I met Matt Bernson through a collaboration he did with my friend Grace Atwood. Last winter I traveled to his TriBeCa store to celebrate the launch of the Stripes & Sequins x Matt Bernson collection and fell in love with his aesthetic - classy, sophisticated and very downtown cool. After following the brand for a while I reached out to see if Matt would be interested in a NYCalled feature. Not long after I visited the shoe designer at his studio/showroom/store (all in one) to learn more about his background and decision to start the widely popular Matt Bernson brand. Read the full Q+A below.Lexi: Tell me a little bit about your background?
Matt: Well I grew up in Westchester (not far from New York City) and moved for college to study Business Finance at Indiana University. I thought I wanted to be an Investment banker and came to find that was not where my expertise was. I ended up studying abroad in Australia where I surfed, traveled and went to class every once in a while... It was a time for me to explore my interests and figure out what I wanted to do.
Lexi: So did you figure out what you wanted to do?
Matt: Well I certainly figured out I wanted to do something creative. After school I moved to New York City and got an internship at an adventure/travel magazine working in editorial. When I realized editorial was not my thing I started working for my dad in construction. I was an on-site supervisor and although fun at times, I realized this was another profession that was not for me. I put my best efforts into that construction role and then I took a trip to India, which is where the shoe brand really had its beginnings.Lexi: Why India?
Matt: I went with my mom, an artist and jeweler, to visit the Dali Lama to see the Dali Lama give teachings in Dharamsala. On our travels back we wandered into a marketplace and I bought a pair of $10 sandals for my then girlfriend, now wife and mother of my child. I brought them back to her and she had a very visceral reaction to them. It inspired me to research deeper into the factories and travel back to India to further investigate the idea of importing existing ethnic sandals to the U.S.
Lexi: Was the idea to bring them back to the U.S. and sell them?
Matt: That was the idea until I realized how uncomfortable they were after testing them. They were hard as a rock with very stiff leather which was definitely going to be a problem. So I began working with the factories and trying to get them to include padding in the insole. The point I started working hands-on with the factories was when it all really began.Lexi: At what point did you start designing?
Matt: Well I've never been a good artist but I started playing around with the materials in the factory, designing and creating very rudimentary simple sandals. Since my mom was a jeweler I ended up incorporating antique jewelry elements onto the sandal and had this particular style produced.
Lexi: Did you have an end goal in mind as you began producing shoe styles?
Matt: No... I mean I wanted to travel and enjoy the process of doing it but I didn't have a plan for anything bigger at that time. I realized I had an idea of what someone might want and wasn't seeing it in the market so I figured I would make it. My wife was working at Vanity Fair at the time so I made sandals for her friends. Needless to say, they were a sophisticated crew with an interest in fashion.Lexi: ...and a little bit of influence I might add.
Matt: Yes, true... it was helpful because I could ask editors their opinion and their responses were very informative.
Lexi: Do you think this crew of insiders helped jumpstart your brand?
Matt: I mean...my first piece of press was Vanity Fair but to be honest that doesn't really get you very far. For instance, I had never met the first editor at Lucky Magazine who featured my shoes and I had never met the celebrities who were spotted in them either. People were just buying and wearing them on their own because they liked them.Lexi: Were you always interested in fashion?
Matt: Yea I think I always had an interest in shoes, in particular buying my own shoes. I was pretty neurotic about finding what I wanted. I never thought about it as a career but I always liked men's style and appreciated good taste.
Lexi: So what was the moment when you realized this was really your calling? That you could do this full time and support yourself from it?
Matt: The first order that I got was a store called Wendy Foster in Santa Barbara. At the time she was considered one of the top three independent retailers in the country. The second buyer was Shopbop and then Calypso. When those three things happened I realized I could do this... for a living. That's also when I started thinking from more of a fashion perspective.Lexi: You mentioned you've never been much of an artist. As you started to focus more on fashion, how did your aesthetic develop?
Matt: It was just being in the factories. Being there with these craftsman and working. Sitting and trying to make the construction and hardware materials work together. The vision became one of modern simplicity with detailed construction.
Lexi: There's something very classic and cool about the line too. I feel like I could wear them with everything... forever.
Matt: Well that's the goal! Personally, if I like something and it fits right I will buy it in every color and otherwise I won't buy it at all. I want to be able to pull out a key piece five years from now and still like it. I'll spend more money as long as it has lasting value. When I present a style I want my customer to feel like it will last for decades to come.Lexi: What do you think separates your brand from other shoe designers? Who does your brand sit next to?
Matt: We are on the affordable side of designer but maintain a high level of quality. On the floor right now you'd see us sit next to Vince, Rebecca Minkoff, Joie...
Lexi: Some of my favorites! Were there moments during your journey as a designer that you struggled? How did you pull through it?
Matt: Definitely. In the very beginning it was being so insecure. I felt like there was no reason why I should have been doing this. Even the production teams and factories I worked with at first didn't seem to have confidence in the fact that I would do what I said I was going to do. But sometimes feeling that insecurity encourages you to overcompensate and try that much harder.Lexi: How did you eventually get over those insecurities?
Matt: Well now I don't even think about it. There is so much to do! I don't know that the insecurity ever goes away because anything could end at any time. Retailers can carry you, feature you and drop you and it changes from hour to hour and day to day. So I guess I am less concerned when things don't go right and less elated when they go well. That insecurity is still there but I'm a little more even-keeled on all fronts.
Lexi: And what kind of effect has New York City had on your life and your business?
Matt: I mean TriBeCa itself has been a very integral part of the style and influence - I even used TriBeCa's border as a stamp on our new handbags! I live here and I work in the area so the influence of this area in particular has helped define our customer. The women that live and work in this area are extremely smart and successful for the most part. The brands they are interested in are extremely refined so you're constantly trying to appeal to the sophisticated woman who probably has access to everything. There's also just a look and feel of the neighborhood that I love. If you're going out at night you're probably not wearing stilettos - it's the antithesis of Meatpacking. There's something sensible and very rustic meets city. Our studio speaks to it well! It's an 1800s carriage house which is a great example of a space influencing who we are.Lexi: The combination or your studio workspace, showroom and store gives shoppers an insiders view. There's something very New York about that openness and rawness.
Matt: I would say so.
Lexi: It sounds like you've really carved out your space in this city. Can you speak to me a little bit about your lifestyle here, outside of work?
Matt: Well I mentioned that I live nearby...I have a 21 month old son so I get to spend a lot of time with him. I made a very conscientious decision to live where my work is so I can leave my work and be home in less that 9 minutes. Sometimes I even bump into my wife and son on the street! We're the type of family that likes to go out to dinner with our young kid and annoy other people but TriBeCa is a very family oriented place to live. So... my lifestyle? I wouldn't have it any other way.*Follow Matt Bernson on Instagram and shop online here.