Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Q&A: Shilpa Iyengar and Harmony Pilobello, Co-founders of Alterre

Meet the co-founders of innovative footwear brand Alterre, Shilpa Iyengar and Harmony Pilobello, a dynamite duo designing stylish interchangeable shoes for the modern-day woman. As they focus on taking their business to the next level, Shilpa and Harmony unrelentingly stand firm in their core values of sustainability and supporting other women by giving back. In a world where optics can easily get foggy, these two are paving a clear path without compromising what’s important to them.

Originally founded in New York City, they decided to move the brand’s headquarters down to West Palm Beach, close to where Shilpa grew up. It was such a pleasure to chat with these two budding entrepreneurs and learn more about their business, designs, triumphs, challenges and more. When I interview business partners who happened to be friends prior to entering a venture together, the question about the dynamics is inevitable. With Shilpa and Harmony, there is an ease and balance between their partnership that no doubt will ensure that Alterre keeps on growing and thriving. 

What was the catalyst behind co-founding a shoe brand? What inspired you to go from friends to partners in a business?

SHILPA We were just coming out of a recession when Harmony and I graduated from Parsons, so accessories seemed like an easier entry point for us—although we would later find out that wasn’t necessarily true! The catalyst was that we both loved traveling and lived in cramped quarters, so we wanted to develop a unique solution with shoes that were interchangeable. My former shoe professor at Parsons loved the idea and helped us develop it, so with his blessing, it felt like the right direction. As for going from friends to business partners, we were in class together in school, and I always thought that we would make a great team both aesthetically and work ethic-wise. Once we graduated, we decided to combine our skills and connections to have the best chance of success. We just understood each other as friends and designers, so it was a pretty seamless transition.

It’s great working with friends, but in some situations, it can also be tricky. How do you complement each other and have you learned something new about one another in the process of working together?

SHILPA Yes, we’ve heard horror stories! Luckily, that’s never been the case for us, and I think that’s because we really do complement each other not only aesthetically, but in temperament. My background in womenswear and technical shoe design is balanced with Harmony’s background in menswear, trend research, and sustainability. I personally think Harmony is nicer than me, so she handles our customer service, while I head negotiations on the production front. There are really so many ways we are a perfect duo so I’m not going to name them all, but I think at the core we just trust each other to keep the brand moving forward. Harmony and I have been working together for almost 10 years now (it took us a while to get the shoes off the ground), but what I’ve learned from that is how resilient she is. It’s made me realize that I can count on her for anything. Her unwavering confidence in our partnership keeps me going through the ups and downs of having a business.

Your brand is Palm Beach-based even though you both met in NYC. Why make West Palm Beach your headquarters as opposed to NYC? 

SHILPA We actually did have our office in NYC until the pandemic. When everything shut down, we realized that although it was our dream to be there, there were more opportunities for the business by going fully remote. We both moved out of NYC and moved our HQ to where I grew up near West Palm Beach. I think a lot of New Yorkers moved out like we did, so I’m happy to be a part of a burgeoning cultural scene in South Florida.

What would you mainly attribute to your brand’s growing success?

SHILPA In fashion, it’s always a game of who can hold on the longest. Our perseverance throughout the years is finally paying off, and we keep building on lessons learned. So, it’s an amalgamation of learning what not to do. But I also attribute it to the advice and support of our wider personal and fashion network, from family to peers in small business and advisors who have been in the industry for decades.

Describe the Alterre customer.

HARMONY Our customer is busy breaking the glass ceiling and proving you can have it all. She’s married with children and works in a high-paying field. It wouldn’t be out of the question for her to be the breadwinner. She’s passionate about supporting other women in their careers and finds time to focus on philanthropic activities. She also works hard to be present at important events for her children and partner in life. Being tech-savvy is a must for her busy lifestyle, which is why she mostly shops on her phone. She loves traveling light on a daily basis and prefers not to check a bag when flying. After all, who has time to wait in baggage claim?

Having comfortable shoes that can change with her throughout the day simplifies her life so she can focus on other things. No sore feet, interchangeable straps, AND female-founded?! It’s a secret so good she almost doesn’t want to share it.

Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?

SHILPA We design about a year and a half before a collection is out, so it’s a combination of trend research, sales analytics, and a healthy pinch of intuition. Harmony always has an eye on the newest trend reports, what is being pulled by magazines, as well as trending on social media. Usually, we are most inspired by the new leathers and textiles from our suppliers, and we form a color palette from there. For shapes, we look at what’s missing in our collection and what our customers are asking for. Sometimes we just throw something fun in, just because we love a particular material and think it would look amazing on an existing style. That’s how we came up with our cow loafer and it ended up being one of our best sellers.

You are very much focusing on sustainability which is a hot topic in the fashion industry, and beyond. Is it challenging to incorporate sustainable elements and development goals as part of the day to day of running a business and dealing with manufacturing?

HARMONY Yes and no. As a pinnacle of our business, it almost feels like second nature to think about sustainable options and how we can move forward. The ideas are endless for us because the desire is there. The challenging part is finding ways to incorporate what we want with what we can afford or access. For example, there are times we have entertained the idea of having a 100% ethically-sourced natural rubber outsole. Locating it, costing it, meeting minimums, and then flying resources are all things we consider before moving forward.  We also have to look at the ethics of the place we’re sourcing from. Are we aligned? Oftentimes, we reach a point where it’s clear we can’t move forward with that particular manufacturer or material. As a small business, it can be especially difficult to reach the minimums required. To the public, it may seem like our changes are minimal, but behind the scenes, we are thoughtfully moving forward with new ideas and solutions. There could be 50 different ideas we’ve already filtered through before landing on something that feels like a solid half-step forward.

You’re also very big on female empowerment, even naming straps after women that you admire. Why is this initiative important to you? 

SHILPA We are women in business and we take after our mothers, whose generation paved the way for women in the workforce. Why wouldn’t we want to support other women? We are all responsible for bringing each other up and I know our business owes a lot to this network. We want to be a part of leveling the playing field and creating a society where women are encouraged to excel. As a part of this initiative, we donate 5% of our profits to Restore NYC, a non-profit that helps women who have been sex trafficked escape and establish a new life. We even provide peer-to-peer mentorship to any of these women who are starting their own businesses.

Five years from now, where do you envision your brand?

SHILPA We hope to have more national brand recognition in five years and maybe even be in a department store by then. The goal is to also expand our team by then and work on streamlining our production to be more sustainable. As we grow larger, we will be able to hit some more of our sustainability goals just by being able to meet minimums and have more leverage with suppliers; that’s the most exciting thing for us looking ahead.

What has been the most challenging aspect of starting and growing your brand?

SHILPA Starting from scratch is really hard! You can work hard for years without seeing results. The most challenging aspect has been getting brand recognition on a small budget. You’re competing with brands that have multimillion-dollar ad budgets, so whatever you do is like a splash in the ocean. We’ve been slowly but steadily building a loyal customer base; but “going viral” requires a lot more funding than you think starting out.

What are you most proud of?

SHILPA I’m proud of how far we’ve come in being able to successfully bring an innovative concept to market. When we hear from customers how much they love our shoes and that they’ve replaced half of their closet with them, it makes all the hard work worth it!

What is the best advice you’ve received in business?

SHILPA The best advice we’ve received is to hold on as long as we can. It’s not always easy, but in fashion, the brands that stick around for decades are the most successful. Building a foundation and brand image steadily over time is much better than a brand that gets lifted by hype and comes crashing down in a couple of years. A successful fashion brand is one that you can rely on.

For more from Olivia Hollaus, click here.

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