While helping his father run one of the largest orphanages in Guatemala, Aaron Osborn never expected his chance encounter with an out-of-work cobbler would lead to a full-blown business venture. Less than two years later, and Osborn shoes are gaining a reputation for their ethical construction—handmade by a team of artisans who sign their name every pair they make—and eye-catching prints and graphics. We caught up with Aaron and his co-founder Carla to talk business– and walking in Obama's shoes.
How did you end up working with your dad in Guatemala?
My father moved there when I was 15, and I visited once, then went to school. After I finished, I decided to go down and visit my pop and that’s when I just ended up staying there for, like, five years.
What made you decide to stay?
I really loved it. The type of work that was going on there, it felt really good. I liked working with the kids and creating activities using my skill in art and knowledge of painting and silk-screening, and taking that to the kids was satisfying.
What types of crafts did you do with the kids?
During the school year, I did an afterschool art class twice a week and whoever wanted to come could come. We did a lot of painting; I taught them how to mix colors and we did a lot of silk-screening work too. We used the film, where you hand cut the silk-screen out and then eventually started buying fluorescent lights and burning the screens. Our final product was a shirt, but they ended up printing everything. One kid brought in his Nike sneakers and printed his design on them.
How did the transition from working at the orphanage to manufacturing shoes happen?
I’d always been interested in fashion and have done sewing and designing on my own. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, so I have an art and design background. I wanted to do something like that, but wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. Well, actually, I knew I wanted to do it well so all my practices were ethical. Living in Guatemala, I learned a lot about the manufacturing business because there are so many sweatshops there. I got to know the workers from the other side, as our neighbors. Then when hurricanes Wilma and Katrina hit, we went and did a lot of aid–I was translating for doctors. My translators from Spanish into the local dialect were always cobblers or tailors. That’s where I met these skilled guys in their mid-to-late 30s who just wanted work, so we bought the fabric and just had little foot pedal sewing machines.
How many craftsmen did you start with and what has the growth been like?
Just one. Now we have 34. For a few years it was just the cobbler and I, but we weren’t focusing on that project full time. We were doing a lot of design work in the States as well to fund the whole thing. About a year and four months ago, we went down to Guatemala with the one guy and two women. A month later we had 25 people, quit everything else and just focused our energies.
How did that happen so quickly?
We’d been working in markets around New York and the shoes were getting more and more attention. Our studio is in Greenpoint, and Oak was our first inquiry into wholesale. So that was our whole “Oh, do we wholesale?” moment.
What materials do you use?
We weave our own material now, but we used to use old flannel shirts, corduroy dresses and blankets. We used the traditional women’s shirt along with the corte (the skirt). Then we started using used fabrics, sometimes carrying back suitcases full of fabric we bought in New York.
What’s your favorite style to wear?
I just started making tire-sole bottoms for our shoes, and I really like those in an oxford. I rotate through what I like. I try to wear stuff I’m experimenting with to see if I like it, so that would be my favorite–the one I’m not sure about.
Is there a certain type of person who wears Osborn?
It would be that person who is bubbly and exuberant, full of life. An independent who is setting a trend. That person does something for them, not for anyone else. We get emails from people who are hestitant, who don’t know if they can wear the shoes and we encourage them to give it a try. We’ll hear back from them saying, “People stopped me in the streets to compliment me!”
Do you think people are starting to care more about where their clothing is coming from?
Aaron: I’m going to relay to my partner Carla!
Carla: There is a duality. People want a good product, but also to know where their shoes are coming from. We’re trying to marry making good shoes with good practices.
Aaron: We started the whole thing with the goal of having a product that speaks for itself, and we’ve found that the more we make stuff for ourselves and not for the market, the more people relate to Osborn. There’s been this ambiguity of manufacturing for the past 40 years, and now there’s a movement of people wanting to know about it. Look at the underside and it will still be beautiful–no ugly side to our business.
Since you split most of your time between New York and Guatemala, where would you like to vacation if you ever get the chance?
Aaron: When we’re in the states, we love going to Martha’s Vineyard. Internationally, we want to go everywhere! Carla?
Carla: I really want to go to Ireland.
If you could walk in someone’s shoes for a day, whose would they be?
Aaron: I can’t tell if I want to be some playboy or some die-hard, like Obama. What the hell is it like for Obama, man? Or [Richard Branson] the president of Virgin?
Aaron: Yes! Him or Obama. This is a tough question.
Carla: Somebody who does things I would never do. Not politically, but more like a monk.
Aaron: A Chinese peasant?
Carla: No, I didn’t say that!
Aaron: So a monk? Someone who’s given their life to something spiritual.
Carla: More like the opposite of the fast track. How about the Dalai Lama?
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