Shoe designer Char Tedrick has always loved music and fashion. She grew up covering Metallica and Green Day on piano, and filled shoeboxes with design sketches. After moving from her small California town to Los Angeles, she finished her design degree and landed jobs at companies like Hello Kitty and Betsey Johnson. Now she has her own shoe brand, Charla Tedrick, and shares what it takes to make those design dreams a reality.
How did punk music influence you growing up?
I taught myself to play piano when I was about 4 years old. I was playing completely ridiculous shit on the piano, like Metallica and [Green Day’s] Dookie in its entirety when I was like 8 years old. I also just stumbled on a punk compilation disk when I was young, and it was like nothing I had ever heard before. Coming from a small town, you didn’t see people dressed like punks. There was no way to really find that music until you did, and once I did, it was like a whole world opened up. I started to figure out where the all-ages shows were, and eventually that just opened up a whole world.
You went away to design school. What made you decide to pursue that degree, and what was that experience like for you?
I’ve been drawing since I was young. I played the piano, and I drew. There were these two different avenues blossoming as I was a child, and in the end, it’s just come together perfectly. When I went away to college, I got more into the punk scene. I started playing in a band and pursuing fashion design. My first job was for a rock ’n’ roll mom-and-pop company, so immediately that’s where I was turning to to bring it all together, and that’s essentially what I’ve done.
You’ve had experience with brands like Betsey Johnson and Hello Kitty. What tips or advice would you have for someone who might be starting to navigate the design world or even, ultimately, creating their own brand?
School is not necessarily a prerequisite for being successful in this industry. There are plenty of stories of people who just started sewing or drawing and got into the field that way. But to set yourself up the best for success, you need to just get a design degree, and it doesn’t need to be at the most expensive fashion school. Plus, there are a few programs that are pretty needed, like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Aside from that, what you need most is just a relentless attitude, because it is a tough industry and there are a lot of people pursuing it. You have to chase the jobs. You’re going to apply to 20 and get no responses from any of them, and then the 21st one could be the next job you have. I have not had a smooth sail to acquire this list of notable companies I’ve worked for. It hasn’t been easy. You just have to really chase it.
And after working for those amazing brands, at what point did you think to yourself, “Why don’t I have my own brand?”
I ended up going to Dolls Kill, which is a big alternative fashion website based in San Francisco. That was my first opportunity to put all of the pieces of knowledge together that I have been acquiring for the last decade. So I started a department for them, doing everything from designing the ideas to bringing the factory resources to the table. It was pretty instantly successful, and that was when I thought, “I can do this myself. I can do it from A to Z. I don’t have the millions of dollars and tons of investors, but I have the knowledge to do all this by myself.”
And why did you design on a shoe brand?
I’ve wanted my own brand since I was about 7. [Laughs.] But really getting serious about it came in the last four or five years. I’ve been gathering tips and resources my whole career, taking notes on how I was going to make this happen when the time came. I had a footwear job several years ago, and I’ve done a lot of different categories in between. However, it wasn’t really until I worked for Hello Kitty and we were doing collaborations with T.U.K., Jeffrey Campbell and Minnetonka that I realized that was my sweet spot. I felt a special connection—there’s just something with women and shoes. They’re collectables. It doesn’t even have to be about necessity—they’re a total luxury item, but they’re almost a necessity to women, and feeling like I had a knack for how to make really memorable and unique shoes.
How do you come up with your designs?
Honestly, there’s not a strong strategy. I have a lot of friends who are also designers, and I’ll get some of my friends passing me the latest trend report, and I just throw it in the garbage because that’s not how I work. All I know is what I like. I’m out at shows, so I’m out in the scene. I know what other people are wearing. I design mainly off of music, and I guess music and fashion history. I’d say a lot of my work is very reminiscent of ’70s punk and British punk. You can see those influences in a lot of my styles, and they’re mixed with a modern, current rock ’n’ roll female. There are a lot of brands that are throwing pyramid studs on a shoe and saying that it’s punk, but I think that someone who’s really out in the scene can see the difference.
After working for a few brands, as well as launching your own, what are the most important things an aspiring designer can do right now?
Every experience I had was very valuable. That doesn’t mean I was stoked working at every job that I’ve had, but in hindsight, every single experience was really necessary to be at the point I’m at now. So getting that experience and really being a sponge and absorbing everything you can from each job you land is going to be useful. They’re not always going to be long-term, they’re not always going to be the perfect fit, but there’s always something that you can take from those experiences.
Charla Tedrick just celebrated its first birthday—congrats! What are your biggest goals looking ahead?
Right now, I’m making two collections a year. I try to keep my goals pretty small and attainable, but I just want to keep the ball rolling. Unfortunately, I have a “live fast” kind of mentality, but in this kind of business, especially being a self-funded small business, you have to get comfortable with slow growth. For me, just being slow and steady is the short-term goal, and in the long term, I just want to be making shoes with my name on them. It wouldn’t hurt to get my shoes on some pretty rad people, like Joan Jett or Juliette Lewis, but we’ll see!
Any final advice?
One of my main initiatives in sharing my background and how I’ve gotten to this point is to encourage people that want to design. Anything is possible, and every single person that’s successful in whatever realm, they had to do a lot of work to get there. Anything that is worth really being stoked on is going to take work. No one gets a really rad life for free; it doesn’t fall into your lap. There’s no “trying”—I’m not going to try to be successful at this—you just decide that you are and you work toward it and you don’t stop until you get it. That’s been my experience, and that’s the attitude I’m going to maintain.