Shoe designer shares how she created the ultimate comfy trainer – and it actually looks good

Claire wanted to make a shoe that was comfy enough to walk to work but smart enough for the office (Picture: Air & Grace)

Claire Burrows always struggled to find a comfy pair of shoes that didn’t look frumpy.

So after 25 years in the footwear industry, she decided to design her own.

Air & Grace is now a successful company, and part of its success is down to Metro newspaper.

We chatted to the shoe designer, 49, on how cutting up her own footwear on the kitchen table turned into an award-winning business.

What made you start a shoe company?

I found myself without a job at the age of 42 – and without an identity. My friends all knew me as ‘Shoe Claire’. I’d worked in the footwear industry for 25 years as a buyer for high-street stores, then I took a job which seemed great but turned out to be a mistake.

So I decided to leave but it was really hard to jump into the unknown and have no money to live on.

I felt lost but at the back of my mind was this burning idea. I couldn’t see why comfortable shoes couldn’t be nice-looking shoes. There were lots of comfort brands but they were all frumpy shoes.

I lived in London and spent the whole day on my feet, going from work to the pub, and I knew uncomfortable shoes ruin your day but trainers don’t look right to turn up in for work – so I wanted something that looked good and felt good.

Claire’s trainers are a stylish alternative to ugly but comfy shoes (Picture: Air & Grace)

So what was your light-bulb moment?

Looking in my wardrobe and seeing a whole load of shoes I never wore.
I loved them but they didn’t love me back because I could only wear them in a taxi and any length of time or distance would be agony.

I knew that before I began designing anything, I wanted to analyse what makes a shoe comfortable so working with an amazing technician we deconstructed shoes and put them back together.

So you killed your own shoes?

Yes, I cut them up on the kitchen table to look at the inner workings – like a proper post-mortem. I also bought shoes in bulk from well-known brands and took them apart to study them.

I realised that moving the stitch line in a lining makes all the difference because if there’s a seam where your foot flexes, that’s going to cause a blister.

The next challenge was making them feel comfortable. I wanted a feel like a trainer so I sourced the best memory foams and recovery foams normally only found in sports shoes and patented my own new system of using three different foams.

I designed it so it tapers away at the toe so that shape remains really elegant in the shoe. I launched in 2014, starting with ballet pumps, moving on to boots and loafers and then trainers, which really took off in 2015.

I aimed for trainers that were smart enough to wear for business. We became known for our trainers and next year we’re launching our first heeled shoe – one you can dance in all night.

Why did trainers become such a thing?

Comfort used to be a dirty word in fashion but I think there was a change in attitude towards comfort and a more relaxed, casual vibe – more than ever since the pandemic. I built the brand on comfort.

I did loads of research into what women wanted. Many of our customers are mums and while they wanted trainers that looked good with dresses and business suits, they didn’t want trainers with synthetic liners that smell like the ones their 13-year-old son wears. Our trainers are lined in soft leather and made in Portugal.

I’d been working on my range, patenting my design, finding suppliers and making samples, but I’d run out of money. I was going to trade exhibitions but people didn’t want to take a chance on a new brand.

It was emotionally and physically draining. I really believed in my idea but didn’t know how I was going to reach customers.

Then in 2014 Metro launched a competition with the Worth Foundation Fund to win investment for a new business. I had to pitch my way through lots of rounds and won £150,000, which meant I could pay to make the shoes, learn to do the marketing and website, and launch.

Claire won £150,00 from Metro’s competition with the Worth Foundation Fund (Picture: Metro newspaper)

Then came Covid…

I remember walking home in despair thinking, ‘I can’t believe everything we’ve done over seven years to make sure the business won’t fail and now we’ve been floored by a virus.’

People started panicking and sales dried up online. Everyone started discounting so we did a 20% off deal and our loyal customers started sending us messages and buying shoes, and business came back.

Our shoes are designed for longevity, not fashion fads. In a way, Covid gave me time at home to reflect and refocus.

Mistakes, you’ve made a few…

My biggest one was trusting manufacturer delivery dates. We launched the range at London Olympia and I paid thousands to show to 45,000 potential customers when the Portuguese factory announced they weren’t going to be able to deliver on time. It was a disaster but I worked out that if my partner Jason and I drove to Portugal ourselves, we could be back in time.

We hired a big van and Jason drove while I flew ahead to the factory. We loaded 1,000 pairs of shoes in the back and, because we’d been warned about bandits targeting vans, we slept in the back with the shoes.

It took two days to drive back and we went straight to Olympia, unboxed the shoes, having not showered for two days, drove home for a couple of hours’ sleep and came back to launch the range the next morning. Lesson was learned.

You had other delivery problems…

We’ve had shoes stolen from a van driving through Spain, then a lorry crashed with our new vegan range of shoes – 50% were destroyed. Thankfully, customers were happy to wait.

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