Q&A with Jennifer Bonopartis and Kim Thomas of Jen + Kim
Having met in the sixth grade, it is easy to understand why Jen Bonopartis and Kim Thomas work so well together. After almost two decades of friendship, the duo parlayed their relationship into a business venture in 2003 once noticing a void in American-made custom shoes. In 2006 Jen and Kim moved production from New York to Los Angeles and the pair combined their extensive business (Jen) and design (Kim) backgrounds to form a self sustaining shoe collection reliant on domestic sources and manufacturing. A dying industry in Los Angeles, the ladies’ eponymous shoeline Jen + Kim is helping to revitalize the former shoe manufacturing mecca. Their fully customizable line is designed and manufactured in LA, allowing customers to dictate their style, materials and overall design aesthetic, while helping to support the American economy. 1. / 2. / 3. / 4. / 5. /
Haute Americana: What are your design backgrounds?
Jen + Kim: We both received our Bachelors degrees in Fashion Merchandising from the State University of NY at Oneonta and studied abroad in London while doing so and then moved forward with furthering our education with various jobs in our industry. Kim is the designer and her background stems from her professional designation where she studied footwear design at FIDM Los Angeles. Her first job in footwear was at a factory in Los Angeles working with the pattern makers, wood cutters, gluers, stitchers and lasters. It provided the PERFECT experience to gain the knowledge needed to start our footwear collection properly. Jen took on the roles of sales and operations and received her formal training from working at Bloomingdales, becoming a buyer at Shoes.com, wholesaling at London Underground and working for Crocs as a merchandising manager.
Haute Americana: How did you break into the fashion industry?
J+K: We broke into the industry out of naivety to be honest. After graduating, we always knew that we wanted to create something together. One morning when we were both living in NYC Jen had an idea to start a shoe company with interchangeable uppers. After much trial, we realized that (A) that concept was better in theory than reality and (B) we needed MUCH more experience to start this company. So we did things always with the notion of Jen + Kim in some way, shape or fashion in the back of our heads. While Kim was working at the factory in Los Angeles, she realized, that our collection could be built in the U.S. and support domestic production while keeping our investment costs down due to the low minimums that the factories required. We started making shoes for ourselves and for runway shows at LA fashion week and the business bloomed.
HA: As you note on your site, since the 80s nearly 95 percent of shoe manufacturing has moved overseas. What inspired you to keep your line made in the U.S. knowing the industry’s current state?
J+K: There is a belief amongst a few soldiers in our industry that shoes will start to come back to the U.S. Not all of them for sure, as we will never be able to make shoes at rock bottom prices and there is certainly a market for that, but with rising prices in China and Italy, the U.S. is starting to look more and more like a viable option for making shoes. Additionally, we tried the route of making a larger collection overseas with a partner and we launched Jen + Kim for Coloriffics. While we loved the shoes, the experience just wasn’t the same. There is something so special about working domestically in a small artisan factory. It provides skilled workers and the U.S. has some beautiful resources available to us that allow us to make exclusive shoes one pair at a time.
HA: Where in California is your line made? How did you find the manufacturer?
J+K: Our main manufacturer now is the pattern maker from the original factory where Kim worked straight out of college. They formed an immediate connection and have kept it ever since. We also have other vendors and suppliers that we work with, all of whom are based out of Southern California. And since both Kim and the pattern maker live in California, it works perfectly.
HA: Being at the forefront of America’s reshoring movement, where do you see American manufacturing heading?
J+K: Positivity rules our offices so we see it heading upwards. There certainly seems to be a market for people who want American-made products. We hear all of the time, that people are happy to find shoes that are still made here. And with the success of a blog as yours, that not only focuses on American-made, but focuses on the QUALITY of the product, it only reinforces what we know is true: A well-made shoe will last FAR longer than one that is made for far cheaper with lower quality materials and manpower. Once our customers see that for themselves, we quite often have repeat buyers.
HA: Having a line that is so rooted in customization, what is the most extreme or extraordinary design a customer has requested?
J+K: We get a lot of these all of the time because we give our customers the options to customize each style we carry. We are constantly surprised by the combinations that people create. The most adventurous customizations almost always end up being the prettiest. One of our craziest though was a wedge that we put an alligator tail up the back of it (pictured below).
HA: What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
J+K: Keep your business model simple.
HA: What are your three favorite American-made brands?
J+K: 1. American Apparel – They make great styled clothes on the cheap and do it all in Los Angeles!
2. ETSY – The idea that such a conglomerate of people have found a voice on such a powerful website is brilliant. We’ve personally bought so much from this site – and we love it when something ships with a note inside from the maker of the product!
3. Calleen Cordero – She is an outstanding shoe designer and manufacturer in Los Angeles. She is someone that we constantly look up to and strive to be as successful as.
HA: And your three favorite shoe designers?
J+K: 1. Giuseppe Zanotti
2. Alexander McQueen
Check out the entire line here. Each shoe in the Jen + Kim collection is fully customizable and the duo offer custom shoe parties with amazing incentives for hosts.