages. “I saw this firsthand about a year after starting Nisolo, when I visited the home of one of Nisolo’s founding shoemakers in Trujillo and learned about a loan that he had recently acquired from a loan shark,” Cleary remembers. “Not only had he acquired this high-interest-rate loan, but he had spent it all on a home remodeling that he could not afford—he was only 50 percent through the building of his house, and now he could not pay the monthly payments on the loan and didn’t have a completed home to live in.”

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It was dark echo of what Cleary had seen that seamstress in Mexico achieve during her bathing-suit-designing days. So the team resolved to be better. They started offering financial-education classes to their workers and began asking a deeper set of questions about their needs beyond a fair wage alone. “Our programming has evolved to also offer trainings on healthy eating; how to utilize the company-sponsored health care plan; physical fitness; how to reduce stress; free technical trainings; weekly English classes; and discounts with partner university programs to encourage professional development and ongoing educational opportunities,” Cleary says. They pursued similar programs when the company outgrew their Peruvian factory; Woodyard says they learned even more from the ethical manufacturing facilities they partner with in Mexico and Kenya.

It’s a refreshingly holistic response in a slow-fashion industry that’s sometimes surprisingly slow to evolve their initial goals. “I do think there’s been a hard push in the industry towards more sustainability. We’re not speaking some bizarre language anymore,” Woodyard says. He credits that evolution in large part to consumers, who have become more aware of how powerful their choice of where to spend their money can be. “People are starting to realize it’s cool to be a good person, I guess,” he laughs.

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Or maybe they’ve simply realized that you can have your cake and eat it, too. With responsible brands like Nisolo making covetable shoes at accessible prices, the decision to support fair labor and environmental practices is easier than it’s been in human history.

And it will get even easier as Nisolo continues to innovate and push their design sensibilities just as hard as they’re pushing for better supply-chain practices. Cleary, who recently began splitting her time between Nashville and Ojai, California, says she “can feel the exposure to the beauty of untouched nature [in my new home] inspiring my design work. The colors in particular are so perfect in their subtle, raw and becoming way … I also feel a pull toward functionality and authenticity—waxed suedes and rubber soles that hold up to weather and are comfortable to travel in while still looking good.”

In 20 years, we might live in a world where every owner is like Woodyard and Cleary, and every shoemaker like Willan is on a path out of poverty, because of—not despite—their employers. Until then, we know where we’ll be buying our next pair of perfect leather boots.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, available now.

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