Grab a cup of joe, and enjoy this totally rad story about the beginning of an out-of-the-blue venture that turned into a full blown (awesome) shoe business. Meet Aaron Osborn, a man who lives with his eyes wide open, willing to take hold of opportunity, passionately living life. Being a creative entrepreneur at heart, I was completely enthralled by the details of this undertaking and his vision carried-out. Dive into this Guatemalan adventure that all began from meeting a jobless cobbler on a normal day and now stands as a top-notch shoe brand that is known for its ethical construction and bold, risky, fantastic prints. Suggestion: take notes, and sip on some serious inspiration.
“It was a creative outlet mixed with a desire to affect our world and adopted country positively.”
What led you to Guatemala, and why have you decided to stay there?
My pop moved there when I was in high school. I decided to visit him after RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), get to know him a bit, and understand what it was he was doing. One week visit I was in love. The country is beautiful, filled with beautiful, sweet people and delicious food. I enjoyed working with kids, and I am starting to use my art for positive social change.
What did you study in college? After graduating from RISD, did you plan to pursue a career in design?
I studied Painting in RISD. At the time the department was still interwoven with Printmaking. After graduating RISD, I knew I was going to work in design; I simply didn’t know the specifics. I just knew what I liked doing, which was making stuff with my hands, and trying to stay innovative with design, production and material. I have always had a sewing machine and would alter my clothes all the time in high school and while at RISD. So I guess I didn’t realize I was always into fashion! Carla (Co-Founder of Osbourn Shoes) studied sculpture and received her Masters from Tyler School of Art. Carla was making personal work, and I was and am still impressed.
How did Osborn shoes come about? Was there a specific goal behind the business, or did you just need a creative outlet?
I liked your comment in an earlier email that stated – “They enjoy seeing a product come to life rather than simply reading a critique.” I feel strongly about the Osborn story, because it’s the basis for this whole project. So…… I was living in Guatemala working with kids placed in different orphanages throughout Guatemala. I was doing a bunch of STUFF, most of it dealing with art, all of it under the umbrella of a non-profit. We(the kids and myself) were making murals throughout depressing monotoned government orphanages, art classes, and intro to silk screen. The silk screen venture was the baby seed. I saw how the kids loved making things they could wear – I think we all love that! But there were two things going on. They developed a sense of pride and ownership when visitors would BUY their shirts and then wear them all the time. The second thing was THE KIDS WERE MAKING MONEY! This was huge to me. I was seeing too many kids growing up in the homes getting institutionalized and leaving the home lost and broke. I talked with the director of the homes, and giving the kids money for a product they produced themselves made the directors nervous. Would it compromise the non-profit status? Does the home get a cut? etc etc. Simultaneously, Katrina and Wilma hit Guatemala hard, and we were running aid all over the remote villages. Doing this, I met out of work cobblers and tailors, and this is were the thought for Osborn came in. What if I walk away from this non-profit model, and made stuff with these awesome artisans who are looking for work, not aid? Ultimately, I believe in aid as a short term solution, but not as a sustainable solution for any given community, no matter where you are. We all want to work and earn our living!
The thought hit me–Oh shit, maybe I can do this. That is the inception. It has been an even more interesting story trying to make it work! I met a cobbler in the town I was living in (start immediately where you are), and we just began making shoes. Carla is now involved in the picture, and we have moved back to the U.S. living off our art work, design work, and the Guatemalan Production project. There was no plan, but the shoes kept getting noticed when we would sell them. We received an inquiry about whether or not we could wholesale, and that is when we quit everything else and dove head first into Osborn Design. So it was a creative outlet mixed with a desire to affect our world and adopted country positively.
Side note: my production manager now, Agustin, was one of the first kids I met in Guatemala! He was in a children’s home, and now he has a beautiful wife and rambunctious six year old!
Is there a classic Osborn shoe from which the company derived or did you start with many different designs?
We started with a very classic oxford. We believed that we wanted classic simple silhouettes, because mixed with the vibrant and intricate textile from Guatemala or a second hand piece of clothing, would create an interesting juxtaposition.
Tell us about the evolution of the company. Does it benefit the Guatemalan community?
We started with one cobbler. Berto! He was living on a rented plot of land behind someone’s shack. Now he and his wife and three kids rent an apartment. This is the same story for all my workers. I am VERY PROUD of this fact! This is the reason to sweat, struggle and make sure we are going to succeed. We are now a family of 30 workers. Each worker is supporting about 7 – 10 people. I know our worker’s kids are now in school, and we even bought one of the kids a laptop for her high school classes, giving her that edge in her education. I hope we benefit Guatemalan communities!
Tell us about the fabrics you use and the inspiration behind the prints. Are you concerned with keeping up with trends?
We started using second hand materials like old shirts, blankets, table cloths, as well as used Guatemalan textiles: the Huipil and the corte. From here we started to design our own fabrics, having Guatemalan weavers produce the fabric, furthering Osborn’s impact. Now we are silk screening in Guatemala, weaving and embroidering. We keep trying to define ourselves, and some words keep coming up: Folk Urban. Global Neighbors. Playful unexpected associations. We are not concerned with keeping with trends, but rather we are concerned with our artistic integrity and the continuation of innovating. Of course we are always influenced by what is around us, but we do not actively keep with trends. We hope to humbly be surfing the waves in front of trends!
You are very serious about production standards. What contributes to the quality of your shoes?
Carla is very good at keeping high standards. We have worked closely with Agustin and Berto to make sure that quality is defined and enforced. Also, I believe that giving a sense of pride to our workers will ensure that the quality is very very high.
What are your personal favorites to wear? For a lady? For a dude?
I love wearing the oxford. I usually go for the floral patterns as well as the Kente inspired fabrics. Carla loves it when a man wears the Huipil boots with a fairly conservative outfit or suit. I love that also!
Who would you like to see wearing your shoes?
Oprah! ha. Uh, I mean, there are some personal favs that I would love seeing wear our shoes like Will Oldham, Cool Kids, Kanye….I would like to see those who are not scared but curious wearing our shoes. One of my personal heroes has three pairs! – Steve Wozniak! WhaWhaaaaa!
What can we expect from Osborn shoes in the future?
Well, we are currently cutting new silhouettes, so stay tuned for that, and we are getting our busy little fingers into accessories and other fun items for the body! But the new silhouettes are slammin! Love them. Carla did such a great job.