"Even designing comfortable shoes is a kind of calling."

Published in The Good Life magazine | November 2016

Hagit Ronen, Teva Naot's design director, explains how to keep on top of the latest trends and reinvent yourself in the challenging world of comfortable shoes.

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.22.54 PM.png Hagit Ronen
Hagit Ronen, Teva Naot’s design director, has been with the company for 26 years, yet it seems that her passion, excitement, and fascination with this field’s many creative challenges have never faltered for a moment. Ronen stumbled into the world of footwear design almost entirely by accident. Her husband came from Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, so she joined him there and began working in the kibbutz’s famous footwear factory. After a while, she realized that she had fallen headover-heels in love with the profession, said “I do!”, and traveled all the way to Italy to study at the renowned Arsutoria School, without even knowing a single word in Italian. “Most of my classmates were from families who had been in the footwear industry for generations. I was the only one with almost no experience or knowledge, but because the course was highly technical I was still able to study there, despite not actually understanding the language.” When Ronen returned to Israel, she was greeted by brand new billboards showcasing shoes she had designed before she left, but the factory was in turmoil. During Ronen’s absence, it had been assailed by many difficulties, not least of which were the kibbutz financial crisis and key management changes. “I still remember that we weren’t sure how we would pay our employees at the end of the month. But we got through it and now everything has changed.”

Thanks to?

“There were a number of reasons, but I think that, at the heart of it all, there was someone who was able to really empathize with what we – as real human beings living in the modern world – are experiencing today. People want to buy products from someone they can rely on and believe in. And that’s precisely what Teva Naot represents. Most of the marketing messages we have stood by in the past are still relevant today, especially that constant message of reliability and stability. Our staff has always believed in the product, its philosophy, and its niche in the world. Today, we enjoy a better quality of life, so living healthier lives is the right thing to do – the results speak for themselves.” Ronen works alongside five other designers, each responsible for a different field. It’s a complex process, including not only the initial concept and sketches, but also the crucial practical steps: cutting fabric, sampling (“settling” the shoe on the foot to make sure it’s comfortable), and matching the shoe to each type of foot.

Describe a typical day in the life of a shoe designer.

“Generally speaking, we have two major collections each year: summer and winter. But you have to understand that while we’re discussing the 2016-2017 winter season, which hasn’t even started yet, we’re already beginning to work on our summer 2018 collection. It’s challenging because we still don’t know how the public will react to our newest designs, which will soon be on display. Purely in terms of numbers, each collection has 35 new designs, with a different focus for each market. The Israeli market likes a more natural look, while Americans, for example, expect a little more glitz and glamor. “On top of that, we’re also developing new lines, sometimes two per season. This means a whole lot of brainstorming sessions with our great design team, working with the latest trend forecasts, and finally choosing the real spirit of the line: the story we want to tell during each season.”

How do you deal with the challenge of juggling fashionable and comfortable design styles?

“It’s definitely a challenge. We design a wide range of products in various quantities, which allows us to preserve Naot’s distinctive DNA, while also adapting ourselves to current trends. If, for example, pointy-toe shoes are the latest hit, we might interpret that by designing a shoe that’s pointier than our traditional styles. We don’t ignore trends, but it’s more important for us to maintain our unique identity and incorporate our own essence into whatever is currently fashionable.”

And where do you think the footwear industry is heading right now - stilettos or comfort?

“It’s no secret that comfort is becoming more and more ubiquitous. It’s incredible to see how much the casual look is taking over the fashion world, even at the major Italian shows. The division will always remain, but there’s no doubt that comfortable shoes are becoming more sophisticated.”
“Comfort is becoming more and more ubiquitous. It’s incredible to see how much the casual look is taking over the fashion world, even at the major Italian shows. The division will always remain, but there’s no doubt that comfortable shoes are becoming more sophisticated.”

Crossing the generational divide is also very typical for Naot, where a 15-year-old girl and her grandmother can wear the same style of sandals…

“Absolutely, and I think that, so far as that goes, the whole world is changing. At the last fashion show I attended in Milan, I met an 80-year-old woman who was wearing ripped jeans and sneakers, and looked amazing. As ideas about what’s appropriate to wear at what age become less clearly defined, we’re seeing younger people going to secondhand stores and buying clothes that our grandparents wore. If we add the idea that the casual approach is becoming fashionable in and of itself, because it’s cool to look like you’re not trying too hard, then you arrive at exactly the same place we’re trying to reach. Girls, mothers, grandmothers – nothing is designed for any specific age group, because our designs are for people of any age who appreciate comfort, are confident in themselves, and appreciate quality and a good life. “It’s also linked to the rising life expectancy: we’re going to be around for a long time, so we should get the most out of it.”

I’m hearing some kind of calling. Feminism, perhaps?

“There’s definitely a greater mission. Our US distributor always say that we’re not making shoes - we’re making the world a better place. People who wear good, supportive, well-fitting shoes get used to the feel of it and you could almost say they’re learning to walk again. That, by the way, is the perspective that drives all of our designs: our shoes must be so good and comfortable that we want our loved ones to wear them. Those are the exact standards we aspire to.”

Anything else you want to add?

“Like many others in Israel, our field of manufacturing and professional crafts is becoming increasingly marginalized. Anyone can import products, but there is a wellspring of Israeli creativity, character, and innovation that simply cannot be found anywhere else. I feel that this just isn’t appreciated enough, which is deeply unfortunate. I look at the Italians, and how proud they are of their footwear industry, how they protect it and safeguard it in their own country. But here in Israel there are so many difficulties for our manufacturers to overcome. “Those who simply give up on us are just making it even more difficult for local industries to thrive here. We have a lot to be proud of, and it’s up to all of us to protect it.”
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