It’s pretty near impossible to find a woman whose closet doesn’t house multiples of the same shoe style. (Case in point: I own at least seven pairs of black ankle boots, none of which actually fit right.) The majority of shoe manufacturers are limited by standard foot measurements, which means that less than half of us are able to find footwear that fits perfectly. So we’re stuck in this relentless cycle of buying shoes we lust after, even though they pinch our toes or rub our heels. Edmonton’s Kendall and Justine Barber—the sister act behind the online bespoke shoe company Poppy Barley—understand the phenomenon well.
In February 2012, when Justine, now 30, was on vacation in Bali, she found a swoon-worthy pair of classic brown leather riding boots, only to realize that there was no way she could squeeze her size 9 feet into them. The shoemaker promptly took her measurements and promised to mail a custom pair to Canada. “It was a reminder: Oh, right, there is this other way we used to buy footwear—handcrafted and made to fit,” she recalls.
When Justine landed back in Edmonton, she tabled the concept of an online custom shoe store with her sister Kendall, now 32. Having just successfully launched her optometrist husband’s optical store, Kendall—buoyed by entrepreneurial spirit—was convinced of the potential for the new venture. She and Justine, both of whom hold commerce degrees, put their heads down and drafted a business plan, and by November Poppy Barley was a reality. (Though the name suggests twee toddler, it actually comes from Tudor England, when shoemakers used barleycorns and poppy seeds as units of measurement to make custom footwear.)
The Poppy Barley experience begins like any other online browse: you click through a collection of boots and flats, then choose a style and colour. (The regular collection currently includes four flats, 10 boots and eight shades of leather.) Next, with a measuring tape and the aid of an instructional video, you take the necessary measurements, then place your order. It’s sent to a small footwear studio in León, Mexico, where one of 15 artisans handcrafts your pair—et voilà, perfectly fitting flats or boots arrive four to eight weeks later. (Between order and receipt, the customer gets periodic updates on the status of her shoes.)
Bespoke, for most of us, means “unaffordable,” but not so with Poppy Barley. The leather boots and shoes are sold at a price point Kendall says is “unheard of in the bespoke industry”—cost varies by style, but the flats start at $188, boots at $450. This is even more noteworthy considering the line is made both ethically (“with fair wages and working conditions,” notes Justine) and transparently. “Once we realized how many of our customers cared too,” says Justine, “we decided to share all the details of our Mexican studio on our website.”
While still getting their idea off the ground, the sisters had flown to León, a long-time cowboy-boot-making town, and hired a go-between in an attempt to track down a small-scale shoemaker. They toured several factories but found all of them set up for mass production. They were about to board a plane back home, disappointed, when they received a text from their broker’s 12-year-old daughter with an almost-too-good-to-be-true option: her best friend’s mom, an expert in custom shoemaking, was interested in meeting. “That’s how we connected with the owner of our studio in León,” says Justine. “In the end, it happened very organically.”
Back in Edmonton, Justine does the designing and her sister manages seven other employees from a 400-square-foot historic warehouse space they describe as “creative, messy and fun.” Work weeks typically clock in at over 50 hours and often overflow into the weekend. The pace shows no signs of abating—between their move to a new office and showroom this September, planning a series of cross-country events, partnering with a handful of lifestyle bloggers for limited-edition collaborations and launching a men’s collection, things are “just getting started,” says Justine.
If bespoke shoes that are ethically made, fit like a dream and don’t horribly ding your credit card are the starting point, we can’t wait to see what Poppy Barley’s next steps will be.