Finding a good size pair of shoes can be a luxury shopping trip for many of us but for Gustavia Nia Lui, it was a moment she once dreaded.
The 28-year-old SUGA businesswoman with size eleven feet would resort to shopping online and in some cases, travel overseas to find good shoes for her large ‘island’ feet. One day, she decided to do something about it.
Today, the Manurewa born-and-raised Entrepreneur is the owner and founder of Staavias, a designer brand providing women’s fashionable footwear in sizes 10 to 14.
“I’ve always had big feet and I very rarely found shoes in my size so I usually squeezed my poor feet into a size 10 or even settle for wearing men’s sizes!” She laughs. “That was so embarrassing!”
The ambitious young mother and wife whose family villages in Samoa are Vaisala (Savai’i) and Siufaga, Falelatai, says that once the business idea was born, she could not get the idea out of her head.
“I would go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. I was absolutely convinced that I was going to open a store that sells only ‘plus size’ shoes imported from around the world.”
She started researching the footwear industry which would eventually lead her on her first ever trip to the U.S.
“I had so many questions going through my mind. What do I need to do to start? Wait, where do I start? How do I start?
“I found out about a tradeshow for the footwear industry in Las Vegas in January 2013. I just knew I had to go. I hadn’t even saved up any money but I was absolutely adamant that I was going to attend this show. My goal was to was to find out as much as possible about the industry.”
Soon after, Gustavia found herself in a room rubbing shoulders and networking with the CEO’s of shoe brands Zappos and Jupi Corp who oversee the entire Kardashian Kollection.
“I found it very fascinating that everyone I met owned their own private label. This was my dream!”
After the Las Vegas trip, Gustavia’s next step was to find some footwear design courses. By this time, she had just given birth to her second child so she wanted a course that was quick yet effective. Courses that were years long were out of the question.
She came across a three-day shoe making course in New York and she was off again on her second trip to the U.S to learn how to make shoes. Her tutors on the course were lecturers at the prestigious New York fashion college Parsons.
“I made a pair of bright red high heels from scratch literally. I was so proud of myself. I had not only learned the terminology but the exact process for creating a shoe. My tutors encouraged me to go for a brand and because it was difficult to find a wholesaler with plus sizes, I was pretty much left with no choice.”
The next step for Gustavia was a trip to China later that year to find manufacturers. After that, it was hiring an experienced footwear designer to put a collection together and getting them to sample her designs. She settled on a designer based in London.
“Our designer had designed for brands like Aldo and United Nude so she was very knowledgable.”
By January of 2014 she had a full Spring Summer Collection consisting of 9 different styles due to go live.
At that time, Gustavia took the big risk of quitting her day job at Work and Income where she was employed for 9 years to start running her own business. All was looking promising for her and her new business until there was a sudden and unexpected downfall.
Just before she was ready to go live with her collection, the manufacturing company in China decided to raise their prices by over 250 percent overnight. Gustavia had already spent more than 5000.00 NZD on these different suppliers for samples only. She was jobless and had to start over again.
But not one back down so easily, Gustavia quickly pulled herself together and partnered with a sourcing company based in Australia.
It took another six weeks and another trip back out to China to find new manufacturers, meet them and tour their factories.
Turns out the inconvenience she experienced just weeks before ended up being a blessing in disguise as she settled with a manufacturer she was even more happy with than the one previously. Her business dealings with them have helped maintained jobs for the villagers nearby where work is very scarce. The remote area doesn’t deter her when it comes to the quality of her shoes.
“Rather than using man-made or plastic materials and mass production machines, I opted for handcrafted shoes made from premium leather and hand picked from Bangladesh, India, Italy and locally in China. China is literally the capital of shoe making. They have the required skill set in order to achieve the look and quality we’re after.”
And to kick off 2016, this month she launched her Staavia’s website with all her designs available for pre-order. She is needing 100 sales before production can start and is pleased that sales have been coming in. The prices of shoes range from $200 to 300 NZD. Gustavia believes she is filling a gap in the market on a product that has been limited to women with ‘bigger feet’ for years and that she is finally able to offer them options.
She believes it is important for women to feel good about themselves as it flows through their actions to their children, families, place of employment and communities. These aspects, together with beautifully designed and quality manufactured shoes prove that the benefits far outweigh the prices.
“I feel like people can invest in cell phones, games and other luxury items that cost almost a grand at the least. These items break, screens crack; you lose them, ruin them and they will be replaced without question. Yet we only have one pair of feet that literally works hard every single day . Shoes play an important part in protecting our feet so rather than looking at it as expensive, look at it as a great investment for one of the most over used limbs of your body. Food for thought,” she smiles.
Her hard work has meant that her and her very supportive husband To’o have had to make sacrifices. The couple funded the business themselves with their incomes and are grateful to friends who invested into their venture. The two were happy to live off eating tin food and noodles. The couple have taught their children Demetrius 11, Deniro 7 and Detroit 4, that their sacrifices today will bring them rewards in future.
The hard-working SUGA says she had a rough childhood having been placed into care at the age of seven. When she reached her teenage years, she started to rebel, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. She was suspended from James Cook High many times and by the age of 16 she was pregnant and married at age 19.
But she doesn’t regret one moment of it saying that the life experience helped her to grow up fast and learn the hard way. She is a firm believer that life can either make you or break you and she says she decided to ‘make’ something of it.
“I refuse to let my past define me.
“Believe it or not I was actually quite smart in school”, she laughs. “I still remember the day I walked into my class the first day of high school and the teacher took one look at me and told me I was in the wrong class. This class was the ‘smartest class’ in school. When I showed her my timetable she looked shocked and told me to sit down.
“Everyone has potential. I believe there is absolutely no excuse. I worked hard to get me to where I am today, I don’t have any formal education. All I had was a dream, a vision, pen and paper to write down what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to get there. If I can do it, anyone can. “
Purchase Gustavia’s stylish and comfortable shoes at her website www.staavias.com
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