Lucy Macnamara, founder of footwear brand Aspiga, talks sustainable sandals and Kenyan style.
Lucy Macnamara founded the sandal brand Aspiga in 2005, inspired by a holiday to South Africa. The brand works with artisan communities in Kenya to create its signature leather flip-flop styles, and ethical and sustainable production is one of Macnamara‘s core brand principals. As the brand launches its debut pop-up on King’s Road in Chelsea, Macnamara talks Drapers through her inspirations and her ethical business focus.
Tell us a little about the history of the brand. How and when did you start up?
I was in South Africa on holiday and the lodge I was staying in sold leather beaded disc sandals from Kenya, and I fell in love with them. I spent the next two years trying to source them from Kenya and launched selling them, as well as a few belts, to the trade in 2005 at Top Drawer and we got into more than 40 shops, including Fenwick of Bond Street. From 2006 onwards (when I left my part-time job working for a charity to work on Aspiga full-time), we started designing our own styles along with the leather beaded belts to sell to the wholesale market.
How has the brand grown since you set it up?
We have always grown year-on-year, albeit slowly, as we have never had any investment. So we have had to take one small step at a time and growing organically means we always have to make a profit to stay alive. We don’t have a large marketing budget, so sales growth is always small but steady. The past two years we have been growing around 15%-20%. We started very much as a wholesale business, but over the 14 years this has shifted and wholesale now only takes up less than 10% of the business.
Who would you say is your typical customer?
She is between 30 and 60, and is feminine and stylish. She wants something different and cares about “the story” of where her products come from.
What do you find inspiring about the Kenyan and Maasai aesthetics?
The Maasai tribe are truly beautiful, their statue and posture are so upright and they are by nature very tall and elegant. I love their use of colours and the styles they design using all the vibrant beads (all the colours mean something to them). It is considered the duty of every Maasai woman to learn the jewellery-making craft. All the tribe’s beadwork is made by the women but is worn by both women and men. Large and colourful beads symbolise wealth and social status within their culture.
How would you describe the aesthetic of the brand?
Our style can be described as soft femininity with a bohemian spirit, and comprises unique and pretty dresses, embroidered pieces and stunning occasionwear, as well as stylish day-to-day linen staples.
Can you tell us a little about the Kenyan sandals? What makes them unique?
They are how the brand started – they are super-comfortable and last for ages. We get such great feedback from our customers about their longevity. Each pair is individually hand-beaded and the leather is sourced in Kenya and coloured with vegetable dyes then laid out in the sun to dry. They are then all cut out by hand – the beading alone for one pair can take up to five hours. This summer (May to July), for every pair sold we are collecting one basketful of plastic from Malindi Beach in Kenya.
Can you tell us a little about sustainability in your supply chain? How do you work with artisan communities?
We work with artisan groups, not-for-profit organisations, small family-run businesses and tribal groups, not large commercial factories. We are proud to work with all of the above, especially artisans who help to keep skills, technique and culture alive through their craft. We especially love to work with and support women. Our main sandal supplier is a lady who set up her business 10 years ago when she was just 23 years old – she has worked with us ever since. Many of our suppliers’ female workers do piecemeal work in their own homes, which enables them to look after their young children at the same time. We help create job opportunities and skills training for marginalised communities. This facilitates financial independence and offers a source of sustainable economic development.
Over the years, we have given much-needed loans to some of our small suppliers in Kenya, so they can build small workshops and buy crucial tools or machinery to grow their businesses. This January, I gave a loan to my sandal supplier who couldn’t afford a life-saving operation that her newborn needed. The operation was a success and little Gabi (who we are naming one of our 2020 sandals after) is doing well.
Why did you decide to open the pop-up? Do you think you’d want to open a permanent store in the future?
I thought it would be nice to try a bricks-and-mortar store and a pop-up is a great way to do that. It is great to be able to see the whole collection together and meet our customers to get feedback as well as introduce the brand to new customers. I don’t think I want a permanent shop right now, as we are very much a seasonable brand. But I think I would like to carry on with the pop-up idea, as it has been a real success.