Talk about a dream come true!
When I first introduced you to Chameleon Clogs owner/founder/weaver-in-chief Rabiah Hodges, it was exactly one year ago. Rabiah (pronounced "ROB-e-uh") had spent the previous 7 years making a name for herself and her company producing distinctive hand woven, custom designed shoes. But that was before the craze for clogs took hold in America. And while you might expect that sudden swing of the fashion pendulum in favor of wooden footwear would put her in the perfect position to cash in, the truth proved to be just the opposite. Soon after 2010 dawned and customers started clamoring for clogs coast to coast, Rabiah received word that her manufacturer was being swamped with orders from other retailers...and would have to terminate their business relationship.
Talk about a nightmare!
This is the sort of setback that would force most of us to take to our beds for days on end surviving on nothing but the comfort of friends and cartons of Häagen-Dazs until we could face the world again. But this is Rabiah Hodges we're talking about, one of the most dynamic, most resourceful people I've had the pleasure of getting to know. Rather than close up shop and go sell tube socks at Belk, Rabiah got right to work looking for someone new to assemble her creations for her. And wouldn't you know it, it was a classic case of be careful of what you wish for. As you'll read in the interview below, the person who became the one responsible for keeping those Chameleon Clogs coming...and the new partner in producing the entire Dala Clogs line as well...turned out to be Rabiah herself!
Talk about a dream come true!
ECHID: Let's go back. You were a happy clog maker weaving your Chameleon Clogs and selling them via your website and Etsy. Then your manufacturer told you they can't make your clogs anymore. What happened?
RABIAH: The company that was constructing the clogs for me became so busy with this new resurgence of the American market falling in love with clogs all over again that they were no longer able to make my collection for me anymore. So what it turned into was this massive cobbler hunt. (laughs) It was either find a new way to have someone make these shoes for me…or give it up.
ECHID: So the woman who ran that company was the one who took your woven fabrics and turned them into shoes?
RABIAH: I provided the materials the clogs were constructed from, sent it to her, and then she would assemble them with all of the equipment and the dies and the patterns that she had there in her workshop. So if I found a new textile or ribbon or [a material such as] velvet or denim that I wanted to have as an upper surface, I would send it to her and she would figure out "How do I make this work?" It was a wonderful relationship.
ECHID: I remember how stunned I was when I got the news you needed a new manufacturer or else. You asked if I knew of any clog makers you could turn to, and I recommended a few makers I'd run across who appeared to have their own factories…one of them located here in the U. S.
What happened then?
RABIAH: Then what happened was…I sent out a plea for help. (laughs) "Who wants to make shoes for me?"
I was very surprised by how many responses I actually got back. Even though some of them were like, "no, I'm sorry, this is not what we're interested in," the fact that they took the time and wrote back impressed me with the world of clog makers. As I found out through my research, they are a very close knit community. They all know each other. It's like a family. They help each other out. Somebody needs this heel, someone needs that die, someone needs this leather, they ship 'em back and forth. It's a very interworking community.
I had the luxury of finding Maud Waters and Thomas Engström, [the owners of the Dala Clogs line]. They're a Swedish couple that had two stores: one in Sweden that they were mainly focusing on and one in Lindsborg, Kansas. They had a thriving business there selling Scandinavian gifts as well as their custom clog collection. But in 2007 when the American market took a nosedive, they realized their European market was going through the roof.
So they moved to Sweden on a permanent level and had part-time staff to just run the American store and internet orders that came through. So when my letter reached them, it was like their plea for help was answered with my plea for help. When I contacted them to say, "I'm interested in you helping me", they said, "We've got an even better offer! How would you like to invest in our company and be a partner with us? You can make your own clogs and run your own store!"
RABIAH: In April of this year, the owners contacted me and said, "We'll be in the United States. Can you come meet us?" And I said, "Well, I'm working a full time job trying to make ends meet. I can't take a trip out there." And they said, "All right. We will be at your house on The Outer Banks in six days." And they got in their van and drove to The Outer Banks to come and meet me and see if we could work together. Everything turned out great. But my next step was: I needed to raise a LARGE amount of money in order to invest in this company.
ECHID: And that led to your late summer fundraiser to pull your investment funds together. (Documented previously on Every Clog Has Its Day.)
RABIAH: The wonderful thing about this partnership is that it came with the entire factory from Kansas. With not only the leathers and the staple gun and the sewing machine…and the clicker! The clicker is the best thing in the whole world! It is a hydraulic press that presses the metal razor edged pattern dies into the leathers, into the textiles. It punches out the shapes and patterns to do all of the different styles of clogs that we make. I love the clicker because I've spent 15 years hand cutting with rotaries and with scissors. So this is the biggest luxury. Now I know I will not have carpal tunnel in the next 5 years.
ECHID: So what happened next?
RABIAH: Let's see, Tom and Maud came to the United States again to move the store, train, build the space out, develop our marketing, and work with me and to find an employee locally that could help with this entire operation.
