This is not the natural habitat of a fashion-forward footwear start-up. Not here, amidst the low-slung buildings of a nondescript office park in Owings Mills. Not here, nestled between the offices of an electronics company and a limousine service.
"People don't expect this when they drive up," says Myles Levin, managing director of J Shoes. By "this," he means a fast-growing shoe company that is making its mark among celebrities and fashionistas from Baltimore to New York to London and Tokyo. "People say, 'J Who? What are you guys doing here?'"
It's a good question and one Levin, 41, who joined the company in 2003, has had to field more than once. What is it that brings an upstart like J Shoes—which touts its individuality, style, and free-thinking design—to a sleepy suburb?
Actually, the move from the company's former headquarters in Boston was triggered by Levin's desire to return home in 2004 (he grew up in Owings Mills and graduated from McDonogh School in 1984). Levin actually offered "to transition out" of his consulting position in order to move. But the company's two Thai investors surprised him. "They said, 'No, consolidate the business, and place it wherever you want.'"
On a personal level, "it was great," says Levin, who wanted to ensure his two daughters, ages 6 and 4, would grow up close to their extended family. "But it also made good business sense."
With factories in Thailand, and distribution in Europe and Asia, among other places, running the business was mostly virtual anyhow. And although it hasn't been known as a powerhouse in the world of fashion, Baltimore "has some great retail, a great arts culture, and fashionable people," says Levin, who, in his slightly rumpled jeans and coolly casual button-downs (plus a pair of sleekly understated black brogue-like shoes—made by J Shoes, naturally), can be counted among them.
Setting up shop in Baltimore would also prove to be far cheaper than in New York or Los Angeles, with the suburbs offering even more in cost savings. Still, to fit the company's image, Levin had the space tailored a bit, knocking out the customary drop ceilings and going for a hipper rehabbed warehouse look. It is now home to six of the company's seven U.S. employees, plus a small showroom used mostly for "friends and family" sample sales or custom fittings.
When he took the helm, J Shoes was essentially a start-up, still unknown in the U.S. despite success in Europe and Asia. Levin, whose job covers just the U.S., Canadian, and South American markets (the London and Bangkok operations are run as separate business units), built on the brand's cachet, adapting shoe styles to U.S. tastes but keeping its attitude. Today, sleek ads implore buyers to "do the Jaywalk," while company literature urges readers to "never do anything but your own thing."
Concept carries over into design. "If we can't bring something to market that's uniquely different, not to the point of being ugly or not commercial, but [with] distinction, then we don't want to do it," says Levin.
In the office's showroom, Levin picks up a men's boot, fashioned from Japanese fabric and Italian leather. Running his hand across the upper, he notes the shoe's "understated glamour" and "a little bit of wit. I call it poetry," he says, returning it to the shelf.
A key to making such poetry has been sticking close to the company's artisan roots. "We always try to have some hand craftsmanship," he says. As an example, he points to another leather boot, this one heavily tattooed in black ink. Around it are shoes of all styles, from classically styled loafers—which Levin dubs "very commercial"—to elaborate creations sporting exotic flourishes like ostrich leg fabric, snakehead skin, or vintage Japanese denim.
This spring, local boutique Barefoot Tess, which specializes in large-size women's shoes, will start selling J Shoes, thanks in part to the company's willingness to tailor its product. "They were real can-do," says Barefoot Tess owner Karen Williamson. "We asked them if they could make their shoes in bigger sizes, and within a week, we had samples." Levin even asked to meet the Barefoot Tess customers who were testing the shoes. "I was blown away," Williamson says of the company's approach.
She is confident her customers will be similarly impressed. There's the quality and price point—around $100 for the styles Barefoot Tess is selling. And then there's the style, which is forward without being unfamiliar. "Their shoes don't look like anyone else's," says Williamson. "But they're different without being way out there."
So far, it's a model that has worked for J Shoes. After losing money in 2003—Levin took shoes back from retailers so he could start fresh—the company has doubled sales each year.
Another factor in J Shoes' recent success? That all-important celebrity exposure. J Shoes has gained a following among the celebrity set, dating back to the company's early days in London when members of the band Coldplay began wearing them.
In the U.S., Levin built on the London connection, which put him in touch with Mick Jagger's stylist. "Then it was Jude Law," says Levin. From there, "just from word of mouth we cultivated it." Some celebrities found J Shoes on their own—Usher, for example, recently bought a pair in an Atlanta store and P Diddy's stylist called the headquarters to request two pairs.
One thing Levin won't do is pay people to wear J Shoes. "I think it degrades the label," he says. "Those that are rocking J Shoes do it because they like the comfort and fit and style."
Sitting at the conference table in the open-format office, Levin is attempting to rattle off all of J Shoes' famous customers: "Jill Scott, [Philadelphia jazz musician] Jeff Bradshaw, John Legend," he says. Locally, several Ravens players have recently started buying J Shoes—coming in for custom fittings and raving about the pleasure of finding hip shoes in a size 16.
"Lisa, who else?" Levin calls across the room to his jeans-clad wife, an accountant who joined the company part-time shortly after he did and now works there full-time. Her job has morphed from finance into "operations," a jack-of-all-trades position that she's grown to love.
"Mark Wahlberg," she offers. She met the actor in 2006 when he posed for photos with his J Shoes. "It's been nice to be part of it—shoes, fashion, it's exciting," she says.
It is an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning in November, but Levin's mind is firmly fixed on fall—next fall, and specifically the shoes and boots that will make J Shoes' line. Standing in the center of the Owings Mills office, arms crossed, he is contemplating several long rows of samples, which he'll narrow down to roughly 150 products that will be offered for sale in the U.S.
To help, he's brought in a bevy of experts: his sales reps, a fashion magazine publisher from L.A., a husband-and-wife retail team from Kansas City, and the company's two investors. Bringing in outsiders is an unusual move in the industry, but Levin is a natural collaborator who rarely misses a chance to solicit input.
Although officially this an "international design review meeting," the atmosphere is anything but corporate—the closest thing to a necktie is the loosely knotted silk scarf one of the men has draped jauntily around his neck.
"Kenny, would you wear any of these?" Levin asks, sweeping a hand over a cluster of boots. He is talking to Kenny Barb, whose job at J Shoes is in finance. But here the recent college grad's fashion sense clearly counts, too.
"I'd wear this," says Kenny, nudging a black boot with his toe. "And this, and this," he says pointing to others.
Over the past 24 hours the group has nixed dozens of shoes and boots, relegating them to a pile along one wall. These are the shoes that were too outlandish—shiny silver metallic loafers, for example—too bland, or too close to styles already on the market.
"I think we've had a habit of putting too much out," Levin says to the group. "It's all good stuff, but maybe customers had too much to think about."
At one point, Levin challenges the group to decide on whether to take a risk on a funky Euro-styled shoe. "We're on the starting line," he says. "Are we gonna run the race?"
By evening—after two days of work—they've finalized the line. For Levin, this is just the beginning. Next, he'll have to work out a production schedule, make a sales plan, and help create a marketing push.
Before the meeting adjourns for good, he'll broach the subject of the brand's future, including his vision of an "acquisition or partnership that would build the company into more of a lifestyle brand," he says. When and how that happens "remains to be determined."
For now, "I just try to stay thankful for being in business and staying profitable," he says. It is, to be sure, no small feat.