How 2 Friends Who Met In Buenos Aires Are Turning Shoes Into Art

BucketfeetA close-up of Bucketfeet’s Delta lace-up shoe, designed by Erin Burke.

About six years ago, two Americans living in Buenos Aires bonded over a discussion about shoes that were hand-decorated. Today, the two are the cofounders of Bucketfeet, a company that aims to connect artists and consumers through footwear.

Bucketfeet sells canvas shoes featuring designs by artists from all over the world. It’s a way for the artists to share their personal stories with consumers, says Raaja Nemani, Bucketfeet’s co-founder and CEO.

“We try to be very authentic in who we are and the products we create, and we try to provide something really different that allows people to make a very intimate purchase that speaks to who they are as a person,” Nemani said.

A Connection Forged In Argentina

Nemani hasn’t always been in the shoe business; he quit his job in finance in 2008 to backpack around the world. He soon wound up in Buenos Aires, where he started tutoring young children. That’s where he met Aaron Firestein, who would later become the co-founder of Bucketfeet.

Raaja&aaronBucketfeetRaaja Nemani and Aaron Firestein, cofounders of Bucketfeet.

Firestein had started his own shoe company in college, decorating and selling canvas shoes that he sold to students in his dorm. By the time he moved to Argentina, his business had grown to the point where he was shipping shoes across the world. Nemani bought a pair of shoes from Firestein that featured a “cuadras” (block) pattern, inspired by the city blocks of Argentina. Nemani wore those shoes for the rest of his backpacking trip.

Throughout his travels, Nemani noticed a pattern. No matter where he went, whether it was Australia, India, or Nepal, people would comment on his shoes. The shoes became an icebreaker, an easy way for Nemani to meet new friends on the road.

“When people asked me about the shoes, I found that I wasn’t talking about the brand because that didn’t really matter anymore. I was talking about the artist, Aaron, and his inspiration for design, why the colours were used, why the pattern was the way it was,” Nemani said. “I found that by having this real person and real story behind the shoe, it immediately created a connection, both between me and the person, and the person and Aaron.”

BucketfeetThe exterior of the SoHo shop.

Nine months later, Nemani was living in the Middle East and Firestein was still in South America, working as a professional photographer. Nemani called up Firestein and asked if he wanted to take his shoe business to the next level by creating a company that would connect people through art. Firestein agreed, and the two young men moved to Chicago to start Bucketfeet.

“Art is one of those platforms that everyone can understand; it’s a universal language, and it can bring people together,” Nemani said. “Bucketfeet is inspired by our travels, the idea that we wanted to meet all these people, and the idea that people want to feel connected to something. Sometimes it’s hard to get that, but we thought, ‘What if we created a brand that could connect people through real products?'”

The Growth Of Bucketfeet

This connection is exactly what Bucketfeet managed to accomplish — to tell artists’ stories through their shoe designs.

Artists submit their designs to Bucketfeet, and the company selects some of these designs to print on its shoes. The company has grown from a tiny venture running out of a house in Chicago working with four Brazilian artists to a business with nearly 3,000 artists from more than 40 countries. Today, artists connect with Bucketfeet through its social media platform and website.

“We’ve worked with everyone, from Japanese artists who have worked with companies like Coca-Cola and Disney, to stay-at-home mothers of two from Atlanta who have never done art professionally, but we feel that they have created — even if it’s just one thing — something that would look great on a shoe,” Nemani said.

The company launched nationally with Nordstrom and has pop-up shops in Chicago and Manhattan, which Nemani is considering turning into permanent storefronts. A significant portion of Bucketfeet’s sales also come from its website. A pair of Bucketfeet shoes costs between $US65 and $US68 for adult sizes, and $US45 for kids’ sizes.

BucketfeetSome of the shoes available at the SoHo shop.

Since its launch, Nemani said Bucketfeet’s sales have more than tripled, and its return rate is under 3% — a strong indicator that the brand is doing well. The company recentlyraised $US3.7 million in venture capital, with Bridge Investments and Jumpstart Ventures leading the financing.

What Comes Next

Bucketfeet doesn’t plan to limit itself to footwear. Artists can also design wall art, which Nemani said was a great way to bring new artists into the fold. He did say he’d like to mostly “stay around the feet” for the time being, though he believes with the company’s roster of artists there’s huge potential for new product categories.

Nemani said the website will also start hosting regular design challenges, where people can vote on their favourite designs. Not only will the votes help decide which shoes are created, but they could also be valuable for retailers who are deciding which designs to order.

With the new round of venture capital, Nemani said he plans to create new products, invest in Bucketfeet’s artist network, ramp up the company’s website, and raise brand awareness.

“We’re not trying to be the next skate brand or the next outdoors brand,” Nemani said. “We’re trying to be a very inclusive brand, one that brings people together and gives people higher value than just a product — it gives them a story and a person to feel connected to.”

BucketfeetThe interior of Bucketfeet’s SoHo pop-up shop.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.