In Conversation with Chelsea Paris Founder, Theresa Ebagua: Reimagining Women’s Footwear

by Amanda Winnie Kabuiku

Luxury shoes have long been the prerogative of European brands, even if the manufacturing largely remains the work of Italian artisans. Proudly displaying our status thanks to an overpriced detail, a red sole for Christian Louboutin, a small pineapple for Aquazzura, or the classic discreet for Gianvito Rossi, the luxury shoe remains a social marker. A carefree, Theresa Ebagua ventured into this elite, exclusive environment to create a brand that resembles her femininity, sensuality, and attention to detail. Independent female footwear designers such as Chloe Gosselin or Sarah Flint too are regaining control of the women’s foot.

There is a wave of women who offer product ranges that do not focus on the height or beauty of a known uncomfortable shoe. They bring an experiential expertise and reimagine footwear for women made by women. We dare call it a footwear revolution, fascinating for so many reasons. As a black woman of African descent, Theresa Ebagua joins a class of creative leaders that under represents the her demographic. She left a comfortable tech job behind to realize her dream of launching a women’s footwear brand, becoming a figure of representation in the luxury community.

 

At All the Pretty Birds, we are eager to share Theresa Ebagua’s story in our Women’s History Month content. Follow along as we explore how the designer made the bold choice of changing her trajectory, without regret. 

 

Introducing the Chelsea Paris

Armed with a conviction to deliver against the grain, Theresa Ebagua launched Chelsea Paris in 2012. The brand named after her daughters and paying homage to her African heritage. Ebagua’s daring approach when launching the brand amplifies black excellence supported by the recent black-owned business movement. Made in Italy, Chelsea Paris seduces a diverse and stylish clientele, including Zendaya, Beyoncé, Andra Day, and Rosario Dawson.

Many influential black figures, including Tiffany Reid, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, and Stephanie Nelson Roberson helped popularize Chelsea Paris styles. Models such as the “Ace” mules, “Blade” Sandals, and the Instagram-worthy, “Finn” flooded fashionable social media feeds. Additionally, crafted from vegetable-tanned, metal-free leathers, Chelsea Paris footwear also seduces Millennials who prioritize environmental progressiveness without sacrificing style.

(Pictured: Theresa Ebagua wearing Chelsea Paris Queen Boot in Sun Yellow)

 

Designer Spotlight: In Conversation with Theresa Ebagua

Amanda Winnie Kabuiku: You have a unique background with an MBA in IT infrastructure and C-Suite experience in Tech. What was the click that made you want to design luxury footwear? 

Theresa Ebagua: I’ve always been fascinated with shoes and knew from a young age that I wanted a career in footwear. Although, I didn’t quite know how to make that happen. My “aha” moment was on a flight from London to Los Angeles. I was casually flipping through an editorial I’d collected from the seat pack pocket. Eventually, I came across a profile detailing the history behind big names like Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, or Christian Louboutin. As I continued reading, something clicked. Their stories resonated with me and I made a bold decision at that moment to pursue my passion.

Ultimately, I wasn’t only interested in designing. Actually, I was more intrigued by the act of shoemaking and the development behind the design. I wanted to understand how to transform a shoe; how to make it functional and make it fit. All of the processes involved in bringing those designs to life are what excite and drive me. 

 

AWK: Tell us more about your love for footwear! Would you consider yourself a collector or a curator? 

TE: Before becoming a curator, I was a collector. One thing I miss about taking ‘inspiration trips’ was seeing colorful varieties of footwear in different countries. I found joy wandering through flea markets and vintage boutiques, gathering pieces to take home. Shoes are a form of art. I have pairs I’ve never worn. I simply gaze upon them as they inspire me to create something new. Along with collecting shoes, I enjoy curating collections. I love weaving design themes and color stories until they seamlessly flow from one to another. Each collection has a message; through curation, I ensure the message is visually conveyed.  

 

AWK: You went back to learn shoemaking in the Arsutoria School in Milan, and did a one-year apprenticeship at family-owned factories in Tuscany. Beyond the skills specific to the creation of shoes, what other skills did you learn from artisans who have an ancestral mastery of the art of making shoes? 

