Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin have a new designer chomping at their heels. And the answer to "Who's your favorite shoe designer?" may increasingly be: "Me!"
Dorian Howard and her older sister Ilissa love designer shoes so much they decided to quit their days jobs and dig their heels into a new business that combines women's insatiable appetite for designer stilettos with an ever-growing passion for DIY. But in this case DIY stands for: Design It Yourself.
“If you want a certain shoe at a certain heel height or strap option you should be able to have exactly what you want,” Howard told CNBC. And that’s exactly why she founded the start-up, Milk & Honey.
CNBC gave rising fashionista Dorian Howard 60 seconds to put her best foot (in this case heel) forward. She is out to convince YOU and the Power Pitch panel that includes Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon and social media expert Guy Vaynerchuck that her new business will have customers falling head over heels for a “Design It Yourself” heel.
The soul of Milk & Honey’s shoe business
The Howard sisters didn’t spend their college years dodging traffic through the streets of New York as fashion interns carrying garment bags twice their size.
But their street cred is still notable. Dorian worked her way up as VP of production at Paramount (VIA) Pictures, while Ilissa worked in the toy business in product development and worldwide marketing, as the global brand director at Toys ‘R Us.
“Both my sister and I come from industries that are not open to change. In the past 100 years, film has added sound, color and 3-D -- and that's it,” Dorian said.
But one thing she felt she could change was her struggle with finding shoes.
“I was really excited to go into a hyper-growth industry with amazing creatives and visionaries dedicated to disrupting the status quo,” Dorian told CNBC.
Turning a heel in the shoe industry
Milk & Honey is on a mission to democratize fashion by shifting power away from department stores, fashion bloggers and designers, and putting it squarely into the hands and feet of its customers. The company’s site turns users into Do It Yourself designers, who can create a custom shoe from heel to toe.
The options include silhouette, toe shapes, straps, embellishments, color, material and heel height.
“Our goal is to make it so women don't have to compromise to their footwear,” Howard told CNBC.
Styles range from flats to oxford stilettos, and shoppers can create anything from ruby red slippers to turquoise colored pumps. For women who might want some help designing, the site also offers its ready-made designed Milk & Honey collection.
Shoes are delivered in roughly six to eight weeks, but this DIY trend isn't cheap: Prices start at $149 for flats and $249 for heels. "If the shoes don’t fit?" you ask, well as long as they are unworn, Milk & Honey offers a 365-day return policy.
Panelist Mellon questioned how Howard would convince a factory that customizing shoes was a viable business.
“Well my secret weapon is my business partner and older sister who is the other half of Milk & Honey and she lives in Hong Kong,” Howard responded.
Dorian explained that the former Toys ‘R Us director had much experience in manufacturing, especially in South China.
“She is very persuasive and has gone after these factory owners that are more entrepreneurial than most.”
Milk & Honey products are currently made in a former Kenneth Cole factory that was already set up for made-to-order Kenneth Cole shoes.
Is customization the future of shoes?
Panelist Vaynerchuck was concerned that Milk & Honey’s custom shoe idea might be too far ahead of the growing trend of customization.
“Do you think you might be too early?” he asked.
Dorian answered, “Yes I do worry, but I'd rather be too early than too late.” Howard explained that many luxury brands, like Burberry and Louis Vuitton, are starting to offer designs with some customizable options. This year Burberry (BRBY) allows customers to select some design options on their trench coats, while Louis Vuitton lets customers monogram the designers leather goods.
But Howard pointed out unlike Milk & Honey, luxury designer brands are unlikely to ever hand over 100 percent of design control to their customers.
Howard said there are no plans to expand into custom shoes for men but they have already started to offer custom tights.
The design it yourself start-up has plenty of competition, including Ninashoes.com, Chikoshoes.com, shoedesignstudio.com, Dreamheels.com. Shoes of Prey, based in Australia, and Upperstreet, based in the U.K., deliver worldwide.
Marketing Milk & Honey
The early stage start-up doesn’t have millions to spend on marketing, so Howard has had to get creative to help spread the word. The co-founder told CNBC she recruited celebrities like Ginnifer Goodwin, Malin Ackerman, Kathie Lee Gifford, Hoda Kotb and Wendy Williams to design their own shoes. They are then put up for sale on the site with 100 percent of proceeds going to a charity of the celebrity’s choice.
Since its 2011 launch, the company has raised less than $1 million and would not disclose exact numbers of revenue.
Milk & Honey is funded by 500 Startups, Tim Draper and Great Oaks VC, Jeff Fluhr.
Does Milk & Honey have what it takes to change the way you buy your shoes? Watch the video and see for yourself if this shoe biz is on the heels of innovating fashion and e-commerce.
Howard faced “Power Pitch” panelists Tamara Mellon @TamaraMellon, Gary Vaynerchuck @garyvee, and Mandy Drury @mandycnbc, CNBC host.
--Additional reporting by Erin Barry
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