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A well lit storefront room with shoes displayed

Leadership

Treading Lightly: How a Fourth-Generation Shoemaker is Changing the Trade She Once Resisted

Sandra Canselier of Coclico explains why she had to escape the family business (and her small, rural French town) in order to bring her true self to the craft. She breaks down why welcoming activism in the workplace can ensure an ethical and sustainable business.


Phrases like “slow fashion” and “conscientious consumption” are starting to become household terms. And while some companies are looking for a way to wedge themselves into the trend, others have been built from the ground up on those exact principles.

One such company is Coclico, a New York City-based shoewear brand founded by fourth-generation shoemaker Sandra Canselier. Growing up in Pays de la Loire, a region of western France, Canselier was surrounded by shoemaking. “My father ran the family shoe factory, as his father and grandfather had before. We lived and breathed footwear production in our home.” But despite such immersion, young Sandra had no interest in following the same path—though that might have been more about location than trade. “Being gay in a small French town wasn’t exactly easy and didn’t lead me to think that the family business was the right place for me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what was right, but that much seemed clear.”

After earning a business degree in Paris in her early 20s, Canselier moved to New York City. It was there that things started to click. “I fell madly in love with the city. Being accepted here for whomever I was helped me find clarity in my identity and a path forward,” says Canselier. “I discovered that whether I liked it or not, shoemaking was in my blood.” In 2000, relying on a small loan and a wealth of generational knowledge, the entrepreneur began work on Coclico’s first collection.

A blonde woman in a black shirt sits in a chair

Sandra Canselier is a fourth-generation shoemaker.

Once Canselier had come around to the family business, she had some rules: “My father was full of help and advice, which I dearly valued, but this was only going to be done one way: my way.” From the beginning, the goal has been to create shoes that are ethically made and ecologically considerate, that prove that substance and style are not mutually exclusive. “Part of the idea of ‘slow fashion,’ as far as we see it, is that regardless of how it’s made and by whom, the item has an aesthetic value that lives beyond the singular moment in fashion. We are at our most successful when our shoes feel aesthetically relevant years after their first purchase.”

I don’t want the ethical choices that we make at Coclico to set the brand apart—I want it to be the industry norm.”

Coclico opened its first store on Mott Street in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood in 2001. That space served as their shop, office, and wholesale showroom. Earlier this year, however, the brand opened a second storefront and moved their operations over the bridge to Williamsburg. Canselier has called home the Brooklyn neighborhood home since 2003, where she lives with her long-time partner and their daughter. It’s a very lean organization—there are six full-time employees, including Canselier, three or four part-time sales associates, and a handful of freelancers to fill in the gaps when needed.

Here, Canselier discusses how she’s molded her take on the family trade to reflect her values, and how individual choice and living your truth can have beautiful and impactful results.

***

Q. You initially resisted learning the family trade, what made you come around?

A. It was the process of shoemaking that really captured my imagination in all its complexities and intricacies. My grandfather learned the shoemaking trade during World War I by making boots for soldiers. In peacetime, his attention shifted to more workaday items. By the time I was a child, the family factory was producing a couple thousand pairs of shoes per day for major French retailers. To this day, production remains my forte. I have an amazing partnership with long-time Coclico designer, Lisa Nading, whose passion for the aesthetic beautifully meets my passion for getting it made. My father has since retired and sold the factory. I’m the last shoemaker in the Canselier family.

Shelves of slip on and sandle shoes

Canselier’s goal was to create shoes that were ethically made and ecologically considerate.

Q. Coclico works hard to minimize its environmental impact and prioritize sustainability. Your designs are meant to live above trends, your materials are responsibly sourced and minimally treated, and you carefully monitor your carbon usage. Why is sustainability such an important part of your business?

