Sisters Sarah and Rachel Waxman are San Francisco-born entrepreneurs, helming their gender-neutral footwear company, Matriarch, from Berlin and New York City, respectively. Together, they’re a powerful force in an already banner 12 months for gender rights: refuting the divide in fashion and in quality and demanding equality—and damn good shoes for all.
Matriarch creates footwear specifically sized for women’s feet, with a more traditionally masculine design. With most men’s shoes sizes starting at seven, a nine for women, things like wingtips, sculptural brogues, derbies and other timeless designs aren’t options. Instead, we’re forced toward floppy, H&M, of-the-moment styles that tear out beneath us in mere months. As Sarah, who’s worked in shoe design for many years, describes it: designers are told to “shrink it and pink it.” Be smaller. Be lighter. Be quiet.
But these days, we’re bursting at the seams.
Berlin’s the perfect launch point for Matriarch. After all: those of us who flocked here were hunting for something “other,” a kind of conversation that wasn’t being had back home. In Matriarch’s case, this conversation involves well-made product, made to a masculine “standard,” for empowered and fashionable women.
Sarah and I discussed the Berlin art-bubble in detail: how, in some respects, Berlin is the only place in which we can create what we want to create, live how we want to live (re: cheaply, wine like a proverbial waterfall), and change the conversation of our lives and how we’re perceived in the world.
Why do you think Berlin is the perfect backdrop to create gender neutral footwear/clothing?
Berlin can definitely be a bubble in a lot of ways, and though it is important to get outside of bubbles sometimes, it is also a wonderful thing that I try to enjoy and not take for granted.
Berlin is a great place to create gender neutral anything because there are so many people here who instantly “get it.”
There are not many cities in the world where one can start a project like this and not feel in the minority, but Berlin is definitely one of them.
What were some of your design inspirations?
Most of all, we were inspired by what is traditionally considered menswear footwear: those beautiful, sculptural brogues, wingtips, derbies, and boots and the like. I definitely took inspiration from my athletic shoe background. The eyerow of the shoe, where the laces loop in and out, takes its form from many running shoes, which is an homage to designing running shoes in the past.
Beyond this, most of our inspiration came from an Industrial Designer’s point of view. One of the overarching questions when designing the shoes was, “How can this be the best possible product?”
If we’re going to use leather, then we’re going to use the best leather.
And in that case that meant using vegetable-tanned leather. “Veggie tan” is the best because it’s essentially leather tanned in the traditional, ancient way. It is literally soaked in a vat of organic matter, like tree bark tannins. This is in contrast to chrome-tanned leather, which is processed in chemicals that are harmful to the people handling it as it is produced. We did not want to stray too far from traditional menswear styles for the designs- rather it is about the details.
What are the best materials? How can we make sure we don’t cut corners?
Because even if there are things a typical consumer wouldn’t notice, the overall finished product has a certain weight and feel that most commercially available shoes simply don’t have.
How does the Berlin art community welcome you in ways that perhaps American art communities do not?
Berlin has been an ideal place to start a brand like Matriarch. I didn’t come to Berlin intending on doing anything like this, but many things led up to it being a logical thing to do. For starters, the first week I landed here it was Berlin Fashion Week, where I ran into some folks from the Portuguese footwear industry. Talking with them helped plant the seeds about the possibilities of manufacturing my own designs. I also worked as a designer with another entrepreneur designing and helping develop the first designs for his own footwear brand- this was a big inspiration to really just go ahead and do this myself.
I notice a certain consciousness around consumerism in Berlin that I definitely feel is lacking in the United States.
One thing that really drew me to Berlin after visiting for the first time in November 2013 was how much people really took care of the things they owned, how they genuinely cared about the environment, and how this was backed up in their basic day-to-day actions, without feeling a need to call special attention to them.
And of course, it is impossible to ignore the startup community here. It is so easy to meet great, inspiring people doing whatever their particular thing is.
I think there is a really unique ecosystem here that allows for passionate people to do their thing.
Being surrounded by people who just set out to achieve things has a really big impact. I feel like I have relative strangers and acquaintances (and of course friends) cheering me and Matriarch on all the time, and short of a team, this can really make a huge difference. This is definitely not a one or two person show. It is the Berlin ecosystem that makes it possible, however directly or indirectly any given person is involved.
Have you witnessed any backlash to your designs? Do you feel that the world is ready for a gender-neutral shoe, in the wake of all the fiery political drama of the past year?
The most backlash has been in regards to the name “Matriarch.” If we are for all genders, some will argue, then why is the name so heavily gendered? If we look at the term ‘feminism’, the initial reaction is often the same. But actually feminism is for all genders, maybe even especially for men. It’s especially timely, with a greatly increasing awareness of company culture, how women are treated in professional settings, but also generally. In light of the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal especially, we are seeing a huge uptick in people talking about men and the position of power that they tend to be in, and what this means for the rest of us.
By calling ourselves “Matriarch”, we intend to fly a feminist flag of sorts. It communicates immediately who we are and what we are about (namely, not the Patriarchy). Feminism is not about being anti-men, it’s about making the world more equal.
Naming our brand Matriarch is not meant to alienate men. It is about communicating solidarity with women and those who do not typically enjoy the highest ranks of power. It is about bringing a little more balance to the power.
The only other “backlash” we receive is on the cost of our footwear. Most people aren’t mad per se, rather they point out that the people who could use our shoes the most are often the ones who can least afford them. Of course, this ties in very strongly with the above point about who is in power.
That is something we have recognized from day one, and we are working on several ways to make them more affordable. The most immediate solution to this is that they can be purchased on a payment plan. That means that people can buy our shoes from our webshop and pay in increments that they choose: weekly or monthly, and at whatever increment is most comfortable for them. We cannot reduce the price of our shoes, but we can make it more manageable to purchase them with the mindset of them being an investment.
This ties back into why Berlin is such a great place for starting a brand like Matriarch. Here I am surrounded by people who embody this mindset of being willing to spend lots of money on something but then also being invested in really taking care of it and nurturing it.
So to come back to the original question: yes! Of course the world is ready. The world has been ready and no one has been answering the call. That is what Matriarch is here to do.