Designer Spotlight: Zou Xou
In 2015, Katherine Theobalds set out to create a footwear line with goals vastly different than the ones she saw in the fashion industry: to reduce waste while consciously designing sensible, versatile pieces with old-school artistry. Each Zou Xou piece is conceived by Theobalds in New York, then crafted in small batches by master shoemakers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Zou Xou shoes are made of premium Argentinean leathers in styles that keep the fast pace of city living in mind. Read on to learn from Theobalds herself about finding inspiration and the importance of creating a conscious brand.
Garmentory: How did you get into designing shoes??
Katherine Theobalds: When I was a little girl, I loved collecting fashion magazines and clipping out things I liked whenever I was bored. On Saturday mornings, you could find me watching Fashion File (with Tim Blanks) reruns on the E! network. At summer camp, I kept a notebook of fashion sketches and even had a name and logo for my fictional fashion label—but it’s too goofy to share publicly. So, I would say I always wanted to be a fashion designer! But when it came down to choosing a field of study in college, I chickened out and chose something entirely different because it felt “safe.”
After a phase of crisis, I came back to my interest in design and went to fashion school after undergrad. But once I was there, I realized I sucked at/disliked sewing and also that pursuing a job as a clothing design assistant would leave me broke! Instead, I began taking classes that would leave me with a portfolio of accessories design projects so that I could find a job I could actually live off of. Eventually, shoe design found me. I took my first shoemaking course and my first trip to Argentina (for love, not shoes!) all around the same time. I just got hooked and never looked back. It also helped that my first paid jobs in the fashion industry were as a freelance footwear designer.
G: Reducing waste and creating consciously is a big part of your brand ethos. Did you have any specific experiences that led you to becoming a conscious designer?
KT: Before starting ZX, I was still very much a fast-fashion shopper—I rarely thought about the people who made the things I bought and even less about whether my consumption habits had an impact on the planet. I just saw slick garments with low price tags. At the companies where I worked, I saw things that caused me unease: things like a lot of overproduction with subsequent markdowns or disposal, questionable manufacturing conditions, and unethical attitudes on the parts of the owners. But I mostly ignored it. This changed when I started making shoes in Argentina. At first, this project was self-financed (and still is), so finding a way to make my collection in small batches was very important, and manufacturing in Buenos Aires allowed me to do this. At that point, I was mostly motivated by being self-employed and would have used any opportunity to produce my own collection. But as I started building face-to-face relationships with the people who make our shoes, it became impossible not to consider how garment workers everywhere are affected by the demands of the industry. The more I gained an appreciation for the skill and physical labor that goes into all of it, the less those low price tags made sense. I also remembered, as a consumer, feeling the impulse to shop all the time to keep up with the cycle of trends and markdowns only to end up with pieces I had to have one season but couldn’t care less about the next, or had to “donate” due to wear. It became clear that I didn’t want to contribute to this pathology with overly trendy, too-cheap, poorly-made products.
So I’ve definitely evolved and clarified my values! Starting this business has taught me how to be a responsible maker and consumer. Now I want to inspire other people to shop with their values, buy only things they care about, and see them as objects interrelated with other people.
G: What was your inspiration for your most recent or upcoming collection?
KT: The fall/winter palette was inspired by a French film from the ’70s called Peppermint Soda. It’s a coming-of-age story about the director’s eighth-grade year in ’60s Paris. What stood out to me were the pops of saturated primary colors in the teen’s world contrasted with the neutrals and noncolors of the adult world which could seem drab to a kid but are actually complex and variegated. I captured that clash of those worlds with bright red, mustard yellow, croc-embossed blue, a creamy green-tinted beige, and a moody reddish brown. I get a lot of inspiration from older films and image archives, but also the streets, vintage shoes, and whatever I want or need for my own wardrobe. My camera roll is filled with snapshots of people wearing interesting things.
G: Who are your biggest role models or icons you look to for guidance or advice?
KT: My partner, Mariano, is one of my greatest sources of guidance and advice. He’s not a fashion person at all, but he has an innate sense of business and of character. Plus, he knows when to tell me that I’m on my bullshit and need to stop. Then it’s women I know in my family, my girlfriends, and the community of independent designers I’m a part of who provide positive reinforcement and guidance when I need it!
G: What is the staple piece you will always have in your closet?
KT: Black jeans (currently high-rise straight-leg). A black silk slip dress. An oversized cardigan. A pair of comfortable, interesting flats. Good earrings.
G: Your style in three words:
KT: Classic, arty, relaxed.
G: What music is on rotation when you’re designing?
KT: I usually play the lists curated for me by Apple music. When I work, I like downtempo electronic sounds with hazy vocals—whether it’s alt R&B or indie—because jarring vocals or beats are disruptive to my concentration. Lately, I’ve gotten into more piano jazz like Ahmad Jamal or my friend Simona Premazzi to switch it up. Occasionally I’ll listen to a novel on audible to get into my zone.
G: Current style or fashion muse?
KT: On my inspiration boards, I currently have Zoë Kravitz, Sylvie Mus, Brittany Bathgate, Carolyn Bessette, and Sade. I’m also so inspired by Amy Smilovic and Dione Davis’s Instagram style classes.
G: We love your tagline: Shoes designed for women who dress for themselves. Tell us more about what that means to you.
KT: I think women who dress for themselves define what makes them feel most attractive based on what clothing makes them feel the most like themselves. We dress, first and foremost, for our own gazes. It’s about standing out in an interesting or unique way rather than simply conforming to an ideal of beauty that sometimes asks us to sacrifice comfort, function, or self-acceptance. ZX shoes are meant to help us feel confident in the expression of our individuality while being comfortable in our daily routines.
G: What is your favorite Zou Xou shoe that you're wearing nonstop right now?
KT: Right now I’m alternating between the Nerea Boot, Pilar loafers, and Delfina sandals!
Zou Xou (pronounced /'zu: 'zu:/) is a New York-based footwear line is handmade in small batches by master shoemakers in Buenos Aires. Founded by Katherine Theobalds, this footwear line is both stunningly bold and effortlessly simple.