A. From day one, traditional craftsmanship has been front and center for me. From the start, knowing my makers and their suppliers was of immense importance if I was going to produce shoes of the highest quality. This commitment to traditional ways—one that led me to keep production in Europe—also made embracing the concept of “sustainability” much less daunting. But the idea of sustainability came into focus as part of our decision-making process when Lisa read Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. From that moment on, we began to tread a little more lightly, thinking long and hard about every design and production decision.

Q. Have you always been an environmentalist?

A. To be honest, I don’t know that I would classify myself as an environmentalist even now.  There are so many people doing real, world-changing things. I’m not in their sphere. I’m just a woman, with a child, thinking of the small improvements I can offer to help create a better future for her generation. At best, I hope that Coclico has set an example over the couple of decades that fashion doesn’t have to be such a dirty business. I don’t want the ethical choices that we make at Coclico to set the brand apart—I want it to be the industry norm. I’m pleased that in the last few years there seems to have been a real shift towards thoughtful production. I hope it’s not a flash-in-the-pan trend.

Coclico shoes made in Spain photographed in their light-filled new shop in Brooklyn with floral arrangements

Coclico recently opened a new shop in a historic building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Q. It’s hard to read climate news and not think of the next generation. How does your daughter motivate you in your work?

A. She is a constant reminder that decisions that put profit margin first are a false economy. She helps keep me grounded in the big picture.

“I think we ought to take less joy in buying something cheap and poorly made, and more pride in supporting a healthy economy.”

Q. How does prioritizing sustainability change how you make business decisions?

A. The most obvious thing is that our meetings are about a million times longer than any of us would like them to be, and that the number of times we circle back to rehash even the smallest element of one shoe can be countless. Sustainability is a really subjective term and my team is full of very opinionated women. We are always hunting for consensus, always looking for the best way for beauty, function, and care to all live happily within our product.

Large picture decision-making is a little trickier. We are taught to seek certain benchmarks of success that normally include growth, expansion, deeper coffers, and more of just about everything… These don’t really seem to be goals that jive with prioritizing sustainability, so I have to work daily to challenge these ingrained ideas and push past them.

Coclico shoes in the window of their new shop in Brooklyn with a pencil plant and small stool

Coclico tries to rebalance the weight of for-profit drivers like growth and deep coffers and prioritize ethics like sustainability.

Q. Your company has a saying that goes: “We believe that luxury isn’t the ability to purchase endlessly, but the privilege of choosing wisely.” In an ideal world, how are your customers acting to broadcast this message and way of thinking?

A. That phrase really encapsulates what we are trying to do. In an ideal world, we would all take time out to really contemplate everything we consume and to make sure that it brings us joy and has a real, concrete place in our lives. We take special care designing our shoes so that they can win what we believe should be a coveted and selective spot in our customers’ lives.

“The responsibility of a company is to not ask that its employees check their values at the door.”

Q. Your shoes are made in a family-owned factory that pays a living wage and cares about the safety of their employees. Why do you think it’s so important for people to learn about—and use their purchasing power to support—slow fashion?

A. I think we ought to take less joy in buying something cheap and poorly made, and more pride in supporting a healthy economy. Those savings cost someone, somewhere. Buy fewer, better things and pay fairly for the work that went into them. If we all did this as best we could, within our ability, it would make a difference to the way the workforce is structured and do away with wasteful production.

Q. What role or responsibilities do you think companies have as activists and change-makers?

A. In short, I believe that the responsibility of a company is to not ask that its employees check their values at the door. Those of us in leadership need to make space for our colleagues to be activists, and in pushing ourselves to improve, hopefully, we each take the company along for the ride. As far as the end-consumer is concerned, I learned long ago that what sells my product is its aesthetic and craftsmanship, our ethics are merely a bonus for most. Sustainability might not yet be the force that moves our business forward in the traditional sense, but it’s worth an untold fortune that because of our efforts toward constant improvement, we can sleep well at night.

Erin Scottberg

Erin Scottberg writes about sustainability, food, and culture. Erin’s work has appeared in Modern FarmerPopular MechanicsEsquire and more. 


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