The saavy entrepreneurs, who see what others don’t, and know how to tap into a niche market before anyone else, are the ones who come out on top. Sure, it’s always risky being the first of your kind, but success loves risk. Jennifer Allison combined her love of fashion, with her experience in making eye-catching footwear, by creating the Art and Sole Academy. The academy is the first of it’s kind in Canada, offering shoemaking workshops for those who are interested in learning the art of creating their own unique footwear.
I met Jennifer when I was at school at Ryerson. I was lucky enough to model in her Mass Exodus Year-End-Show in a deer-inspired frock for her “Walking Tall” collection, while her career was just taking off. Just a few short weeks later, I joined her on City TV to promote her collection province-wide. Jennifer has always been the type to have success follow her; from her first job at Aldo to working in New York at Pour La Victoire, whose shoes are worn by the likes of Solange, Cameron Diaz, and Olivia Palermo (nbd!)
Jennifer has now settled back into her main stomping ground, Toronto, to launch her latest venture, The Art & Sole Academy, teaching adventurous leather crafters how to create their own shoes, purses and clutches.
We Talked to Jennifer Allison (and toured her amazing studio) Finding Out How She Started The Art and Sole Academy.
What is your Mission?
The Art and Sole Academy is the first shoemaking school in Canada to offer classes and workshops for those interested in learning the art of shoemaking. The Shoe Academy was founded in 2014 with the goal in mind to make shoemaking accessible to the general public and to help preserve the craft. The techniques taught at The Art and Sole Academy have been designed to substitute industrial machinery with user-friendly and affordable tools providing students with the opportunity to continue creating on their own at home. Whether you are looking for a new hobby, creative outlet or thinking of stepping into the industry we have a wide selection of workshops to suit all skill levels!
What is One Thing You Are Proud Of?
I am very proud to have finally found a way to support myself full-time as an independent entrepreneur!
What’s your story?
I grew up in North Bay, ON and moved to Toronto to study Fashion Design at Ryerson University. Upon graduation, I fell into the footwear industry unexpectedly. My first job out of school was working as an Illustrator for ALDO in Montreal, QC. A few months after joining the company I was offered a lead Footwear Design position for the Women’s Footwear Division. It was during this role where I discovered the ins and out of the industry and had the opportunity to work and learn from the factories and technicians overseas. Fast forward a few years later, I moved to New York to design for a brand called Pour La Victoire. Up until this point I had never physically made a pair of shoes by hand so I decided it was time to take advantage of the resources NYC has to offer. I found a few shoemakers in Brooklyn to let me hang out in their studios and took classes to master the craft. After the first few pairs I completely fell in love with the process.
What made you begin thinking about starting this journey?
After working as a designer for a handful of years I decided to take a break from the industry and volunteer as a Designer Resident in Peru for an organization called AWAMAKI. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to travel with a purpose and would give me some time to figure out my next move career wise. During my time in Peru I had the chance to collaborate with weaving communities in the Sacred Valley and I was so impressed with the way these artisans were able to preserve their traditional handcrafted techniques with such little resource. This was what ultimately inspired my brainstorming sessions on ways I could do something similar back home in Canada related to my own creative background.
How did you get started?
After coming up with The Art and Sole Academy concept and launching the website from a small cafe in Cusco, I spent a few days in Lima sourcing all of the tools and supplies needed to make the classes possible. Once I returned to Toronto, I started slowly by renting out various locations for workshops to test out the water and to see if there would be any interest. There was nowhere else in Canada teaching the art of shoemaking so I wasn’t sure if there was a reason for that or whether I was really onto to something! Luckily there was a tremendous response and the workshops filled up quickly! The response was so positive that I was able to open a full time studio space in Leslieville a few months later.
Tell me about what you are doing now?
