By Matthew Hacke | Photographs by Michael Fornataro
Local shoe and handbag designer Emy Mack discusses the trajectory of starting her eponymous line and gives us a first look at her Fall/Winter 2017 collection.
Just a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of Walnut Street in Shadyside sits a beautiful boutique selling elegant shoes, handbags, clothing, and women’s accessories. The store, Emy Mack Collective, is filled to the brim with special gems created by Pittsburgh-based, New Jersey-born designer Emy Mack. “Throughout my childhood, my mother’s joke about me was, ‘You ask her to draw an orange, and she draws an orange shoe,’” Mack says amusingly. “So, I was very shoe obsessed from a young age.”
After completing her undergraduate studies in business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mack wound up moving and working in the leather goods industry in Florence, Italy. “My interest in Italy, fashion, and the culture stems from my family’s background in the area and why I moved there after undergrad to pursue this program,” she says. “In fact, my maternal grandmother was a designer herself. She started off sewing and went into designing from there.”
Mack moved back to Dallas after Florence, where she worked as an assistant buyer and then an assistant in public relations at luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus. “There really is no place like Neiman Marcus to get a well-rounded experience in fashion,” she says. “It’s a really fascinating and amazing company.” From Dallas, Mack took a marketing job in New York City that eventually led her to meet her husband and business partner, Rob Jamison.
The newlyweds settled in Pittsburgh, as Jamison came home to work for his family business. “After my husband and his family sold their business, he and I started exploring the opportunity of starting a shoe brand,” says Mack. “The impetus of our reasoning was clear: We wanted to make an Italian-made product that was priced 20-30 percent lower than all the competition out there — so the Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik shoe brands of the world, so to speak. I just really saw an opportunity in the marketplace to do that.”
Mack started meeting with and developing relationships with manufacturers in Italy, and taking advice from others in the industry. “I was given the advice that it’s easier to go from designing shoes to handbags, rather than the other way around,” she explains. “This makes sense because with a shoe, there are so many more components to it and it’s a much more complicated process.”
Once she got a handle on the process, Mack started making customized shoes for family members and friends, then moved on to trunk shows. “For cost and efficiency reasons, I eventually decided that it would be better to just roll out a ready-to-wear shoe collection,” she says. The result: a collection of 30 shoes that sparked such interest, Emy Mack is now carried in over 40 specialty retailers across the U.S., Harvey Nichols luxury department store in Hong Kong, and her standalone boutique, Emy Mack Collective, in Shadyside.
The success of Mack’s bi-yearly shoe collections led to her expansion into handbags and accessory ornamentations. “A friend of mine who works for a clothing line was outfitting a mother-of-the-bride one day. He sold her a pair of my shoes and she said, ‘Oh, I really wish I could have a handbag to match that.’ My friend then said, ‘Oh, Emy can make you a handbag!’ So I did, and that’s how I started designing handbags as well,” she says, laughing. “We also do these custom ornamentations, which people can put on their shoes or handbags. They are all hand-beaded and are permanently attached to really personalize a piece.”
Currently, Mack is already hard at work designing her Fall/Winter 2018 collection, with plans to expand beyond the Emy Mack shoe line. “We’re looking to launch two other shoe brands with different concepts and price points,” says Mack. While still staying quiet on the details, Mack explains that she is taking what she’s learned growing her original brand and applying it in different ways with these two new ones.
When reflecting on her nearly six-year-old brand and how far she has come on her journey, Mack gleamingly talks about how the people that she’s met along the way have inspired her and helped her grow. “I’ve really enjoyed going all over the country and meeting with these different stores that we work with. We do trunk shows where you get to meet the customers and there’s just this common thread of the love of shoes,” says Mack. “It’s just so gratifying to meet people who appreciate what you’re doing because it’s hard building a brand and it’s hard building a business. Some days you have people who are so critical of certain things, and then you meet these fantastic people who inspire you to keep going and keep doing what you’re doing because they love the brand.” Emy Mack Collective, 723 Filbert St., Shadyside. 412.681.1690. emymack.com.
The Art of Luxury Shoemaking
1. A perfectly crafted Italian shoe begins as a simple sketch. Ideas and inspirations are taken and translated onto paper.
2. Sketches are then refined and given to an artisan who creates a custom, hand-carved last out of a block of wood. (Editor’s Note: A “last” is shaped like a human foot.) Each style of shoe requires its own last to set its shape, heel height, and size.
3. A shell pattern is then created from the last, allowing for the pattern master to make the other components of the shoe. Over 25 components are used in an Italian-made women’s designer shoe.
4. Assembly of the shoe starts with the pulling or lasting of the upper, which is the entire part that covers the foot. Uppers are then attached by hand to the insole on the underside of the last.
5. The shoe requires a number of days to set before heels and outsoles can be added. Heels can be constructed of several layers of plastic or wood and covered in leather or cloth.
6. Finally, the shoe is taken off of the last. Fine linings are added to the inside of the shoe. The outside of the shoe is finished by staining and polishing.