You know, me, I'm such a powerful, strong woman, I'm like: "Pfft! I can do this all! I can paint. I can weave. I'll do the bookkeeping. I'll be my own accountant. I'll deal with this and that in sales." And Maud looked at me, and she was like: "Oh, youth!" (laughs) But my feeling was: here we are in a very expensive resort/vacation community. And I was afraid that someone who could do the skilled job [of assembling clogs] that we'd be training them for would be requiring more in salary than I would be able to offer them.
ECHID: But constructing clogs sounds like the perfect gig for someone to hold down in the off season.
RABIAH: It is! It is! And right now all the construction people are being laid off. And if they're self-employed they're desperately looking for other work. So I put an ad on Craigslist, and I got 30 applicants! (laughs) I was so overwhelmed with people wanting to come and learn to be a clog maker. I mean, I was like: "Are you serious? You really want to learn to be a clog maker? (laughs) I did 15, maybe 20 interviews. And my husband kept saying, "I know you think you found the one, but just give it a couple more days." And sure enough, that last day, Spencer Cooper came into the store. He just had a sense about him and a confidence about him that wasn't cocky and wasn't stuck up. He was just very comfortable within himself. He's a trim carpenter. He's been doing it for 25 years. And he saw my ad in the paper and was getting ready to take a job at Dunkin Donuts which is across the street for the same amount of pay. But it was from midnight to 7. And Spencer thought to himself, "There's nothing else. You have a 4 year old daughter. You have bills to pay. You've got to step up to the plate as a man and a single father, and you just have to do what's gotta get done." So he told me, "I was getting ready to take that job, and I thought, 'it may be a late night shift, but I'll get the whole day to be with my daughter. And I will make the prettiest damn donuts that you've ever seen!" And Maud and Thomas and I looked at each other and we went: "This is the guy that we want to make our shoes."
A true artist at work: Spencer Cooper
ECHID: Well, he's got that history of working with wood and making things look pretty anyway.
RABIAH: Staple guns and trim and accents and stuff. This job is so him!
ECHID: And I've seen the photos of the clogs he's put together.
RABIAH: Oh, my GOD! He has literally been here for 4 weeks. Training and everything. He picked it up so fast that Tom [who was training him] thought, "I'll just go back home. I don't need to be here anymore. Spencer's doing all the stuff. And I'm just sitting around wanting to go fishing!" (laughs)
ECHID: And you sent me some photos of shoes he's made that just look amazing.
RABIAH: They are all Spencer designs! I told him, "When you're off the clock, you can utilize any of the materials and anything you want [in the workshop] to create something new." With this company, I also purchased about 300 pairs of already assembled clogs. And there are a few of them that both Spencer and I have felt were not up to par. So instead of putting them on the liquidation table, he started adding things to them. Putting this neat collar on them. Adding a buckle. Putting on a strap. Taking the little wimpy straps off the men's clogs and putting some beefy, biker boot-y something on there. And they're selling like crazy!
We just had to make them not look so wussy! (laughs) Just yesterday I sold a pair to a local man. Which is a big deal because the men around here are very macho. They're not wanting anybody to look at what they're wearing and go, "Wow, man, that does not look very manly." But he bought a pair. And even his wife was like: "Those look so good on you, I'm buying them for you!"
ECHID: What other new styles are you offering?
RABIAH: I'm doing a variety of vegan clogs. I have not only my woven upper with a felt or vinyl interior. But I also have the animal print velvet collection that I do that can be put onto a felt or a vinyl interior.
I'm doing a lot of the painted bases. They are the really the most popular addition to the collection.
ECHID: Now you can offer the giraffe base with a matching upper!
RABIAH: (laughs) And then with Dala they now offer a painted top. So we have the ability to do painted uppers with painted bases.
RABIAH: Dala Clogs had such a big following for 25 years that I really want any of their existing customers to know that now they are doing business as Chameleon Clogs. We will give about 6 months for the marketing to explain that to the existing Dala customer base…as well as for my Chameleon Clogs customers to now know that I have introduced new styles and new options. Right now we're directing people to clogs4u.com (the site for Dala Clogs), but we will make the transition to everything appearing on chameleonclogs.com.
A Quick Tour of the Store
(Inspecting the new space in August 2010)
ECHID: Finally one last question: how do you like being your own clog maker? I mean, really being your own clog maker?
RABIAH: I LOOOVE being my own clog maker!!!!!!! It is a dream come true...and it makes selling and creating the "create your own clog" concept even more fun! I have never felt so in control of my destiny. As an artist that is not easy. :) And with the help of Spencer, I feel we can tackle big projects as well!
Feel free to congratulate Rabiah on her new venture. Drop her a line through her customer contact e-mail address located here (or type it in yourself: info at chameleonclogs.com). And keep in mind that she thrives on a challenge! If you have a specific upper design or a novel material you'd like to have her or Spencer work with on a traditional Swedish base, she'd love to hear from you!
[On my feet today: No fair asking. It's a day off and I'm still in my robe and my Abbie clogs from UGG. I feel like I owe you something more interesting than that!]