Tiannia Barnes left her career in IT and program management to pursue her passion for shoe design. Tiannia has an undergrad degree in mathematics and industrial engineering and an MBA. She is also a single mother and an avid supporter and participant of many community civics relating to education and youth empowerment including the Boys and Girls Club. I had the opportunity to interview her to find out more about her career and creative process.
What inspired you to start your own shoe brand?
I’ve always been into fashion and shoes. I have tons of shoes and believe that the right shoe will transform your look and how you feel in your attire. I love putting outfits together and looking and feeling great, but I always say “shoes chose me.”
I began sketching shoes about four years ago based on visions that I had. I found inspiration in travel, art, and color. I started raw sketching as a hobby of sorts. As I collected sketches in my book, I decided to take it a step further and take a class “for fun” just because it piqued my interest that I had all of these beautiful sketches and wasn’t doing anything with them. I did my research and found a small class to learn pattern making and how to build a shoe. After the class, I fell in love with everything about shoe making. After all, I physically made my own prototype of one of my own designs. That was monumental! I was hooked and knew I had to do something about it. I found my passion. The next month, I started my business, trademarked my logo, and got all of the backend organizational and structural things in place and began to build my small team and make contacts in the footwear industry. In June 2014 I took a trip to Milan, Italy where I had a business meeting with a consulting firm’s lead in the retail space. That moment solidified that women’s luxury shoes was my new path and journey. Since then, my shoe business continues to progress in the right direction. Learning and creating along the way is such a fascinating process, but shoe design is my solace.
How would you describe your brand in a few sentences?
The fall 2015 TB ‘Inspire’ Collection consists of five designs, which range from edgy to everyday, all within a transitional fall to winter collection. Footwear includes: one pump, two sandals, a flat, and a bootie. We want to carry our complete look from day to night. I want my customers to feel bold, edgy, confident, classic, and comfortable at the same time. The shoes are designed to seamlessly take women from the office to happy hour, charity events, or just a walk around town.
All Tiannia Barnes footwear is constructed in Italy from fine Italian leather or suede as each style boasts a signature detail, distinguishing itself to consumers. This may appear in the form of a metal embellishment, additional luxe fabric, or a buckle, strap, or fringe.
You studied mathematics and industrial engineering in college and later worked as a project manager before becoming a designer. Can you describe your career path?
Yes, I have an undergraduate dual-degree in both math and industrial engineering. I interned in undergrad for Fortune 500 companies. I then accepted an offer with a global company after graduation. I joined their graduate technical development program which allowed me to work in various engineering capacities. I decided that I needed a change from engineering and went into the technology field. I wanted more autonomy and to continue learning a variety of skills. I was hired by a global business management and IT consulting firm. I was a business and systems integration consultant and then I moved into project management. I grew my career in IT by learning all the facets of delivery excellence including business analysis, solution design, process engineering, development, testing, and project management. I found that project management was where I could hone in on my innate skills and really excel. It was a great fit for my personality and professional level. I then went back to school (while working in IT full-time) to obtain my MBA because it was a professional goal that I’ve always had. I started managing large-scale, multi-million dollar projects that gave me more visibility and accountability. That catapulted me into program management. Hence, I manage both project and program work.
What is a typical work day like for you?
A typical work day for me is busy. I start my day around 5 am. I respond to any emails, regarding my shoe business. I prepare breakfast for my son and get him ready for school. After I drop him off, I’m off to my day job. After work I’m busy with my son’s activities and my shoe business. I work on my designs when I’m inspired so it’s not forced. It’s very natural, and I enjoy it. The business aspect of launching and running a business is also exciting. That’s why I feel fortunate to have a background in business. I have a shoe consultant that I work with that assists with my correspondence during the day and an outstanding PR team and social media team. Structure and organization makes things run efficiently. Starting a business takes a tremendous work ethic, a support system, discipline, sacrifice, and balance. You cannot get to success without a team.
What are some of the best things (and challenging things) about starting your own business?
The best thing about starting my own shoe business is the joy of fulfilling my dreams and goals. I’m excited about the reward of living a fulfilled life. I enjoy retreating to my creative side to make my visions of shoes come to life in the form of illustration and then a finished product.
The biggest obstacle for me is money and funding, primarily because part of my goal was to have a self-funded business. However, that means that resources, planning, and timing is very critical to my progress and growth. I have to potentially use outside funding to stay with the schedule. You have to stay focused, have faith, and really believe in your vision to keep going.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in my travels, different cultures, food, art, color, and more. I love the beach and sunset. It’s all about being in a peaceful place and letting inspiration come to you. Encapsulate your mind. Don’t force it. I also enjoy talking with women about their shoe needs and shoe concerns. You’d be amazed at the things I hear when I mention that I design shoes. Women know exactly what they like and want!
Who do you look up to?
I’m influenced by Gucci’s timeless yet modern designs. Other favorites include Brian Atwood, Nicolas Kirkwood, Tom Ford and Giuseppe Zanotti for their relevant and modern designs with a bold edge. I love designers that have a core signature style, but add a current or futuristic flare to the shoe.
Outside of designers, I have a great amount of respect and admiration for Oprah, Tory Burch, Beyonce, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton for their grace, philanthropy, class, and extraordinary business-minds. They are great examples of women who rule!
What is the design process like? Please walk me through creating a shoe from start to finish!
My design process is very organic. I get my inspiration from different sources mainly travel, color, different culture, and food. At any moment when I feel inspired, I sketch. No matter where I am, I find a paper and pencil and immediately sketch out my vision then I go back and perfect it. Once I have a great raw sketch, I find the materials that fit perfectly with the vision for the shoe. Once I have the design complete, I work with my graphic designer to turn my raw designs into beautiful illustrations. Essentially they are visions coming into fruition on paper. Once the design is finalized, I work with my graphic designer to create technical specifications of my shoe, which includes dimensions and materials. These are used to assist the manufacturer with pattern making for shoe samples. The sampling process is very iterative. There is a fit test then final samples are approved before production. This process takes over a few months.
You are an avid supporter and participant of many community civics relating to education and youth empowerment including the Boys and Girls Club, is an active supporter and volunteer for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) programs, and also, a participant and supporter of Junior Achievement. Why are these organizations important to you?
I was taught to always pay it forward and give back. My mother instilled this in me at a very young age. I was always involved in community service and civics as a child and it carried it into my adult life. Throughout college, I was very active in various organizations that focused on community service. I’ve also mentored in various capacities since undergrad.
I especially enjoy working with youth. I love seeing young people identifying what they love and get excited about their future. Giving hope and opportunity shows them that there is always an option and a choice. It helps build them up with positive affirmations. I believe if you reach the youth, you have an opportunity to change the trajectory of their life for the good. After spending time with the youth, listening to them, and helping them connect with something they enjoy or are passionate about, the best reward is a smiling face and an appreciative heart! That’s why I stay connected with volunteerism, mentorship and empowerment.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of advice that I have received is “to tap into your intuition and learn to listen to it.” It’s the best guiding principle for my life both personally and professionally. I’ve learned, and I’m continually learning, to avoid distractions because of my intuition.
Thank you, Tianna!