TE: Beyond designing on paper, I learned how to craft styles directly on the shoe form itself, the last. Representing the human foot, the last allows you to see the various points where your design hits the foot. I remember working with Francesco Lanzoni, an incredible artisan in a small town near Forli in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. We met in Milan, he invited me to his factory, and I stayed there for five days. I gained invaluable skills, handcrafted patterns from paper, and studied the fit and feel of designs. I developed an unbelievably intimate relationship with the shoe form and furthered my understanding of footwear craftsmanship. The experience reignited my love for Italian artisanship. I am so grateful for Lanzoni’s tutelage. 

 

(Pictured: Chelsea Paris “shoe last” for footwear design with pre-production materials) 

AWK: You’ve been in the game for more than eight years now. How did you launch your line? From the beginning, what were the difficulties when launching as a Black, African designer?

TE: My identity as a Black, African designer has been a blessing, but I recognize the layers of challenges it presented as I entered the footwear industry. My culture is so rich and vibrant, gifting me a boundless reservoir of inspiration to draw from. The terrain became rugged when I decided to be a Black designer in the luxury space. Headstrong and bold, I was adamant about making my shoes in Italy. It was all I knew; growing up, I was surrounded by Italian craftsmanship, and I wanted that same level of expertise and artistry for my brand. 

Eventually, I launched my initial collection and many people within the industry were shocked to learn I was the person behind the brand. It was frustrating at times because I couldn’t understand why they were so puzzled. Then my wholesale took off! I was in Barneys, Nordstrom, Harvey Nichols, and yet, there was still resounding disbelief that a petite, Black, African woman could be the Creative Director and Founder of the company. They were unable to marry my designs to the creative source behind it merely because of my ethnicity. It has been a journey; finding and maintaining space within this industry has proved difficult. Truly, I believe that when the industry begins to know us by our talent and not solely our race, there will be more Black designers in the luxury space. 

 

AWK: Your shoes are Instagram-worthy. They are everywhere on the feed. How can you describe the Chelsea Paris brand signature and how it evolved over the years? Does your style have an impact on your signature brand?

TE: As a brand, Chelsea Paris communicates and empowers individuality. Our style has evolved with me. We continue to push sartorial boundaries, fashioning bold designs, and experimenting with eclectic patterns and silhouettes. The Chelsea Paris consumer style is not dictated by society, but driven by mood and personality. In essence, my signature brand is an extension of my stylistic expression; my personal styling and footwear designs complement one another. 

(Pictured: Editorial shot of Chelsea Paris Bo Knee Boot in Cognac)

AWK: In Luxury footwear, are many French, British, and Italian luxury brands with big names like Christian Louboutin, Aquazzura, or Gianvito Rossi. How do you best compete in such a challenging market, where quality is of the utmost importance for independent brands?  

TE: The hallmark of the Chelsea Paris Brand is quality, craftsmanship, and heritage. In a market this challenging, quality is uniquely essential and cannot be compromised. As a Black designer already facing doubt within the luxury space, I felt as though I needed to work twice as hard to ensure my product was on par with, if not better than my competitors’. Part of our ethos is thoughtfully crafting timeless designs. As an independent brand with no backing, we expend a tremendous amount of our financial resources on sample development and production. We employ the same suppliers and factories as Aquazzura and Gianvito Rossi, but our price point is different. I want my shoes to be accessible to my consumer. It’s essential for me to have lasting power in the luxury market, so the door remains open for other emerging BIPOC designers.

AWK: There is a wave of similar fanfare for independent designers like Chloe Gosselin or Sarah Flint. How did social media contribute to your success as an emerging brand? What can women shoe designers offer that men shoe designers don’t? 

TE: Women shoe designers can offer fit and functionality because they know where it hurts. I produce our samples in my size. That way, I’m able to test the prototype for comfort and durability. When I attend trade fairs, I can show them how it’s worn, and I’ve closed many more deals this way.