Ever since opening our studio doors I have been teaching shoemaking and other design-related workshops on a full-time basis. The Art and Sole Academy also offers consulting and freelance services for those interested in developing their portfolio, starting up their own brand or for companies looking for part-time design work. In addition to Art and Sole, I still travel back and forth to Peru every 2-3 months. I recently opened a textile store called KUSKA in Ollantaytambo with my fiancé. We have been working very closely with local artisans and weavers within the Sacred Valley to help provide them with an outlet to sell their work and to provide them with training and skills to make products that are appealing to a global market place. This has been a passion project of ours for the past year which we hope to launch online and bring to Canada in the new year! Now dreaming and doing are two completely different things
What got you started on this journey?
Getting started is the biggest hurdle! I realized early on that there is never really the perfect time to start. The most important thing is to start now and work little by little towards your ultimate goal. When you are forced to figure things it is amazing how resourceful you can be! Naming it off in steps is helpful
What keeps you going? How do you stay motivated?
Our students have been my biggest inspiration. It is very rewarding to watch their confidence and self esteem grow as they create something new for the first time! Their excitement and feedback is a huge motivation.
What makes you different from the rest?
As the famous saying goes “those who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do”. I think you have to have a little bit of “crazy” inside of you to start something up of your own. Your energy and outlook is a huge part of your success. I have always been notorious of saying “yes I can” and then figuring out the “how” afterwards. Confidence is key. If you don’t believe in yourself why should anyone else?
3 things that someone who wants to follow your path should keep at top of mind:
1. Love what you do! When you love what you do your energy will shine through
2. Work hard- Many people want the title but do not want to put in the time
3. Collaborate and network- Don’t be afraid to share ideas and help each other out. The world is a big place and there is room for everyone!
Tell us a point in your life when you didn’t ever think you would make it who told you no?
There was never really a point where I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I am lucky to have very supportive friends and family close by. My main question and struggle was always the question of “How and When”?
After you graduate there is no longer anyone guiding you down the right path once you step into the real world.
What was your turn-around point?
For me, even though I knew I wanted to start something of my own I felt it was important to gain industry experience. While I was working for various companies I was always working on side projects to build my portfolio, taking classes to develop new skills and saving money for when the time felt right to branch off on my own.
Did you always have a dream to become what you are now?
I’ve always dreamt about being an entrepreneur! I still have many projects and business ideas in mind that I would like to pursue so I feel this is only the beginning.
What was your yes supply moment?
Taking time off to travel to Peru was one of the best decisions I have ever made! A lot of good came out of this decision. I was able to recover mentally and physically from my hectic lifestyle, I met my fiancé and had the epiphany to start up two businesses all within one year! It is amazing when you listen to your inner guide the good that can come from it!
Do you use any tools for productivity?
My trick is to start the list with one or two things that you have already accomplished so you can cross them out right off the bat. This instantly makes me feel productive and ready to move down the list.
What book are you reading right now?
A friend of mine stopped by the studio the other day after sorting through his storage to drop off a book he thought I would like: “Handmade Shoes for Men”. It is the most beautiful and informative shoemaking book I have seen to date. Such a lovely gift to add to the collection.
What are you listening to right now?
I normally turn to Spotify to discover new music! I love their pre made “mood” playlists. A few artists I have discovered and have been listening to a lot lately in the studio are My Bubba, Wild Child, and Fleet Foxes.
What is your favorite beauty product that makes you feel great?
My key go to’s are baking soda and coconut oil! They are both great natural alternatives for shampoo, conditioner, cleansing and moisturizing!
What is something that you do that gives you your yes?
Ever since adopting Dorothy (our shop dog) it has forced me to get outside more often! I try to switch up our walking routine each day to explore new areas within the city! It has been a great way to get a bit of exercise, clear my mind and step away from all of the leather, rubber and glue fumes in the studio!
Follow along with Jennifer at The Art and Sole Academy on Instagram and if you’ve been looking for a new skill, why not learn how to make shoes, a girl can never have enough.
All images by Reese Evans