I’ve experienced wholesale and now Direct-to-Consumer (DTC). I wasn’t always a social media fan, I was a bit old-school, so I initially took the wholesale route. Introducing a DTC business model allowed me to regain ownership of my creative narrative. With an online presence, I can control my brand’s messaging and embrace the values that initially inspired me to be a designer. I’ve gained more brand recognition and exposure to a broader consumer audience. I take more significant risks with colors and materials because I know there’s a market yearning for it.

 

(Pictured: Editorial Shot of Chelsea Paris Fuzzy Mule (L) in Brown and Bo Knee Boot (R) in Greyscale)

 

AWK: We feel a desire for inclusion in the media for BIPOC designers. How has this visibility affected your growth? Do you feel supported by the black community?

TE: Visibility has significantly impacted my growth. It’s increased engagement between consumers, retailers, and my brand. I’m thrilled by this movement towards diversity and inclusion within the fashion industry. As a collective, we have to ensure our presence within the industry is lasting by continuing to call out areas where we are underrepresented. We must use our respective platforms and influence to maintain and enhance this visibility. 

I feel overwhelmingly supported by the black community. It is incredible to receive such a warm welcome. I feel seen and celebrated across a multitude of media. Every day, there’s a new member of the community, including us in their posts, shouting us out, letting other people know about my brand and me. It’s amazing. I have to mention a few industry leaders that have genuinely championed my brand: Tiffany Reid, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, and Stephanie Nelson Roberson. I am incredibly grateful for their continued support.  

 

(Pictured: Zendaya wearing Chelsea Paris Bo Knee Boot in Greyscale)

AWK: The Finn sandals are arguably your most recognizable shoe. We see them on celebrities like singer and actress Andra Day, for example. Would you say that you have a muse? If so, who! 

TE: Yes! The Finn sandals have been a favorite in the collection alongside our Ace mules. I’m enthusiastic of women who are fierce, unapologetic, embody a free-spirit, or quirky flair. I draw inspiration from varied muses: Zendaya is a prominent one; she’s young, fresh, and unafraid to experiment with her looks. Andra Day is a recent muse; her retro glamour has enamored me. Tamu McPherson has always been a source of inspiration for my brand. Tamu was on my mood board when I opened my first studio in Chelsea, London. 

AWK: When designing, can you tell early on when a particular model will be a hit or is it always a surprise? 

TE: Generally, we do have an idea of which designs will be well received, and we can predict consumer reactions, but there’s always an element of surprise. With our FW20 collection, I knew the Finn sandal would be our headliner, but the surprise of the collection was the Ace mule. I was stunning to see the reception and recognition for the Ace. It even outsold the Finn. 

(Pictured: Chelsea Paris Ace Sandals in Blue)

AWK: The current pandemic has dramatically changed our way of consumption. How does Chelsea Paris continue to exist in a world without parties, family, and social gatherings? How has your relationship with your suppliers changed during the pandemic? 

TE: The pandemic has required us to be adaptable as we adjust to our “new normal.” It’s impacted the way I design and is even reflected in our business practices. We find creative ways to adapt, like recycling designs with new materials and styling loungewear with our shoes, evoking luxe comfort. My edge has always been embracing challenges as they come. As a brand, we remain conscious of the current climate and are evolving to continue catering to our consumers through every circumstance. It has been quite challenging; deadlines are difficult to achieve due to various restrictions in Europe.

Our sample and production timelines have slipped, and we’re having to compromise and work hand-in-hand with the factories, suppliers, retailers, and consumers. Some relationships have become more intimate, and in some cases, relationships have become a bit strained. Post-pandemic, I’m going to take a ‘thank you’ trip to my suppliers that have supported us throughout this pandemic and both repair, where needed, and celebrate those relationships.  

 

Editor’s Note: We thank Theresa Ebagua for unapologetically embarking on her path in Women’s Luxury footwear. She has not only paved the way for more female designers of color, but elevated our shoe game in the process. for more eco-responsibility and poise.

 

To keep up with Theresa Ebagua you can follow her brand and her personal instagram.

All images courtesy of Theresa Ebagua and Team at Chelsea Paris.

 

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